George Frideric Handel - Orlando
La Monnaie-De Munt, 2012
René Jacobs, Pierre Audi, Bejun Mehta, Sophie Karthäuser, Kristina Hammarström, Sunhae Im, Konstantin Wolff
Internet Streaming, 12 May 2012
As conductor René Jacobs observes in the programme notes for this production of Orlando for La Monnaie-De Munt (watched via their Internet streaming service), Handel - like many other composers who have tackled the subject - must have felt somewhat inspired by the subject of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’, for in contrast to some of his works for the Kings Theatre in London where he reworked music from other earlier pieces, Orlando is composed of entirely new music. It may even be the case that Handel took a hand in the writing of the libretto itself, drawing from a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, introducing some new characters and arrangements to suit his own ideas.
Ever the businessman, there is clearly a calculated approach to Handel’s arrangements for Orlando, which works within the strict conventions of opera seriathat audiences and singers would have expected, but seeking to make Italian opera a success in London, Handel also ensured that there is something in it for everyone. Even within the limitations of dramatic action that you can expect from such Baroque work, Handel extended the frame of the unrequited love story between the great warrior Orlando and Angelica, the Queen of Cathay through the introduction of the characters Dorinda and Zorastro - neither of whom appear in Ariosto’s source work - bringing a lighter element and even some comedy with the former and a supernatural aspect with the latter. This gives Handel scope to extend the emotional range of the work to some extent, but the majority of the work is still based around the expression and hiding of feelings between characters who still conform very much to commedia dell’arte types.
The origins of the work extend back to ‘Le Chanson de Roland’, written by a monk at the end of the 11th century, which relates the tale of Roland (who becomes Orlando the story was developed into Italian by Ariosto) set against the background of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens in 778. At the heart of the work is the supremacy of reason - symbolically shown with the appearance of an eagle in the third act - which helps quell the fires of passion that have been aroused during the romantic complications that have taken place. Dorinda is in love with Medoro, the wounded soldier she has been tending, but he is in love with Angelica, who shares his feelings. Orlando however is also in love with Angelica, but she can’t bring herself to admit to the heroic warrior who has saved her life that she is really in love with Medoro and, having been warned by Zorastro of Orlando’s jealous rages, she is somewhat frightened of the consequences should Orlando find out about her love for Medoro. And she has good reason to be cautious, for when Orlando discovers their names carved together on a tree, he burns down Dorinda’s house with Medoro inside and attempts to murder Angelica, until Zorastro’s intervention finally brings him back to his senses.
Concerned very much with inner feelings and emotions expressed and kept hidden, their force given expression through a descent into madness, Orlando does inevitably present a challenge when it comes to staging it. For Pierre Audi, the director of the De Nederlandse Opera, Orlando is very much a psychological drama, and his production accordingly uses the burning of Dorinda’s house as the key symbol of Orlando’s state of mind throughout. It’s certainly a valid way to approach the work, but Audi’s method introduces a few complications that don’t always seem to be entirely coherent or successful. The decision to portray Orlando as a fireman in Act I is a strange one - although one can see how it relates to a modern depiction of his heroism and the esteem that he is held in, as well as relating it to the notion of playing with fire, the fire of passion, and the pyromaniac actions that ensue later - but apart from the wearing of a helmet and some barrels and hoses on the stage, this occupation isn’t over-emphasised. Perhaps even more difficult to grasp however is the fluid approach towards the timeline of events that Audi sees as a reflection of Orlando’s perspective in his madness.
In Act I then, Dorinda’s house has already been burned, the charred remains of its frame are all that are left of it, and Orlando and his firecrew are gathering the hoses back in. An altered view of the destroyed house is shown in the second act, which is where the derangement of Orlando’s nightmare is most pronounced, believing himself to be on the banks of the Styx and drawn to the land of the dead. Projections are used to emphasise his delirium, with repeated imagery of Orlando walking through fields of fire. Act III, where the house is actually burnt down, instead focuses on reconstruction, with a new frame being built, although - in line with the open ending - the rebuilding is necessarily left incomplete. Audi’s other idea for the stage treatment is to often have the characters remain on the stage even after their have sung their aria and should normally be making their exit. This is a fairly standard Brechtian device now, revealing the construct behind the drama, and it has relevance to the psychological nature of the opera’s themes, reflecting the mindset of Orlando’s nightmarish descent into madness, the jumbling of timelines in his mind and his presence at scenes where he is not normally involved reflecting his imagining or reconstruction of events in his mind.
I’m not sure that this reorganisation of the events or their altered perspective really makes anything any clearer, whether it really gets into the mind of the character, or even that it makes the stage action any more compelling to watch, but it does seem to work well with the rather complex psychology and inner turmoil that is sung about and reflected in the score. That is brought out wonderfully by René Jacobs and the playing of the Baroque Orchestra B’Rock, Jacobs making the most of the freedom open to the conductor and the resources at their disposal by expanding the instrumentation for the basso continuo for the brief excerpts of recitative for a more fluid arrangement. The casting for this production is also very strong for all five main roles. Bejun Mehta sings Orlando with an otherworldly quality that doesn’t however always seem to get to the heart of his passion and rage, but he is a very fine countertenor. Sophie Karthäuser is a marvellous Angelica and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström handles the role of Medoro well, but again, you never feel any of them completely get to grips with the characters. In line with Handel’s revisions of the character dynamic in the work however, Sunhae Im displays the most personality as Dorinda, singing with a light beautiful Mozartian voice, and Konstantin Wolff adds the necessary weight as Zorastro.
Orlando is available for viewing free online on the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt until 2nd June 2012.