“Orlando” at SF Opera

Handel’s “Orlando” at the SF Opera

Carol Benet

Baroque operas are a hard sell.  Often in concert version where singers sit in chairs on the stage and stand when it is there turn to sing, these operas are long with often complicated plots.  Yet early music is wildly popular with some and with others not.  Think of the popularity of  the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra,  San Francisco Early Music Society and the American Bach Soloists— all of San Francisco. But they do not do staged versions because they are wildly expensive.

Handel’s “Orlando”, now at the SF summer opera season through June 27, 2019, was originally performed in London in 1733,  It did not have a staged production in the United States until 1982 when it was conceived and directed by the famous rule-breaking wunderkind Peter Sellars for the Loeb Drama Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  San Francisco followed with Marilyn Horne in the title role in 1985 and again this year the SF Opera brings a new production.

This Handel’s “Orlando” has a 20th century twist. It was conceived and is now directed by the creative Harry Fehr who sets the story in 1940 during the London Blitz when German bombs were destroying the city and killing and maiming its citizens. This production of  “Orlando” first appeared with the Scottish Opera in 2011.  Now in San Francisco it is astounding in every way for its conception, presentation and, of course, the excellent singing backed by the fine SF Opera Orchestra directed by Christopher Moulds..

The brilliant  setting  is by Yannis Thavoris with projections (Andrzej Goulding) that light the background with flashes of the bombs, images of Orlando’s hallucinations and historical scenes showing Edward VIII’s abdication and his association with Hitler. These historical slides point out the similarity of the story enacted on stage with that of a king, who abandoned his duty for love.

The set replicates a brightly lit hospital of the period with white clad doctors and nurses. Lighting is by Anna Watson’s original design and Tim van’tHoff’s update. Scant furniture with hospital beds, nurses’ station and a private room are cleverly moved around by the cast when needed.  The all white nurses’ costumes are punctuated with brightly colored red capes reminiscent of the Red Cross.

The opera begins with a beautiful orchestral overture followed by a scene when the doctor Zoroastro (Christian Van Horn) sings.  We later learn that he is the magician who makes miracles happen, but for now he is just head doctor. He advises the wounded soldier Orlando (Sasha  Cooke) to go back to his duties as a fighter pilot and forget his urge to run away with his lover Angelica (Heidi Stober).

The lyrics are simple and repetitive and with only five cast members it seems like it would be easy to figure out the story.  But it is not.  Each character loves someone, but often the objects of their desire are unobtainable.  Orlando loves Angelica who falls in love with another patient Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen) who returns her love.  But the nurse Dorinda (Christina Gansch) is crazy for her patient Medoro  as well and a rich supposed “cousin”, the non-singing part of Isabelle, comes to woe Orlando off to America.   Everyone is in a turmoil but it is Orlando who suffers the most and goes into a madness that seems incurable.

The opera “Orlando” is based on the wildly popular chivalric epic poem “Orlando Furioso” by Ludovico Ariosto written in the 16th century after which it remained a world classic text.  It pits honor in warfare against abandonment to love and this Orlando in the opera is riled by his inadequacies on both fronts.  The second act is when he goes mad and the furies from both urges plague him.  But with a bit of magic, Zoroastro puts everything in order and happy couple ends up together and the others are mollified by the kindness of Medoro and Angelica.

Medoro, a handsome tall man, is sung by the countertenor star Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen whose career took a leap this year when he replaced the scandal-ridden David Daniels who was accused of rape by his male student and he was removed from the role in San Francisco.  This season Cohen also performed with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the SF Ballet and the SF Symphony.  He is currently a second-year Adler Fellow and has already appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra and other important orchestras and operas all over the world.  Countertenors are a rare bred and Cohen’s voice is loud, clear and angelic.

Sasha Cooke in the trouser role of Orlando was suffering from some sort of illness but like a trouper she sang the role with a caveat to the audience to be patient with her on the opening performance.  Only her volume was measured in this very difficult part.   Gansch’s Dorinda, Stober’s Angelica and Van Horn’s Zoroastro were superb.

“Orlando”, a rarely performed masterpiece in this wonderful production,  will continue in the summer season through June 27, 2019 at the SF Opera.  sfopera.com or box office at (415) 864 3330.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →