Saturday 15 July 2023

Handel - Orlando (Buxton, 2023)

George Frideric Handel - Orlando (Buxton, 2023)

Liberata Collective, Buxton International Festival, 2023

Adrian Butterfield, Christian Joel, Joanna Harries, Olivia Doutney, Susanna MacRae, Jolyon Loy

Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton - 10th July 2023

Although I'm very much in favour of modernising and keeping opera productions relevant and meaningful to a contemporary audience, I'm not opposed in principle to historically informed productions. Like any production, it's how well it's done and how much it is in service to the work that counts, and if either approach means that you just get to hear more from Handel and other baroque opera composers - particularly with period instruments - then I'm all for it. The Liberata Collective certainly put an interesting spin on their production of Orlando for the 2023 Buxton International Festival by staging it in the authentic Baroque Gesture style.

I've never seen a Baroque opera performed in the style of the period, other than Pierre Audi's rather dull historical versions of Tamerlano and Alcina, so it was hard to know what to expect. With Baroque Gesture, there are strict guidelines on posture and stage position that might not even really be evident to a modern audience, but the acting and exaggerated signifying hand gestures risk being appearing mannered to a bemused audience rather than informative. Or silly even if it turned out to be anything like the odd period style acting I witnessed at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège's 2013 production of Grétry's Guillaume Tell, which was something of an acquired taste to say the least. On the other hand, if the period acting turned out to be as revelatory as hearing such early opera works performed using period instruments, this Orlando would be of great interest to anyone looking for as authentic a performance of Handel as possible.

And in some ways it was, although perhaps more for academic interest than for bringing out any other newly rediscovered dimension out of Handel's Orlando. The Liberata Collective helpfully provided a booklet with the kind of gestures to expect to see on the stage as well as and what they mean, and also gave some historical background on the practice. Since this opera would have been performed in the original Italian on its original performance at the King’s Theatre in London on 27 January 1722, surtitles would obviously not have been provided, but a translated libretto would have been handed out. The audience would also be familiar with the gestures operating like signifiers or pointers to what is being described on the text. So lots of swooning and pointing to the heavens, but the mannerisms are there just as much to serve the function of dramatic style and expression.

And, if this Orlando is anything to go by, they do hold the attention in a 'look at me, look at me!' kind of way, although translations displayed to the screens at the sides of the stage may have distracted from a focus on the performers and the gestures now and again. You could look at this as the best of both worlds, as there were moments to enjoy in the gestures and the performances as well as in the English translation without too much being compromised.

Orlando however is not the most exciting episode in Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, nor indeed the most interesting of the three Handel operas based on the work. To compete with the magic enchanted isles of Alcina and the romantic medieval melodrama of Ariodante, Handel even introduced the characters of Dorinda and Zoroastro, neither of whom appear in the original work and, unlike many of the works he created when he moved to England which reused elements from earlier works, composed entirely new music for Orlando. Nonetheless, it's still a challenge not just to hold attention as really invite you to care about the romantic drama going on on the stage. 

The premise in Orlando is laid out at the start. Zoroastro, unhappy about the complicated and unresolved love drama going between the Orlando, Angelica the Princess of Cathay, the prince Medoro and the shepherdess Dorinda, casts a spell on the knight to turn him away from effeminate love and get back to doing what he is best, which seems to be being prone to fits of madness and violence, taking up a sword and slaughtering Saracens in the Crusades. Thereafter, both women and Medoro are left rather confused about Orlando's attentions and quite keen to get away from him, until Zoroastro relents and brings him back to his senses.

The focus may be on gestural expression, but the production doesn't fail to recognise that nature also features in the libretto and suggests another dimension to the work. Two laurel trees decorate the stage indicating the bucolic setting, but the focus on nature and what it says about the nature of man is not emphasised or explored quite as successfully as it was in the direction of Mozart's Il re pastore which ventured deeper into that territory the previous evening at the Buxton International Festival. There's an interesting comparison to be made on the respective approaches to this kind of Baroque opera, and one wonders whether the Mozart would have gained anything from a Baroque Gesture style performance. As it is, each opera worked in its own terms, but it shows that for all their superficial simplicity there are many ways to bring out deeper aspects from such works.

