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Flights of Madness — Munich’s New “Orlando”

Returning from Munich’s new production of Handel’s “Orlando” at thirty thousand feet above clouds which might have done service as props for that opera when first staged in 1733, it occurred that the great man himself could have had things to say about what might be director David Alden’s valedictory baroque piece for the Bayerische Staatsoper.

As it happened, “Orlando” was a turning point in Handel’s own career as an opera composer as it only lasted for ten performances before his singers defected to a rival theatre, with devastating consequences. As Sir Peter Jonas steps down as the Intendant at Munich Opera, another era is passing, one which has helped to change the face of baroque opera in Europe, and Alden, together with his equally significant design colleagues Paul Steinberg (stage) and Buki Shiff (costumes), has been a major innovative talent and pusher of boundaries. He also pushes the patience, particularly that of the famously-conservative Munich patrons, and, with this offering, he has thrown just about everything into the deliberately provocative mix: video wall, sex, anti-war clichés, ridiculously over-the-top props, a reference to suicide bombers, and a character obviously based on a well-known B-list celebrity. So the very mixed reception on opening night was hardly a surprise with the boos resounding loudly, only finally being out-gunned by the crowd’s appreciation of the excellent cast of singers and perhaps by some also appreciating the undeniable wit and zest of Alden’s work.

“Orlando” follows on the heels of his equally controversial productions of “Rinaldo”, “Ariodante” and “Poppea” and this time he places Handel’s take on Ariosto’s tale “Orlando Furioso” firmly in the present day, give or take a decade or two. We are invited to join our hero and the godlike sorcerer Zoroastro inside some corrugated military space research facility, and both Orlando (David Daniels, countertenor, as an unwilling general fixated on the pleasures of love rather than military glory) and Dorinda (Olga Pasichnyk, soprano, here transmuted from pastoral shepherdess into army-private-cum-personal assistant to Zoroastro) wear blue army camouflage fatigues. The non-singing actors continue the theme, although they seemed to have been chosen more for their athletic build than for their drill-skills. Zoroastro, (Alastair Miles, bass, in neat grey suit, shiny shoes and horn-rimmed glasses under abundant silver grey hair) presumably runs this rather malignant operation from a stark grey desk — just a desk, as Alden doesn’t believe in a superfluity of tokens. Miles achieved an amusing, if thought-provoking, conflation of Dr.Strangelove and Donald Rumsden. The lovely high-born Angelica who Orlando adores, (Rosemary Joshua) is more smitten with her mysterious Medoro, and is played as a flashy, trampish socialite with great relish by the English handelian soprano. Her lover Medoro, who once loved Dorinda, is sung by American mezzo Beth Clayton who adopts the disguise of a neo-Valentino in black Arab robes and beard, amid much flashing of daggers and swirling of black silk.

If the setting was pure Alden euro trash — all flashing orange walls and pink sequins — the singing and music was pure handelian delight from start to finish. Ivor Bolton in the pit once more with this excellent house orchestra made the most of their baroque experience and style and, if occasionally allowing them too much dynamic rein for the quieter lower voices of Clayton and Daniels, also encouraged some stunning playing — such as from the two viole d’amore in the third act who accompanied Daniels as he sang the exquisite lullaby Già l’ebro mio ciglio. Together they accomplished the most memorably beautiful music of the evening. Daniels is something of a Munich favourite and his following here has grown with successive triumphs in “Poppea”, “Rinaldo” and “Saul” and although he gets inside this role with his usual vocal artistry and dramatic sense, it cannot be said that it is one that showcases his voice as those certainly did. There is little writing high on the staff where his velvet-toned instrument loves to live and is heard most effectively in a house this big. When he does get the freedom to use his higher range — particularly in some liquid and stylish ornamentation — the Daniels magic is undeniable and was rewarded with both hushed attention in the lullaby and noisy appreciation of the more florid arias such as Fammi combattere and Cielo! Se tu il consenti. His sheer physical commitment deserves mention too, as the intensely demanding “mad scene” that ends Act Two culminates in Orlando throwing himself repeatedly up against an inward-curving wall depicting the inside of his skull. Incidentally, this scene was probably one of the most effective and interesting in the opera: the singer entangled in yards of coloured cables, representing, one assumes, the synapses of the maddened hero’s brain.

