Orlando is the first of three Händel operas based Orlando Furioso, Ariosto’s 15th-century adaptation of the 12-century poem, Chanson de Roland, the other two operas being Alcina and Ariodante. This epic tale of heroism, love, reason and madness also served as the basis for operas by Lully, Vivaldi, Haydn and Scarlatti. In fact, Händel based his Orlando on a libretto written by Carlo Capece for a proposed Scarlatti setting. (In more recent times, Chanson de Roland was adapted by novelist Stephen King for his best-selling Gunslinger series.) 

The story concerns the knight Orlando and his love for the Princess Angelica. Orlando is torn between his passion for Angelica, and his desire for the glories of battle. As Orlando’s internal conflict worsens, he eventually loses his reason. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Princess does not love Orlando, but is in love with Medoro, who is also loved by Dorinda. The requisite “happy” ending is provided by the powerful Zoroastro, who restores Orlando’s mind and heroism with his magic powers.

The opera’s delayed premiere was on January 27, 1733, at the King’s Theatre in London. Händel did not even finish writing the music until November 20, and still had to complete the orchestrations and whatever revisions were made during rehearsals by January. The opening night cast was illustrious and the production evidently lavish but the opera quickly disappeared and only resurfaced in the 1920s.

Today, Orlando is considered to be one of Händel’s crowning achievements, but at the time of its premiere, Händel was breaking new musical ground. To begin with, he made drastic cuts in the recitatives that Capece had written for Scarlatti. Where normally recitative advanced plot and action, Händel made the daring choice to allow his music to take precedence.

He intentionally blurred the line between recitative and aria, most notably in Orlando’s mad scene, expanded principal ensemble singing, and experimented with alternate instrumentation to help convey the emotional states of his characters. In retrospect it is genius, but to the average opera goer in 1733, this break in formula would have been confusing, and the realistic musical representations of madness and obsession unsettling.

For this 2007 Zurich Opera production, director Jens-Daniel Herzog decided on a “gentle modernization” of the work, and transferred the action to a sanatorium, sometime in the early years of the 20th century.

According to the notes accompanying the DVD, “The timeless utopia of a sanatorium, cut off from the events of the world outside, is the immediate translation for Händel’s hermetically sealed fairytale,” and further, “The venue is a kind of high-class hotel under the supervision of physicians, a convalescence center for ‘burn-out victims.’

In this isolated location, all the characters play out their individual struggles with love and madness under the watchful eye of Zoroastro, who for this production is transformed into the chief psychiatrist at the sanatorium.

Set Designer Mathis Neidhardt created large-scale, movable walls that lend a warm sense of fading opulence to the inside of the sanatorium. They also enable the action to move seamlessly from scene to scene. Walls become rooms, rooms become hallways, as the set quickly and silently changes from one scene to another, giving the unsettling impression that the sanatorium goes on forever.

Herzog’s careful direction and clear storytelling are well represented in this performance. Characters are fleshed out and brought to life as complex emotional relationships are fully explored in ways that enhance, rather than hamper the plot. Orlando is at its heart an 18th century morality tale about the necessity to subjugate ones emotions to the heroic ideal, so Orlando’s “cure,” the subjugation of his passion and his return to the glories of battle, is a foregone conclusion. But by updating the action to the 20th century, Herzog is free to explore that moral in a way that would be inappropriate in a more traditional setting. Under the watchful eye of Zoroastro, each of the characters in the sanatorium ultimately find their own balance between heart and mind, and in so doing are “cured” and can move on with their lives.

As Orlando, Marijana Mijanovic gives an intensely personal performance and I found her dramatic and musical choices never less than intriguing. I just wish I liked her voice more. There is a hollow, hooty quality to much of the range that makes her sound more like a man singing in falsetto than a mezzo. In fact, with her androgynous appearance, I had to look back at the cast list to confirm that she was indeed female. I found her most effective in the role’s plaintive, introspective moments, and Orlando’s famous mad scene was hauntingly performed. But she was never more than competent in the role’s heroic bravura passages, which were executed with a great deal of distracting facial contortions and generated very little excitement.

As Angelica, the object of Orlando’s obsession, Martina Jankova has a big stage presence, looks great in the period clothes, and pretty much takes over whatever scene she is in. She also possesses a nice, silvery soprano that she uses with what seems to be natural ease and security.

I was less taken with mezzo Katharina Peetz, who was singing the role of Angelica’s lover, Midoro Medoro. Her lyric mezzo is attractive enough, and there aren’t any glaring technical problems, but I found her singing to be short on inspiration, stolid and workmanlike. Dramatically I was also somewhat put off by the lengths to which she went in her many love scenes to convince us she was a man. I suspect she was only following the director’s instructions, but she does everything but whip out a prosthetic penis.

As the forsaken Dorinda, soprano Christine Clark was delightful. The timbre of her lovely, light, soprano voice reminds me a lot of a young Kathleen Battle, and like Ms. Jankova, she sings with an ease and naturalness that are very appealing. Next to Orlando himself, Dorinda is the character who makes the biggest emotional journey in the opera and Ms. Clark was very convincing in this as well.

Bass Konstantin Wolff took top vocal honors as the omniscient omnipresent Zoroastro. Much of Händel’s writing for bass calls for a voice with heroic strength and focus throughout a wide range, while at the same time possessing agile coloratura facility. As an actor, Mr. Wolff may be a little stiff, but as a singer he consistently and excitingly delivered the vocal goods with his virile sound and musically committed performance.

Baroque specialist William Christie conducted the Orchestra “La Scintilla” of the Zurich Opera with his usual taste, sensibility and dramatic insight.