Arts & Events

Mad Scenes in Opera? Handel’s ORLANDO Has A Doozy

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 14, 2019 - 06:52:00 PM

The 2019 summer season of San Francisco Opera presented George Frideric Handel’s Orlando in a new production on Sunday, June 9. Opera plots are often convoluted; but Orlando takes the cake in this regard. There are only five characters in Orlando, and one of them, Zoroastro, is a quack physician, But of the other four characters Handel and his anonymous librettist manage multiple love triangles, betrayals, near murders and near suicides. To make matters worse, there’s a mad scene that almost puts Lucia di Lammermoor to shame. Orlando, you see, has been wounded in war, then fallen in love with the woman who nursed his wounds. But when he discovers she loves another man, Orlando goes stark, raving mad. I was surprised the hospital orderlies didn’t put him in a strait jacket when he tried to kill first Angelica, then Medoro. But the quack physician gives him some sort of electro-shock treatment, and he awakens from this treatment miraculously cured. Orlando blesses the woman he thought betrayed him and whom he tried to kill, blesses her lover, whom he also tried to kill, and blesses another woman to whom, in his madness, he proposed marriage. Supposedly, if you can believe it, everyone is happy at the end. 

However, some in the audience apparently were not all that happy. When I asked one woman what she thought of Orlando, her answer was “It was long.” Yes, at three hours and twenty minutes, Orlando is long. Moreover, given that it’s Handel, it seems even longer than it is. Why? Because Handel utilizes the ABA pattern of da capo composition, which means we hear every musical number three times. This can be tedious. 

Though the plot intrigues are drawn from the Romantic Italian epic Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, San Francisco Opera’s staging, by British director Harry Fehr, sets this Orlando in a London hospital for wounded soldiers during World War II. Orlando, a downed RAF pilot, has been tended by an American volunteer nurse, Angelica, for whom he has fallen in love. Angelica, however, loves another wounded soldier, Medoro. Dorinda, a British nurse, has also fallen in love with Medoro. Complications arise, and some tempers are short. All four of these characters experience a great deal of stress as the opera develops. 

A fine cast was assembled for this Orlando; and there were a few surprises, some good and some not so good. In a role-debut, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang the trousers role of Orlando. Sasha Cooke has been glorious in almost every role she has sung here, beginning with her local debut in the title role of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalen in 2013. Now, however, in the title role of Orlando, Sasha Cooke was surprisingly lacking in vocal power. She sang well, as always, but she simply did not project her voice except in rare moments. At least this was the case at the opening performance I attended on June 9. 

There was no surprise coming from soprano Heidi Stober, who sang just as gloriously in the role of Angelica as she has in everything she’s performed here since her local debut in 2010. Nor was the fine singing of countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen a surprise. This young singer, still an Adler Fellow, came on strong as Medoro, though he doesn’t have a great deal to sing in this opera. The real surprise, though – and a truly glorious one – was the U.S. opera debut of Austrian soprano Christina Gansch as Dorinda. Christina Gansch has a bright voice with a lilt to it. The highlight of the whole show may well have been Christina Gansch’s performance of Dorinda’s Act III aria “Love makes the head spin.” The audience certainly appreciated her singing, and they gave her the longest and most enthusiastic applause of the opera for this aria. Finally, another pleasant surprise was the singing of bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro. A tall, commanding figure, Van Horn was convincing as the doctor in charge of Orlando’s case at the hospital. 

Conductor Christopher Moulds, from England, led the orchestra in his local debut in Handel’s Orlando. He ran a tight ship, and the results were crisp and well-paced, even if the da capo repetitions occasionally got tedious. But that’s Handel’s fault, not the conductor’s. The hospital sets were designed by Yannis Thavoris; and the lighting was the joint product of Original Lighting Designer Anna Watson and Revival Lighting Director Tim van ‘t Hof. Andrzej Goulding was responsible for the video projections. Orlando will receive four more performances, June 15, 18, 21, and 27, all at 7:30 pm at the War Memorial Opera House.