Thursday, June 20, 2019

Psycho-drama meets soap opera in director Harry Fehr's juicy adaptation of Handel's Orlando at San Francisco Opera

Baroque opera has had the good fortune of finding itself in excitingly refreshed form over the last few decades. As it stands, so accustomed are we at having a director come along and upheave original settings with an ideas-rich adaptation designed to shed contemporary light on the source material, that it could make you feel that turning back the clock to match ‘period’ interpretations seems rather ordinary and unproductive. San Francisco Opera’s Orlando, from British director Harry Fehr, boldly takes the more modernised approach and it fits like a glove on Handel’s opera almost 300 years on.

Sasha Cooke (centre) as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro 
First performed at London’s King’s Theatre in 1731, Orlando was the first of three masterworks of ‘opera seria’ Handel composed based in part on Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian epic poem, Orlando Furioso - Alcina and Ariodante followed in 1735. From a medieval tale surrounding a knight, an African prince, the Queen of Cathay, a shepherdess and a magician, Fehr gives us, two military fellows, a wealthy American beauty, a nurse and a shrink and whirls the plot into a gleaming sterile psychiatric facility during WWII London. It’s an ingenious and juicy adaptation, always forward moving, that has the air of a psycho-drama caught in several episodes of a soap opera - thoughts of Stanley Kubrick’s horror film The Shining and daytime television medical drama General Hospital popped in and out of mind. Importantly, Fehr never fails to bring lucent, believable form to context and characters.

In fine soap opera form, the plot turns like a rotisserie. Mighty RAF officer Orlando (Sasha Cooke) is undergoing therapy with the hope of returning to the front. He’s in love with the wealthy Angelica (Heidi Stober). She has met and fallen in love with Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen), a convalescing soldier. He loves her too but has to deflect advances from their attending nurse, Dorinda (Christina Gansch). A quite creepy Zoroastro (Christian Van Horn) heads the facility with a trick or two up his sleeve - nothing more confronting than a few rounds of electroshock therapy - that will restore Orlando’s sanity after he suffers a bout of jealousy and madness when he realises Angelica may not be his for the taking.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro 
Fehr makes it all very easy to get dragged along with the ride on which love is seemingly at war with love. Amazingly, his entire vision sits comfortably with the libretto, adapted anonymously from Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s L’Orlando. Any talk of ‘place’ - a more nature-filled setting of mountains, caves, forests and groves in Handel’s work - comes across as Fehr’s setting’s wider outside world. And references to the gods Venus, Mars and the like never appear lofty.

Yannis Thavoris’ slick streamlined design, based on London’s 1930s Royal Masonic Hospital and treatment centre for WWII servicemen, pivots from examination room to hospital ward, reception and corridors with ease. Medical, military and civilian costumes are tastefully matched and Anna Watson’s original lighting design casts both the drama at point and the artificiality of the interior. Projections by Andrzej Goulding flash across the lengthy opaque glass walls whenever we’re supposed to see what Orlando might be thinking but they do more to detract than involve. Just one moment succeeds when Orlando undergoes electroshock therapy and the wall explodes with imagery. The only other drawback comes with its smallish, oft-felt shoebox proportions within the grand height of the War Memorial Opera House’s proscenium. That the production was designed for the smaller Theatre Royal in Glasgow for the Scottish National Opera when it premiered in 2011 shows.

Christina Gansch as Dorinda, Heidi Stober as Angelica
 and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro 
There’s lots to navigate for the cast too with Fehr keeping the action alive and the facility buzzing with activity. All five soloists, in a role debut, act with heart and intention. But Cooke doesn’t give the title role the heft and committed expressive hue it requires for one that demands a lower-lying voice despite her appealing plush mezzo-soprano tone and vocal flexibility. Act 2’s final moments, when the sound of bombs falling and exploding outside accompanies Orlando’s painful delirium, the scene sags to a dismal end, just when you long for the explosiveness in the voice. Cooke can take coloratura through ravishing flight and it’s not as if the means aren’t there to project either. On several occasions Cooke ups the amp output in surprising but odd bursts of vigour.

But there’s no shortage of Handel’s beautiful and memorable music, awash from start to end across the almost three and a half hour evening. On splendid show around Orlando, countertenor and current Adler Fellow Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen gives the mid-opera aria, “Verdi allori”, a notable, melting centrepiece. His Medoro is charming and suitably reserved as he denies romantic associations with Angelica, the voice projecting confidently with a radiant milk and honey tone that will go onto many a world stage.

Sasha Cooke as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro 
As the glamorous Angelica, Stober’s elegant and plush soprano demonstrates both her wide-ranging and equally expressive instrument, presenting her contrasting emotional responses before Orlando and Medoro in one compelling scene after another. In authoritative clinical fashion, Van Horn’s magnificent and sonorous, shard-formed bass-baritone covers mountainous ground giving Zoroastro formidable presence and oft-dubious wisdom. In his service, the loveable nurse Dorinda is portrayed with startling five-star pizzazz by Austrian soprano Christina Gansch in her company and United States debut. In streams of pure and polished penetrating voice, Gansch brings bittersweet comic three-dimensionality to a woman who embodies the conundrum of not being able to separate truth from feeling, culminating in the knockout Act 3 aria, “Amore รจ qual vento” as she reflects on the turbulence that lurks in love’s grip.

In this Wednesday evening performance, warmth, opulence and resonance emanated from the pit under English conductor Christopher Moulds in his company debut. Overall, however, signature baroque regality presided where room for dynamism could have been made. Nevertheless, instrumental exchanges were executed with vivacity courtesy of smooth and solid playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra - Act 3’s orchestral opening dished out some impressive wafer-like woodwind work.

Fehr’s creation gives a modern audience a hugely satsfying resolution of Handel’s Orlando and he might make you wonder what happens in the next episodes of Ariosto’s sprawling Orlando Furioso in its various operatic forms. Will this absorbing WWII series be continued?

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 27th June, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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