Here of course, with Adrian Butterfield directing the Ensemble Hesperi from the violin and with the use of period instruments, the emphasis was on the quality of the music of Orlando and its ability to carry the dramatic intent of the opera. And being Handel of course, it's absolutely beautiful. With the small ensemble to the right of the stage, it was more than enough to spring this work into life. There was some fine singing as well from Christian Joel singing countertenor as Orlando, and Jolyon Loy's drop-in appearances as Zoroastro had the necessary impact. Despite the gestured mannerisms and the sometimes playful bemused response to Orlando's conflicted emotions, the quality of the performances of Joanna Harries as Medoro, Olivia Doutney as Angelica and Susanna MacRae as Dorinda all commanded attention. 

Attention is vital in Orlando, to feel involved in the drama and what the music brings to it. If there is one aspect that Baroque Gesture brought to this, it's some indefinable sense of balance and movement. The entrances and exits felt natural and timely, adding a sense of order and structure that suggests that this lost art is an essential element of Baroque opera. Everything felt in its right place to the extent that when Zoroastro steps in and repairs the harm that Orlando has done, it doesn't feel quite as much the deus ex machina that Baroque opera can often provide. That is something that Il re pastore could possibly have benefitted from, but each had their own merits in an excellent Buxton programme. I would have loved to have seen their production of La Sonnambula as well, but sadly missed that due to a very long flight delay on the way over to the festival.

Links: Buxton International Festival

Thursday 13 July 2023

Mozart - Il re pastore (Buxton, 2023)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Il re pastore

Buxton International Festival, 2023

Adrian Kelly, Jack Furness, Katie Coventry, Ellie Neate, Olivia Carrell, George Curnow, Joseph Doody

Buxton Opera House - 9th July 2023

There is no good or bad when it comes to Mozart's opera works - or any Mozart really - just compositions that you can characterise as youthful work and mature work. Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail maybe blur those lines a little, but the works on either side are certainly distinct. Not better or worse, just the work of a composer who consistently developed and found his own voice and expression with each piece. But even Lucio Silla, La Finta Giardiniera and Mitridate, Re di Ponto (written at the age of 14) are accomplished works that have proven their worth in intelligent sympathetic productions. So even though Il re pastore, is somewhat of an unknown quantity for me, there was the assurance that since its Mozart and in the hands of the Buxton International Festival, it was still going to be worthwhile.

And sure enough the 2023 BIF production confirms that this is no lesser work, and in fact might be all the more impressive for having been composed when Mozart was only 19 years of age. It's impressive also for making light work of a Metastasio libretto, which can often be quite tortuous in their plotting and rather obvious in their progression to a conclusion of conventional sentiments and moral messaging. Even the title of the opera (The Shepherd King) almost tells you everything you need to know about this opera; that it's about a king or ruler who makes mistakes - mainly in terms of who he chooses to form romantic couples (not least because not everyone is who they appear to be) - but eventually comes to see sense and rule with clemency, forgiveness and understanding. There is however a little more to Il re pastore, mainly due to how the youthful Mozart delves a little deeper into this idea and brings its characters to life.

The actual detail of the plot is very much along typical Metastasian lines, although perhaps a little less convoluted than usual. Alexander the Great/Alessandro, has just conquered Sidon which has been ruled by a tyrant, and wishes to restore its rightful ruler to the throne. He discovers that a humble shepherd Aminta, who has ambitions to marry Elisa, a woman he believes is above his station, is in fact the heir to the throne and unaware of his heritage. Despite being reluctant to leave the happy life of a shepherd, Agenore convinces him of the importance of duty taking precedence over love. Rather than depose the current queen Tamiri, Alessandro however decides that Aminta should marry her, unaware of her love for Agenore. Oh, what a foolhardy judgement! This causes a lot of anguish and recrimination in the third quarter of the opera, the second having been filled with sentiments of love and devotion for each other. Hopefully someone with sense and wisdom will resolve all this by the conclusion…

