OPERA AUSTRALIA at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House presents ORLANDO, Opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel. Libretto after Carlo Sigismondo Capeci’s L’Orlando, overo la gelosia pazzia set by Domenico Scarlatti, based on Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516).
ORLANDO was first performed on 27th January 1733. This is a new production for Opera Australia. It is sung in Italian with surtitles. Several years ago this company presented one of my favourite nights in the theatre when I attended their production of Handel’s GIULIO CESARE. I remember the original season having a vividly sung, conducted and played performance enhanced with consummately witty and dramatic acting with a set and costume design that was functional, witty and beautiful. It was a sublime night in the theatre. It scored high on my Ecstasy chart for performance. I had been wetted in my appetite for this kind of music by Robert Helpmann’s production of Alcina and have since indulged in it whenever the opportunity appeared. The Pinchgut Opera season in recent Decembers have always been marked in my calendar of “must go”. So SEMELE, THE FAIRY QUEEN, DARDANUS have been recent indulgences.
ORLANDO was on my list for this year’s performances with the OA. Opera seria it seems is a difficult beast to organise for contemporary audiences. Justin Way, the Director of this project sums up the challenge that these works present to opera companies: "As a director of a Handel Opera you tread a fine line. You are caught between people thinking ‘oh this is moving far too slowly, there’s no drama to it’ and the opposite, which is, 'You’re doing too much, why don’t you trust the music?'" I can only agree and sympathise. I would like more trust in the music and when you have good musicians at your service, and singer-musicians that can give good account as operatic actors, as in this case, than less would probably be better.
The singing by all of this small company seemed to me of a high standard and was athletic enough in its demands to keep me enthralled. Such observably difficult demands when expurgated at such a high calibre of skill can only be an admired thrill. (Watching the Athletes of the Bejing Olympic Games offer similar envious pleasures.) The acting, as well, was suitably theatrical-histrionic as to match the complications of the score and the drama of the story. Sonia Prina was wonderfully committed to the dilemma of Orlando: the pull between duty-war glory and love. The strain of choice leading this character to madness. (What a delicious thing to have to act…and so it was!!) The focused concentration to both her tasks were demanding belief from her audience. The other singers supplied all the right semblances for each of the moods of their tasks in the story. Congratulations to Rachelle Durkin, Hye Seoung Kwon (most amusing with her coy innocence and unrequited love aches), Tobias Cole (the trio at the end of the first act transcending)and Richard Alexander.
While one can appreciate some of the difficulties that the contemporary presentation of a 300 year old (almost) Handel opera for the director and the designer this production’s resultant choices are overstated. This team of artists: Justin Way, Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays have collaborated together before. Their choices in the Pinchgut production of THE FAIRY QUEEN, of a few years ago, are repeated here. Just too busy. In the Purcell performance it was just better to close your eyes so that you could hear the music rather than the noise of the visual (and in that case choreographic as well) design.
Here in this design the choices are essentially, mostly a distraction to the music and story of the opera. It is an intellectual hi-jinx to take the Shepherdesses flock and have them fly in from above the action, sometimes singly, sometimes as a duet, even a trio!!! (I think I counted nine at one stage.) To hang about the "heavens" until it is time to take them out again. One at a time, in sets of two or three etc to tedium. Here was a jest (of a juvenile shallowness), the titter of laughter from some of the audience slight and hardly worth the gambit and definitely not worth the expense to the budget for the Opera Company. (Some might claim the expense is decadent considering its artistic effect.)To have a hoary old visual joke of knitting socks directly from the back of the sheep is trying our 21st century sensibilities of what is funny to considerable daring. It is just plain kindergarten. Maybe it was funny, briefly, in the early design meetings, perhaps, but it is so first choice stuff that the director and the designers ought to be have been made, at that stage, to think again. It might be "sophisticated" to have visual references to Magritte in the program, and one can begin to deduce the germ of the flying sheep and it may have looked great in the model box presentation but as a sincere offer of wit, or clarity of the plot of the opera for a contemporary audience, it is lame in practice.
Even the overall period of the design seems to me superficial. Mr Way has “set his own production in the 1940’s, since it is vital for Orlando to be engaged in a just war that absolutely has to be won.” Dressed in what I read as fascistic Italian “black shirt” uniform it hardly suggested “a just war that had to be won.” Mussolini and his ally Hitler fighting a just war in the 1940’s? This seems to be me a fairly cursory choice and ignores the possible cultural/historical resonances for the audience. (Besides the tacky look of the maroon leather uniform of the hero Orlando.) The design tended towards the kitsch for me. Camp. Clever in its technical variations but not really rigorous in its conceptions.
Despite the visual distractions and the longing for a simpler design and trust by the director to the possibilities that if treated seriously and with more focused dramatic rigour and courage the Opera could have had a more devastating and powerful affect in the experience, I was once more, more than pleasantly indulged in the opportunity to hear the work. Musically alive and present. Full of detailed love and care. Many accolades of appreciation to the musical preparation (Tahu Matheson and Andrew Greene) and the conductor Paul Goodwin. For those of us who have been blighted with the love of it this particular sound of music, to war against the production might lead me like Orlando to madness, from possible deprivation of hearing this kind of work by our National Company: Opera Australia. Thanks.
Now playing until 11 September. Book online or call 02 9250 7777.