PBO’s Head-Spinning Love Triangle

Jonathan Rhodes Lee on April 13, 2010

To say that Nicholas McGegan has earned an international reputation for his George Frideric Handel interpretations is a bit of an understatement. Indeed, the world actually seems to follow him wherever he goes, so long as he is traipsing hand-in-hand with Handel. His 2008 production of Orlando at the famed Göttingen Festival (see schedule), for instance, proved such a happy crew that it moved, lock stock and barrel, to the famous 18th-century Court Theatre in Drottningholm. And since the cast was so fond of family trips together, they opted to come, last week, to California to help the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra close out its concert season. I heard the performance Sunday at Berkeley’’s First Congregational Church, and my reactions were about as mixed as the opera’s critical reception history has been since its 1733 premiere. (Orlando enjoyed a mere 10 performances on its first run at London’s King’s Theatre, and had no 18th-century revivals.)

Confused yet? Maybe a diagram will help

The opera contains one of those head-spinning opera seria plots. Orlando (otherwise known as “Roland,” Charlemagne’s legendary military leader), has lost his manliness for that age-old foe of civic virtue: love. He becomes smitten with Angelica, queen of Cathay (China). Before the plot begins, she’s evidently reciprocated, but has now fallen head-over-heels for Medoro, an African prince. Medoro feels likewise, but has, before the story commences, been involved with Dorinda, an innocent young shepherdess, who is in turn obsessed with Orlando, but has feelings for Medoro, too. And nobody (except the audience) is terribly fond of her. 

The complexity of this love triangle eventually proves too much for Orlando, and he goes mad. He storms around the operatic world, raving out of his mind, and kills everyone in sight. All along, however, the magician Zoroaster has been watching over the proceedings, and ensures that virtue will prevail over love, the blind god. So, he saves the folks whom Orlando thinks he’s killed, restores Orlando to his senses with a magic potion, and returns order to the universe.

Now, I wish that I could tell you that there was something more interesting buried within the mechanizations of this plot, but I can’t. It is pointedly schematic, and hints at more than a touch of self-referentiality; that is to say, the librettist, Carlo Capece (adapting Ariosto’s original epic poem), seemed to realize that the typical opera seria plot was more than a little ridiculous. His additions to Ariosto’s original — Dorinda and Zoroaster — are essentially winks and nudges to the audience. McGegan and his crew took these hints as invitations to indulge in some postmodern stylization. Presenting an opera with no stage, no machines, and no complex sets is a tricky business, and this production’s blend of historically informed technique and cheeky theatrical approach went a long way toward making up for those lacks.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

The group did an excellent job of transforming the church into a miniature Baroque theater space, having constructed a temporary wall to separate the diegetic world of the singers from the real-world space of the instrumentalists. The band was arranged as they would have been in Handel’s day (as sometimes seen in contemporary engravings): McGegan and a little continuo team sat far stage-left, flanked by a corresponding continuo team, including a second harpsichord, far stage-right. In between was the band, which sat split in half, facing each other. The entire construction made an oval, in which a little less than half of the players had their backs to the audience. The benefits to this setup are twofold. First, the conductor can play continuo, watch the singers, and communicate with the band all at the same time. Second, the orchestra members can really hear and see each other quite well. Being so cozy translated, in this performance, into scintillating orchestral effects.

It was a good thing that the band was so perfectly in sync, because we were reliant on them, in this magic opera, to provide all the special effects that would usually come from machines and backdrops in theater productions. At one point, Zoroaster gestured to McGegan and the players as he sang, “Oh you, my chosen ministers of power” (“O voi del mio poter ministri eletti”). Considering the efficacy with which the band evoked magical genies, combating armies, watery fountains, magical clouds, and the like, the self-referential gesture could hardly have been more appropriate. Particularly effective were the drunken violins that accompanied Orlando’s inebriated stupor after murdering Angelica; the two principals here swooped and swerved, deliberately out of tune, creating an unnervingly realistic aural soundscape to accompany the action onstage.

The costuming was nothing short of brilliant. The singers’ clothes looked like a mix between courtly 18th-century garb and something that an Italian designer would have marched down the catwalk. Millions don’t have to be spent on costumes to get the point across.

Humor Used, Sometimes Abused

Throughout, the performance was infused with that most powerful tool of postmodern interpretation: humor. This was where the event ran off the tracks, to my tastes. Dorinda’s character (a tricky role to direct, and the least stereotypical of the cast) was the one that suffered the most. Susanne Rydén is a fabulous actress. She was very good at being funny, and exhibited a childlike souping up of emotion that befitted such an artificial shepherdess of that era. She pouted and stomped, she giggled and went googly-eyed at the men in the cast.

