If we still have time, we might still get by
Every time I think about it, I wanna cry
With bombs and the Devil and the kids keep coming
No way to breathe easy, no time to be young
But I tell myself that I was doing all right
There’s nothing left to do at night
But go crazy on you
Crazy on you
Let me go crazy, crazy on you…
—Heart, “Crazy on You”
George Frideric Handel, Orlando (1733)
Based on: Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto
Opera Setting: Europe, in age of Charlemagne
Production Setting: a hospital in West London, autumn 1940
Plot in 101 words or less: Orlando—not to be confused with Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending hero/heroine (Or is he/she?)—is convinced he can be both a lover and a fighter. He’s crushing hard on Angelica who, of course, loves someone else, namely Medoro, himself the object of Dorinda’s affection. Circle of life, people. Like so many men, Orlando can’t take rejection and goes mad. Unlike many men, Orlando is prevented from harming others by #notallmen magician Zoroastro, who saves the objects of his jealous wrath, i.e., Angelica and Medoro, and cures Orlando of his madness with a magic elixir right out of Gilbert & Sullivan.
Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Amor è qual vento”
I was rather excited to see Orlando. After all, I have loved both Handel operas previously seen at San Francisco Opera, Serse in 2011, which cleaned up when I bestowed my very first set of Figaro Awards, and Partenope in 2014. However, I was a bit dubious when I realized that I was to witness yet another re-setting of an opera to the twentieth century. While this can work to a production’s advantage—and it mostly works here—I’m a little tired of this trend. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t seen multiple productions of almost anything, but sometimes you just want to see the time and place the composer intended, you know? Also, designers, please just stop with the endless projections that add nothing to the plot or setting.
But I digress. Like I said, this production mostly worked for me. Well, it worked enough that I chose to see the opera a second time once I had decided I was going to go back for Rusalka.
What?!?! That’s right, I’ve become one of those people. [Side note: For the record, I attended the June 18 and June 27 performances.]
What got me back into the War Memorial Opera House? Oddly enough, the two secondary roles of Medoro and Dorinda, sung by countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and soprano Christina Gansch respectively. Nussbaum Cohen is only a second-year Adler Fellow and was making his San Francisco Opera debut here, but, my god, what a beautiful tone this man has. His arias were stunning. Christina Gansch was also making her San Francisco (and U.S.) debut and thoroughly killed it. Her “Amor è qual vento” in Act III was clearly a highlight for the audience. These two debutants were anchored by San Francisco regular Heidi Stober (last seen in Arabella), who never ceases to delight me with her tremendous acting and singing range. Their “Consolati, o bella” trio at the end of Act I was lovely.
Director Harry Fehr’s choice to move the action from a pastoral setting in the time of Charlemagne (Orlando is actually Roland from La Chanson de Roland fame) to a hospital in wartime London was a smart one. This gave the lover-fighter opposition set up by Zoroastro a bit more urgency. As did the hospital setting, which leant itself to much bustling on the part of the characters and supernumeraries. I could have used a bit more variety in the sets from scene to scene, but that is a minor quibble in the face of an overall concept that I thought worked well. What didn’t really work for me were the accompanying projections. They were often distracting and sometimes downright stupid. Moreover, images of Hitler? Really? I may need to invoke Godwin’s Law here.
Unfortunately there were more problems than just the projections. First, the orchestra. Although I’m no expert, I think Orlando is beautifully scored and I felt like the music (conducted by Christopher Moulds in another San Francisco debut) could have sounded a little crisper. One reason that I’ve come to love Handel is the brightness of his music and this wasn’t quite there. Also not quite there was my beloved Sasha Cooke, who I first saw (and loved) in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. I have nothing but praise for her previous roles (including Magdalene in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Anna in Les Troyens), but I have to agree with most reviewers, who have pointed out that she was miscast here in a role too low for her register. Luckily her acting was strong and at least she convincingly played the role of a conflicted and troubled pilot.
All in all, this was a solid production from San Francisco that cemented my love for all things Handel.