Admittedly it's not the most inspiring of tales. As predictable and as conventional as the plot is, a carbon copy of many other operatic situations dealing with rulers and the exercise of power wrapped up in a romantic melodrama, there is a little more to Il re pastore, or at least more that Mozart manages to bring to it. There are elements in the libretto relating to nature that are enhanced by Mozart's music, that elevate the work considerably. Those qualities might still go unnoticed here other than for the sympathetic production direction of Jack Furness. The set design consists almost solely of bucolic background video projections of gently flowing streams, green fields, hills with sheep and horses and vistas of skies. Nature is brought very much to the fore, so that when Agenore tells Aminta that you can't rule over others if you can rule yourself, it associates that necessity for a ruler to exercise wisdom and clemency with the importance of understanding of one's own true better nature.

That is a subject that Mozart is inclined to explore in almost all of his operas, with the exception perhaps of Don Giovanni, although there is a similar case that can be made for that. While it is fascinating to hear a youthful early work by Mozart begin to explore those ideas and find musical expression for them - albeit owing more to Haydn here than the sophistication of later works - the work has its own charm and the skill is evident in how the music is employed in service of this underlying idea of nature. Even on the level of simple arrangements and structure, the music flows beautifully, the recitative passages and da capo are kept to a minimum - at least in this production - allowing the opera to lead from one beautifully melodic aria into the next, where each character is given the time to explore and express their true nature.

That is brought out also in the minimalist and deceptively hands-off nature of the production. The director, Jack Furness takes time to ensure that each of the characters have the opportunity to express themselves, the women in particular being rather fiery in nature, creating some entertaining exchanges that play to the dynamic of the central part of the work. He also stages the moment when each of the protagonists become aware of Alessandro's misguided intentions for their marriages by having them appear on the stage reading a missive and reacting in horror and despair. At every stage the sentiments are attuned to the music, sometimes playful, sometimes darker - but never too dark - and despite the overwrought nature of some of the scenes, never employing farce or stooping to make light of it.

Mainly however, it's left to the projections behind a bare stage to play out in accordance with the music and those underlying sentiments. There's multiple-angle footage of a gently flowing stream while words of love and commitment are expressed, a battered stone tower looms over a vista of hills and lakes for Alessandro, each of the chosen screens subtly alerting the audience not so much to the nature of the wider world surrounding the characters but more an insight into their inner world. It serves also to bring out that essence of nature that is suggested in the libretto and title, that a Shepherd King is needed to look after his flock. And even in a world where we are no longer ruled by kings, the underlying idea in Il re pastore of the danger of rulers out of touch with ordinary people and detached from their own true nature is one that is still relevant.

And one that is very much in evidence in the music. The musical performance of this early Mozart opera was an absolute delight, as it always is when you hear Mozart played with a lightness of touch by a smaller chamber ensemble. Adrian Kelly, conducting and providing accompaniment for the recitative on fortepiano, navigated the Northern Chamber Orchestra through the work, alert to the subtle changes of expression, creating an authentic period-like sound. Bright, youthful voices are essential for this kind of Mozart work and, sung in the original Italian, the singing performances were uniformly excellent in their handling of some challenging arias. The most entertaining performances came from Ellie Neate's Elisa and Olivia Carrell's Tamiri, both playing up the betrayed women roles that Mozart would specialise in with Don Giovanni. Katie Coventry's trouser role of Aminta was perfectly judged, Joseph Doody commanding as Allesandro and George Curnow brought great character to Agenore.

No one is going to reclaim Il re pastore as a neglected work, but even the earliest of Mozart's operas have a certain charm and beauty that deserves revisiting and exploring. Thankfully that's what the Buxton International Festival is rightly renowned for, and Adrian Kelly and Jack Furness take that opportunity in this production to show that this is a work that has more than just curiosity value.

Links: Buxton International Festival