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21 August, 2008

Orlando - Handel. Sydney Opera House. Monday 18th August 2008

Dear Colleagues,

This Monday night Gala demonstrated some serious points raised in the media in recent days. There is just nobody in charge of this ship and there are doubts as to her seaworthiness to my mind. The seven o’clock starting time was obviously a blunder as the opera had been pared down by 50 minutes, thus ending at 9.35pm, an early night indeed! I don’t think this is Handel’s greatest work - at least as it is presented here. That the second night is on Wednesday is also a serious deviation from long-time theatrical rules where 2 rest days are normally allowed between opera performances.

Handel wrote highly inspired and memorable operatic scenes as well as a lot of his own original orchestral and vocal continuo some might term “wall-paper”. Orlando seems to have more of the latter than the former, starting out with a ‘skipping-time’ overture. It might seem unfair to the singers who each had difficult vocals … yet none reached the heights of his immortal pieces like “Lascia, io piango” (Rinaldo), “Ombra mai fu” (Xerxes) or “V'adoro, pupille” (Julius Caesar), “Iris hence”; “Sleep why dost”, “Where ere you walk” (Semele, his last opera), not to mention “Tornami a vagghegia” (Alcina). While Orlando’s ‘mad scene’ is a most spectacular aria technically, it does not have the invention of melody, phrasing and custom ‘pauses’ of any of the above to my ear. The opera is certainly an interesting piece of musical archaeology … and it may even be a truly great opera in its original form - the Sydney audience may never know. Apparently it only received 10 performances in 1733 and was not revived until 1959.

There was no regular brass section in this baroque orchestra (two horns appeared at intervals). There was no chorus. There is no part for solo tenor or baritone voice in this opera. Orlando was clearly written as a show-piece for the male divo yet this production uses a contralto, Sonia Prina for the hero. The soldier Medoro is sung by Tobias Cole in falsetto range, a role originally written for mezzo-soprano according to Wikipedia. Dressed convincingly as a man, Ms Prina’s mid-range coloratura was indeed phenomenal and one wonders what other vocal music of hers was omitted in the savage cuts. It is unlikely to be 50 minutes of da capo repeats but it is hard to believe that there was anything ‘too difficult’ for Ms Prina either. Rachel Durkin sang ‘regally’ throughout as Angelica but without raising any goose bumps on this listener’s old flesh.

Richard Alexander seems miscast in the ghost role, not showing his substantial talents in their best light. Some of the lowest notes were just not in the voice. This ‘Sarastro’ type role needs a bigger, deeper basso profundo voice, especially when he is the only character who is not some sort of soprano. Hye Seoung Kwon seemed under-powered and retiring as the shepherdess. One wonders who is making these odd casting decisions or are they just distant copies of others’ decisions elsewhere (Salzburg Festival, for instance).

The opera opens in a war office with a writing desk, table lamp, globe of the world and large wall map. The next scene saw the entire set replaced by the wall map, hugely enlarged. This then broke into columns, openings and walls at various depths to create and interesting and diverse setting for progress of the story. The confusing, cross-gender dramatis personae all taking cupid’s aim for each other was incorporated into a quirky and charming production. Orlando was dressed in a beautiful tan coloured leather suit. He/she suddenly fainted to the floor in the first scene creating dramatic tension from the very start … as well as creating a flaw in the great general’s persona. The direction by Justin Way was sympathetic and original with just enough of the unexpected.

Because of the shepherd connection, there were models of sheep on stage throughout the opera. The cute idea became laboured when they started to multiply and fly, as if to ignite some distant Greek cauldron! At one stage the text promised goats but these did not materialise, mercifully. At one point there were ‘stars above’ which must have been designed by some deprived city soul who had never actually seen the sky at night and how beautiful it actually is. The last act featured a massively enlarged electric lamp pointing our way … then a miniature of the original setting … all very clever if not entirely original (Hansel and Gretal) nor particularly meaningful. Fantasy is fun, but an opera is opera - and that means voice and melody.

Singing is all around us in our daily lives … but grand opera is the Olympics of singing. It is the loudest, highest, finest and most original performers who should win out and be heard again. We often see operas in concert ... but even with the cleverest production, we never see opera dramas without singing! The first job of an opera singer is to be heard up the back. If that voice is still beautiful and expressive, this is a measure of success. Not all of the singers in Orlando fitted this category. If management either sat up the back more often themselves or else interviewed subscribers who do, we may have less criticism and more logical decisions on repertoire and who should sing it.

Our brochure promised ‘early music specialist’ Trevor Pinnock as conductor. There was no explanation given on the night that maestro was Paul Goodwin who is not even on the company’s web site. He led the small, specialist orchestra proficiently. I wondered if he was responsible for all the cuts or if it was a joint vivisection.

For me, Orlando remains a city in Florida. This Monday evening Opera Gala was not an auspicious event and fault must be sheeted back to management. Musical director, Richard Hickox has not been sighted for months, which is a fault.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..