"one of those rare moments in theater where brilliant music and great directing worked together to create sublime operatic magic"
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NIGHT ONE: a review of Cantanti PROJECT’s production of Handel's Orlando
March 7, 2017 - Jeremy Hirsch, critic for The Entertainment Hour
Cantanti PROJECT’s production of George Frideric Handel’s opera seria, Orlando, opened at the National Opera Center on February 18th, 2017, at Marc A. Scorca Hall. The opera, which premiered in 1733, is based on the 16th-century epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. The poem also served as the source for the libretti of two other operas by the composer, Alcina and Ariodante (1735). Cantanti PROJECT is in its third season, and fittingly enough, the production of Orlando follows their presentation of Alcina last season. Orlando is considered to be one of Handel’s greatest operas, and, of the three works he wrote based on Orlando Furioso, it is arguably the most significant.
The story of the opera Orlando concerns the eponymous war hero of Charlemagne (portrayed by counter-tenor Juecheng Chen), his unrequited love for Queen Angelica of Catay (portrayed by soprano Rachel Duval), and Queen Angelica’s love of Prince Medoro, an African Prince (portrayed by mezzo-soprano Laura Mitchell). The love triangle unravels when Orlando discovers Angelica and Medoro’s relationship. This discovery leads him to enter a scene of madness in his aria, “Ah Stigie larve… Vaghe Pupille”. This aria, which comes at the end of Act II, is the focal point of the opera’s drama and is its greatest, most innovative number. “Ah Stigie larve” breaks away from the florid coloratura usually associated with the musical style of Handel and opera seria. Handel’s rejection of the da capo aria and its rigid ABA form, which serves as the structural basis for all other arias in the opera, allows him to write remarkable music that utilizes masterful counterpoint, sighing chromatic lines, and various meters (one section of the aria is in 5/4) which poignantly express Orlando’s state of mind. “Ah Stigie larve” is the centerpiece of the opera and Brittany Goodwin’s innovative production.
Goodwin has broken with tradition and staged the opera in a mental institution. While a 2007 Zurich production of Orlando took place in a post-World War I mental institution, she did not set an exact time or place for the mental institution in her production. This allowed audiences to look at the institution as an otherworldly place, which is in line with the themes of chivalry and magic that are prevalent in the epic poem by Ludivico Ariosto. Jóhanna Ásgeirsdóttir’s set design complimented Goodwin’s aesthetic. The production featured Zoroastro (portrayed by mezzo-soprano Kristi Esch in a role that was originally written for a bass) as the doctor in the asylum. The setting also justified the opera’s ridiculous plot and added an aura of humor that directly engaged the audience during moments where it was least expected. One example of such humor came right after the end of Act I. While the orchestra, Dorian Baroque (led by music director Dylan Sauerwald from the harpsichord), tunes, Dorinda (portrayed by Lydia Dahling) covers her ears because she is perturbed by the sound. Dorinda, a shepherdess who is in love with Prince Medoro, has her hands covered with sock puppets in this production to hide the scars on her wrists from cutting. Goodwin’s brilliant staging foreshadows Orlando’s descent into madness at the end of Act II and captures the audience’s attention.
In Goodwin’s staging of “Ah Stigie larve”, the various themes of mental illness, love, and chivalry all come together as characters in the opera surround Orlando while he sings. They silently move across the stage like phantasmic pantomimes that fleet in and out of his mind. Themes in the opera’s story and tropes from epic poetry were interwoven into a complex dramatic presentation of one of Handel’s greatest arias. This scene was one of those rare moments in theater where brilliant music and great directing worked together to create sublime operatic magic. Orlando’s release from the institution after he enters out of his state of madness at the end of Act III was supremely effective and provided a satisfying conclusion to the opera.
The cast of Saturday’s performance was in fine voice. All the singers demonstrated a good understanding of the musical style, in no small part thanks to Dylan Sauerwald. He individually coached these singers during production rehearsals, and his work was clear in the casts’ tasteful ornamentation during the da capo arias. The judicious cuts to the score allowed the musical drama to flow and not stagnate. Soprano Rachel Duval undeniably stole the show as Princess Angelica with her powerful voice and effective coloratura. She gave a vocal performance that showcased her excellent technique and breath control, which, combined with her acting, gave the character a fantastic royal presence that outshined the rest of the Saturday evening’s cast.
The production of Orlando was a refreshing take on Handel’s masterpiece because the performance played on tropes of epic poetry and mental illness with charming wit and a good adherence to Baroque vocal performance practices. I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for Cantanti PROJECT and all artists that were involved in the production.