Cher Public

Regie is in the eye of the beholder

orlando_amazonI really haven’t paid much attention to “opera regie,” so I can’t give you a firm definition of it. A while ago, a pithy and biting piece called “How to Opera Germanly” made the internet rounds, and it serves as a handy guide for we who are un- or under-initiated.

This production of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino, recorded for TV (on DVD, EuroArts 2057788) at the Staatsoper Unter der Linden, Berlin in May of 2009, lacks certain de rigueur regie elements: no one is lit from beneath while wearing pale makeup with dark shading, there are no inexplicably homo-erotic moments, no part of the set looks lethal to any inattentive singer. 

Still, I did find myself asking questions that don’t normally spring to mind while watching most operas: “Is that supposed to be the Pope crawling out of the floor?” “Why is there a matador dressed in purple practicing cape flourishes upstage?” and “What do you suppose that bearded stewardess wandering around the forest represents?” It’s a bit of a shame that director/designer Nigel Lowery and director/choreographer Amir Hosseinpour (hmm, perhaps the doubled slashed titles should serve as a warning) chose to go the regie-lite route, because these questions kept distracting me from Haydn’s lovely music and some truly gorgeous singing.

Orlando Paladino is taken from the early epic poem by Aristo, Orlando furioso. Only one other composer would try after Haydn (Méhul, in 1799) : earlier, Caccini, Vivaldi, Lully and Handel all took turns adapting parts of the epic poem, with Handel’s three takes still performed regularly today. Haydn’s Orlando premiered in 1782 and was his most popular opera during his lifetime.

We don’t generally think of Haydn as an opera composer anymore, limiting his vocal contributions to The Seasons and The Creation, but he composed fourteen operas. It’s too bad Orlando isn’t better known: it contains some lovely solo and ensemble writing, and demonstrates Haydn’s mastery of orchestration. The Act I finale “Presto, rispondi, indegna” is almost Rossini-like in musical and dramatic structure, and I see why Haydn’s style was much admired by Mozart and Beethoven.

Still, by the time this opera premiered, Haydn, who all but invented the sonata allegro and what we’ve come to consider the “classical” symphony forms, was entering the later phase of his career. The London Symphonies were yet to come, but Mozart was pushing the envelope in musical form and theory (Figaro premiered only four years after Orlando.) Mozart also had a better eye for dramatic structure and pace, thus his libretti fare much better in contrast to Porta’s libretto here.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Orlando the Paladin, who, being driven insane by unrequited love, is searching for the object of his madness, Queen Angelica. She has run off to an uninhabited castle in the woods with her beloved Medoro. The Queen is obviously a babe, because Orlando is being pursued by Rodomonte, King of Barbaria, who is also infatuated with Angelica and trying to protect her from Orlando the madman. Off to the side, Orlando’s squire Pasquale is falling for a shepherdess, Eurilla, daughter of Licone.

Meanwhile, Angelica enlists the aid of the sorceress Alcina to help deliver her from Orlando. Alcina eventually banishes him to the Underworld, where Caronte enables all to end well by causing Orlando to forget all about Angelica. (Not quite the concise plotting of Beaumarchais, is it?) Along the way, the characters find themselves in a castle, a cave, the Underworld, and various grottos, gardens and forest clearings, settings mentioned in the libretto which the “director/whatevers” take as a mere suggestion.

Happily, this production features some truly lovely singing. Marlis Petersen sings Queen Angelica with a passion and clarity that made me long to hear her as the Countess, or perhaps Donna Elvira. She sings with voluptuous sound in the Act II aria “Aure chete,” tossing off top notes with ease, and demonstrating a fine command of phrasing and style. It’s too bad that during Angelica’s beautifully sung Act III aria “Dell’estreme sue voci dolenti,” the “director/whatevers” gave Petersen so much carefully choreographed gesturing to indicate how Orlando’s passionate pursuit was driving her to madness, that I kept yelling at the TV, “Oh for God’s sake, just put your hands in your pockets.”

Singing Eurilla, Sunhae Im starts out swallowing the sound slightly, but soon brings a clear, light soprano tone to the role. Her character opens the opera, but then Im doesn’t have much to do vocally outside of her Act II duetto with Pasquale, “Quel tuo visetto amabile,” which she sings with sweet phrasing, clean fioritura and attention to detail. (Pasquale has so little to sing in this duet that it is essentially an arietta for Eurilla.)