The soprano roles in “Orlando” are the fire-cracker ones and get most of the best traditional A-B-A da capo arias. Here Handel was playing safer than with his quite daring, more unstructured arioso and accompagnato work for Senesino to sing in the title role. Olga Pasichnyk was making her debut here as Dorinda, and quickly established her credentials as a most fluent and technically accomplished interpreter of the role — pin sharp coloratura, easy leaps and sweet legato were all added to an appealing stage presence of gamin charm. Her Amore è qual vento was attacked with verve and astonishing virtuosity, yet also a warm tone that perfectly suited the characterisation. She received some of the loudest applause of the night, which was well deserved. In contrast, Rosemary Joshua was a crystalline and razor-sharp Angelica, using her dramatic skills to underline vocally the rather brazen nature of this spoilt baby of the boulevards. Certainly she looked the part — slim, lithe and glittering — but she also managed to suggest the character’s insecurity with admirable skill. If occasionally she strayed a little too far down the path of vocal assertiveness, at the cost of some tonal irregularity in, for instance, Non potrà dirmi ingrate, all was forgiven when she returned just minutes later to quieter, more reflective work in Verdi piante.

In casting the role of romantic swain Medoro as a mezzo, Munich is in fact following Handel’s original casting plan, even though today the part is as often taken by a countertenor. Beth Clayton, a graduate of Houston’s Opera Studio, seems to specialise in the trouser role repertoire of Handel and Mozart and her facility with the genre was evident as she strode convincingly, yet elegantly, around as the “Bedouin warrior” of Buki Shiff’s imagination. However, her voice, warm and full-toned as it was, left something to be desired as she somehow seemed to miss the essential pathos and endearing honesty of the character. This was most evident in Medoro’s musing upon his writing of his own and Angelica’s initials on the rocket ship (Alden’s transposition from the original tree), expressed by Handel so evocatively in the ravishing, limpid aria Verdi allori. Of all the singers, she was perhaps the least accomplished in the baroque style stakes, although admittedly was up against stern opposition.

In contrast, Alastair Miles is a bass of huge experience in this type of role and it shows — he drew a nice portrait of a probably-mad Chief Scientist playing with the hearts and minds of those around him. Vocally he was secure and, for a bass, very adept at the demanding coloratura required by Handel who, unlike later composers, made few concessions to tessitura. It was unfortunate that one of his most demanding bravura arias, Sorge infausta una procella, co-incided with a particularly crass bit of Aldenesque jokeyness: he was expected to climb up and cling to the side of a large rocket ship as it “took off”, complete with billowing white smoke and strobing red light flames, by the slightly ridiculous means of a hefty “soldier” pushing it determinedly off-stage whilst trying not to be seen. It was too much for some: the boos started before the music had quite finished and whist the unfortunate Miles was still being shunted out of sight.

If the boo-ers thought that the worst bit of kitsch was over (they had managed to restrain themselves with mere stripping-off, simulated sex, putting gerberas down the muzzles of machine-guns et al) then they were to be disappointed: Alden had one more stroke of over-the-top genius dreamed up and it was certainly memorable. When Orlando is totally crazy, unable to cope with either his own split personality or being betrayed by his beloved, he resorts to violence in a dreadful acquiescence to the military prowess advocated by Zoroastro. This is where Alden, Steinberg and Shiff really throw down the gauntlet and dare us go along for the ride — but it’s a big call when, with lights flashing, walls trembling and guns booming, Orlando arrives on scene astride a monstrously funny robotic tank, which moves somewhat hilariously on individual legs like some huge sci-fi spider from a comic book. The audience laughed out loud. Equally comic-book was the hero’s attire: throughout the opera Daniels had been gradually upping the hardwear slung about his body, as the hero’s mental state deteriorated, but now he resembled nothing less than Arnold Schwarzeneggar in “Terminator”, pumped up and helmeted, eyes glittering madly through smears of camouflage paint as he rode his war machine into battle with the “evil spirits” — the boys in blue again — in his mind. Bang, crash, smoke and flame, and they all fell down.

Yet, paradoxically, from this chaos of ugly and frankly juvenile pastiche came beauty, in the form of Orlando’s final lullaby to himself; and the more so as it was sung from front of stage, the phalanxes of dead behind, with creamy tone and superb control — yet also with an eerie calm that sent shivers. From the ridiculous to the sublime in five minutes. Maybe that is this director’s saving grace.

It will be a shame if David Alden doesn’t direct Handel here again — for all his perverse and challenging ways, he has helped open up baroque opera to a new way of thinking, a new way of putting it into modern context, and he works with his singers rather than imposing upon them. Whether he takes all his audience with him is debatable — but as long as he takes most of them, and his singers continue to be willing to risk all for him, then he won’t end up like Mr. Handel in 1733 with an empty stage.

© S.C. Loder

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