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11 Oct 2015

Strong music values in 1940's setting for Handel's opera examining madness

As part of their Madness season, presenting three very contrasting music theatre treatments of madness (Handel's Orlando, Bellini's I Puritani and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd) Welsh National Opera (WNO) presented Handel's Orlando at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday 3 October 2015.

Directed by Harry Fehr, designed by Yannis Thavoris, lighting by Anna Watson, video by Andrzej Goulding, movement Kelly Lloyd-Jones (also associate director), the production was originally created for Scottish Opera. The WNO performances featured Lawrence Zazzo as Orlando, Daniel Grice as Zoroastro, Fflur Wyn as Dorinda, Rebecca Evans as Angelica and Robin Blaze as Medoro. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducted the Welsh National Opera Orchestra.

From the first notes of the overture, played with the curtain down, it was clear that Rinaldo Aessandrini, who is best known for his work with period instrument groups, had developed a creative partnership with the modern instruments of the WNO orchestra. The overture was crisp and lively with some lovely firm playing, not too much vibrato, and a clear feel of period style.

When the curtain did go up for the first scene, Zoroastro's great scena as he looks at the stars, the setting was a 1940's hospital and instead of the stars, Zoroastro (Daniel Grice) was looking at the output from a device hooked up to Orlando's (Lawrence Zazzo) brain. Harry Fehr and Yannis Zavoris had transported the opera to the 1940's with Orlando and Medoro (Robin Blaze) as injured airmen. Dorinda (Fflur Wyn) was now a nurse with Angelica (Rebecca Evans) a glamorous socialite. There were some neat touches; when, in Act One, Zoroastro talks to Orlando of following the path of glory rather than love, he showed Orlando pictures of the Abdication and the subsequent aftermath with the Duke of Windsor being pictured with Nazis.

But Orlando is a pastoral piece, and not only is Dorinda meant to be a shepherdess but many of the characters talk of the beauty of the place and the loss they will feel when they leave. More problematic, for me, was the relentless and busy naturalism of Fehr's production. His style seems to owe something to Katie Mitchell, as the whole opera had a sense of continuous narrative with something constantly happening, as if Handel's drama was somehow insufficient. When Lawrence Zazzo's Orlando sang, a group of doctors were constantly checking charts. I found it at best annoying, and at worst rather reductive. Zoroastro's opening scene seemed reduced when sung by Daniel Grice poring over medical charts in a busy hospital room. And despite Lawrence Zazzo's vivid performance in Orlando's mad scene, the drama seemed lessened by the obsessive detail of the surrounding action with Daniel Grice's Zoroastro and his group of doctor and nurses scurrying round in response to Orlando's actions. The new raison d'etre of the plot never really found a reason why Orlando was allowed so much lee-way, and despite the apparent naturalism of the presentation there was still a lot of suspension of disbelief required.

Handel wrote Orlando in 1733 at a difficult period in the business of Italian opera in London. Orlando would be the last role which his star castrato created for Handel, as Senesino and a number of leading singers then defected to the rival Opera of the Nobility. Perhaps Senesino did not really appreciate the daring way Handel had written the role of Orlando, with his highly innovative mad scene where all the musical rules are broken. And to show of the talents of the great bass Montagnana, Handel and his librettist effectively created the role of Zoroastro adding moments like the opening scene to the existing libretto. Orlando was not a great success at its premiere, and Handel never revived the work again.

Daniel Grice was a capable and effective Zoroastro, singing with a nice sense of firmness. But he did not really dominate the role, and was certainly not helped by the staging so that his great accompanied recitatives at the opening of Act 1 and the end of Act 3 were both a little too matter of fact.

Inevitably the opera was cut, but reasonably discreetly. Act 1 ran to 80 minutes, with Acts 2 and 3 each 40 minutes. Rinaldo Alessandrini kept speeds brisk, so we covered a lot of ground, and there were not waits for scene changes, so that the whole piece flowed well. And whilst speeds may have been fast-ish, there was never a sense of being driven and Alessandrini kept a lovely sense of flow with space for the singers. The orchestra kept up the promise given in the overture, and the arias and accompanied recitatives were all a series of stylish, vivid delights.
Yannis Thavoris' set, which was essentially a single piece set on a revolve, was elegantly imaginative and enabled the varied locations needed in the opera to flow without interrupting the music.

I have yet to see my idea production of Orlando but Harry Fehr's 1940's incarnation at least had the virtues of treating the story with seriousness, presenting the drama in his own way but treating it as serious drama and never guying it. Within this framework, Alessandrini, the singers and the orchestra created a series of very fine moments and ultimately, a rather moving drama.

Robert Hugill

Handel Orlando;
Orlando:Lawrence Zazzo, Angelica: Rebecca Evans, Medoro: Robin Blaze, Dorinda: Fflur Wyn, Zoroastro: Daniel Grice
Directed: Harry Fehr, Design: Yannis Thavoris, Conductor: Rinaldo Alessandrini;
Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre
3 October 2015

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