But as the sorceress Alcina, the Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska really stands out. In her first aria, “Ad un guardo,” my immediate reaction after the first phrase was “What a great mezzo voice!” but as it turns out, Pendatchanska also sings Violetta, Gilda and the Queen of the Night. While she’s a soprano who’s not afraid to really dig into chest voice, her final aria “Ragion nell’alma siede” gives her a chance to show that she is a dramatic coloratura worthy of the name. She sings with fluidity, ease, and impeccable breath control. I listened to her first and last arias at least three times each, and waited for her every appearance in between.

The men suffer only slightly in comparison. Tenor Tom Randle as Orlando and bass-baritone Pietro Spagnoli as Rodomonte sing well. Randle has a tendency to push his top notes during runs ever so slightly so that they stand out and distract from the phrasing. The director/choreographer has him doing so much business in his first aria “D’Angelica il nome” that towards the end he’s obviously having to compensate for it in his phrasing and can’t sustain the longer lines. Spagnoli has a powerful baritone voice, and uses it well in his Act II opening aria “Mille lampi d’accesse faville.”

Victor Torres is a fine Pasquale. Although the score calls Pasquale a tenor, Torres is a baritone. Haydn gives the character a patter aria in Act I, “Ho viaggiato in Francia, in Spagna,” which strongly presages Leporello and “Madamina, il catatalgo è questo.” Torres delivers a fine comic performance with that, but in his Act II aria “Ecco spiano,” he shines with some truly fine singing. The aria requires him to run the gamut from low to high and back again, with strong technique in coloratura and vocal control. (It is a comment on the production that I originally thought this piece was a duet between Eurilla and Pasquale, because she joins him at odd moments in the coloratura, and sings along with the violins a few times during short orchestral sections. Only after more than one press of the rewind button did I come to the conclusion that Eurilla’s vocal business was interpolated and likely not in the score.)

Oddly, the roles of Licone, a tenor, and Caronte, a bass, are performed by one singer, Arttu Kataja, a baritone. He acquits himself well. Finally, as Medoro, Magnus Staveland does a journeyman’s job in a thankless role. There are no great demands placed on the tenor for this role, so I can’t say if it was the role or the performer that seemed lackluster. (Medoro reminded me of Don Ottavio: no matter how fine a tenor you put in that role, he doesn’t stand a chance against everyone else in Giovanni.)

Conductor René Jacobs specializes in period music, and it shows. I can’t say the orchestra overpowers the singers, because the sound is miked and balanced for the recording, but the singers don’t appear to be struggling to be heard over them. Jacobs keeps the tempos crisp and lively, and supports the singers well.

As for the production itself, well, there’s a mish-mash of costumes and periods: Orlando, being mad most of the time, wears something that looks suspiciously like a diaper. After Caronte causes him to forget Angelica, he shows up in a dress military uniform. Medoro and Angelica are dressed in timeless blacks and whites, Pasquale in a shapeless brown coat and shorts, Eurilla as a modern forest ranger, and Rodomonte as a Pirate from Penzance. Licone and Caronte, being performed by the same singer, are naturally performed in the same costume (a nightshirt and nightcap! Why?) It took a couple viewings of the first scene of Act III for me to realize I was watching Caronte and not Licone.

So too the sets are a mix of period styles and techniques. The opera starts with the singers in front of an impressionistic castle and forest backdrop that would not have been out of place in a high school production of, say, Robin Hood. This backdrop suddenly and inexplicably drops to the floor at Rodomonte’s entrance (five minutes into the opera) to reveal a solid, realistic depiction of the same castle and forest. Later scenes take place in settings from a realistic room in the castle, to a shimmery and watery Underworld, to a number of scenes played before the stage curtain.

To be fair, there were bits here and there I liked: when Angelica summons the sorceress Alcina in Act I, she appears by possessing the nameless handmaid who had been attending to Angelica, and Pendatchanska plays the moment particularly well. The first scene of Act III takes place in the Underworld, and it is effectively staged with nothing more than a backdrop, cool blue lighting, some mylar “snow” and a large piece of furniture reminiscent of a coffin. But then the rest of Act III, back in the forest, all takes place in the same Underworld setting, so I wondered why all the characters had gone to hell. As for the forest scenes, well, there wasn’t a plastic Christmas tree to be had for miles around the opera house.

I had some problems with the DVD in my Sony player. Some menu items, like audio settings, bounced me out of the DVD entirely and back to the player’s splash screen. I had the same problem on my Macbook Pro.