The music suffered from these antics. Throughout the performance, Rydén’s singing came across as somewhat crass in comparison with her colleagues, but this vocal shortcoming may have been exacerbated by the extreme comical lengths to which she was evidently encouraged. The most egregious example came in the virtuoso aria “Amor è qual vento.” This piece features huge leaps from the top to the bottom of the singer’s range, which were here played up for ultimately comic effect in a manner that severely interfered with the musical line, pointed out its inherent difficulties in an unpleasing way, and made the words difficult to understand.

I sometimes find this trait in McGegan’s operatic interpretations in general; he has a penchant for relishing the ridiculous, which often is funny but may work at the expense of a piece’s overall unity. Yes, of course Orlando’s plot is ridiculous, and of course it’s something of a generic parody. But this is opera, folks, and the knowledge of an impending lieto fine is not supposed to preclude our absorption in the heightened emotion of the moment. When Dorinda weeps at her loss, we are meant to weep with her. When Orlando drags Angelica to a precipice and throws her off it, we’re supposed to shudder at the horror of his deluded act. We’re certainly not supposed to laugh, which is just what people did at both these moments. The whole atmosphere was one of smug nose-thumbing that 18th-century audiences would have found more appropriate in the Beggar’s Opera than in a full-fledged Italian morality opera.

Dominique Labelle’s Angelica made a nice dramatic foil to all this silliness. She could as easily have played her role as a cynical, self-serving, cheating girlfriend. Instead, Labelle created an Angelica who was the closest thing to a protagonist that this sordid story could hope for. Her “Così giusta è questa speme” was the affective highlight of the entire opera, and if any audience members hadn’t had sympathy for her up to that point, the tears that she squeezed out of their eyes at that moment surely won them over.

Diana Moore offered another refreshingly serious performance amid the comic posturing. She embodied a disarmingly manly Medoro in this trousers role, running around the church in defense of Angelica and pursuit of Orlando. Her voice combines a warmth and firmness in a way that is rare in a mezzo, and her “Verdi allori,” the famous lilting, tree-carving aria, was the most musically satisfying moment of the entire opera.

William Towers made a wonderful Orlando. Here, his own brand of physical comedy — stumbling around with disheveled hair and rumpled clothes while out of his mind — was subtle enough not to interfere with the dramatic arc, and it faded away when he grasped Labelle’s wrist and forced her to the floor in a moment as horrifying as any scene of domestic abuse could be. The castrato Senesino, who created the original role, had a famously agile voice, and Towers certainly did not disappoint. He threw out the old singing teacher’s dictum of “Sing the vowels” for the aria “Fammi combattere,” in which wonderfully spitting consonants evoked a suitably militaristic mood. His aria that marks the beginning of his madness, “Cielo! Se tu il consenti,” featured amazing improvised ornaments and a head-spinning cadenza. And the inimitable mad scene itself was positively frantic. The prevailing comic atmosphere robbed these moments of some of their force, but Towers’ performance was in no way to be blamed. He was alternately out of his mind, frightening, laughable, and despicable — all the things that Orlando should be before Zoroastro finally yanks him back into the heroic realm.

Zoroastro was also magnificently portrayed, by Wolf Matthias Friedrich. He doesn’t have an especially large voice, so projection was sometimes an issue, and he struggled a bit with some of the lower range of this part. But it hardly mattered, since Friedrich was such a convincingly paternal figure, moralizing to the audience, wagging his finger at the principal characters, and treating us to a thrilling performance of the tempest aria “Sorge infausta una procella.” He tossed off this number as if it were the easiest ditty in his repertoire; truly the work of a master magician — and an expert interpreter.

Antique Translation Comes Up Short

Finally, I can’t help but gripe a bit about the program booklet. Someone decided that it was a good idea to use Samuel Humphreys’ original 18th-century translation for our edification. On the surface, this seems brilliant, since Humphreys was one of Handel’s collaborators on oratorio librettos. But for a 21st-century audience, a more literal translation would probably have been more useful. I was often distracted by Humphreys’ work, and stopped listening for a while to figure out how he managed to come up with the following translation, when a mad Orlando tries to seduce Dorinda:

Unisca amor in noi My charming Venus, hear my prayer
Gli miei, gli affetti tuoi Let all-propitious Love prepare)
Venere bella.  To join with his endearing bands
Our corresponding hearts and hands.

My translation would read as follows:

Love joins in us, My affections, your affections, Beautiful Venus.

I was often not quite sure how the poetic rendering was meant to help us understand what was going on in the plot. To top it off, the booklet was apparently prepared by translating a computer image of the original libretto into a plain-text rendering, and it featured some of the computer errors that one expects with that type of transmogrification: q’s became g’s, o’s became n’s, and so on. As historically informed as it might have been to read a cheaply produced and inaccurate word-book, I would have appreciated something a bit more carefully prepared.

So, this transatlantic Orlando was a mixed bag. I would have preferred a bit more earnest performance, leaving the clever postmodern criticism up to audience discretion. But the highest moments were mouth-wateringly effective. In the end, McGegan waved his Zoroaster’s wand and presented us with his special brand of Handelian magic. And it’s a type of magic that always brings audiences back for more.