Händel’s Orlando at the New Theatre

On 4 November a group of Ertegun Scholars went to the performance of Händel’s Orlando, performed by the Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre, Oxford.

First performed in 1733 in London, Orlando is recognised today as one of Händel’s finest operas. The libretto, adapted from Ariosto’s 16th-century epic poem Orlando Furioso, tells the powerful and moving story of a hero’s descent into madness. Orlando, Charlemagne’s most glorious knight, is in love with the oriental princess Angelica, who in turns loves the Saracen knight Medoro. Upon learning Angelica and Medoro’s secret, Orlando loses his mind and sets out to kill the woman he loves, leaving a trail of destruction in his path. Eventually, the magician Zoroastro restores Orlando’s sanity and appeases his troubled heart, letting him return to his heroic duties.

The Welsh National Opera’s new production of the opera transposes this story into World War II, stripping away both the references to the code of chivalry and the fantastic elements of the libretto. The director Harry Fehr sets the plot in a war hospital, evoking a psychiatric asylum. While not very original, this could have worked well with the libretto, if every staging idea were meaningful and served a purpose in the narration of the story.

Unfortunately, there were several instances where Fehr’s work fell short of this goal. First of all, his staging relied heavily on the use of video projections to illustrate Orlando’s inner state of mind. Not only did this feel overly demonstrative, if not gimmicky, but it was also visually distracting, at times bordering on bad taste. Meanwhile, the set itself, while well designed, felt a bit monotonous after three hours – especially compared to the bucolic environment of the original libretto. But the biggest weakness of Fehr’s staging lay in the directing itself, or lack thereof: it looked too often as if singers were coming on stage to sing their arias as they would do in an unstaged recital. This is without a doubt one of the main challenges of this opera, which has a lot of arias and very few ensembles; but the role of the director is to bring life to the characters and move the intrigue forward by working on the acting with the singers. Opera is just as much about theatre as it is about music. This was not the impression given by WNO’s production of Orlando. The acting was very conventional, and in the few instances when the director did try to make bold direction decisions, he went decidedly off course: for instance, during Orlando’s beautiful madness aria in Act II, Ah! Stigie larve, when the character believes he is addressing Proserpina and expresses his pity for her, we see him practically sexually assaulting a nurse, while Zoroastro – dressed as a medical doctor – phlegmatically watches on.

From a musical perspective, this production certainly had good qualities. The cast was generally good: Lawrence Zazzo portrayed Orlando in a manner that was musically convincingly, with a warm countertenor voice; Fflur Wyn sang Dorinda with a lovely timber and expressive vocal inflexions; Daniel Grice was a very good Zoroastro, with a rich bass voice and a solid range (showcased by his excellent rendition of the famous aria Sorge infausta una procella). I have more reservations regarding Robin Blaze (Medoro), whose voice was a bit thin and not particularly rich, and Rebecca Evans (Angelica), who had occasional technical issues. It was Andrew Griffiths’ first night conducting Orlando in this production, and it was overall a success, even if the orchestra could have been a little more expressive at times.

To conclude, WNO’s new production of Orlando assembled a team demonstrating good musical qualities, but disappointed as a whole, due to the shortcoming of the direction and staging. Leaving the theatre, one could not help but feel that it failed to do justice to the full dramatic power of Händel’s masterpiece.

Raphaël Millière