From the Stalls: Handel’s “Orlando” at the Scottish Opera, Edinburgh Festival Theatre

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Tim Mead as Orlando and Sally Silver as Angelica in Handel's Orlando at the Scottish Opera. Photo Richard Campbell.

Tim Mead as Orlando and Sally Silver as Angelica in Handel’s Orlando at the Scottish Opera. Photo Richard Campbell.

Music and libretto by Georg Friedrich Handel
Scottish Opera Company
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
Thursday 5th March

Conductor: Paul Goodwin
Stage Director: Harry Fehr
Set and Costume Designer: Yannis Thavoris
Lighting Designer: Anna Watson

Orlando – Tim Mead
Angelica – Sally Silver
Medoro – Andrew Radley
Dorinda – Claire Booth
Zoroastro – Andreas Wolf

The terrain of the Scottish Opera company is very broad and rich, and as a result, it yields some strange, glorious fruit. Georg Friedrich Haendel’s baroque opera Orlando, replete with the classic themes of love, madness and redemption, hit the stages of Glasgow and Edinburgh this February and of course, all the audience could do was sit in their seats in awe. Scottish Opera gave this 1733 baroque masterpiece a complete face lift to lighten the drab northern winter, and has garnered nothing but four-star reviews for its efforts.

Aggressively, almost comically, accurate in a nod to Mad Men and other mid-20th century dramas, the setting of Orlando is Britain during the 1940s. The stage setting is ambitious, and works tirelessly to create and maintain the illusion of the theatre. In the opera, the dangers of love are apparent, as the hero, Orlando (Tim Mead), suffers from an indeterminate mental disorder and is confined to a hospital under the auspices of Zoroastro (Andreas Wolf). The crux of the story is simple, even banal, borrowed from the Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto: Orlando is in love with Angelica (Sally Silver), a foreign national who cares for him. Her absence has made him ill, and he has cast off his loyalty to His Majesty’s army in order to win her. Of course, Angelica herself is in love with another man, the slightly less likeable Medoro (Andrew Radley), and must hide her affections from Orlando. Meanwhile, Dorinda (Claire Booth), a nurse in the hospital, has fallen in love with Orlando, but her feelings are not reciprocated. As Orlando rejects reason for madness, the outcome of the play becomes more and more precarious. In true baroque fashion, the ending is intentionally unexpected, but offers a humanistic alternative to the unrelenting romance and death of most operas.

This is a gem of baroque opera. Its new setting in the 1940s is perhaps a little tired, but the sheer amount of sixty-somethings in the audience leads one to believe that this is a medium with which many people are familiar, and find comforting. Harry Fehr, the stage director, makes his presence felt in every prop and costume, which seem chosen from a catalogue of the time, such is its precision. The British excel at the recreation of the past. The stage setting is ambitious: the audience is shuttled between scenes by a huge rotating set, arousing our excitement: what will be on the other side? The comedy and the tragedy balance each other comfortably, and the whole cast, Claire Booth especially, is capable of supreme changes in mood without causing the audience undue raised eyebrows. The overwrought setting, along with the leaps and dives of emotion, works together to create a disarming production, thoroughly (perhaps overly) aware of its own theatricality. The singers are assured of their power to both move and amuse, but Claire Booth is the master of this as Dorinda, who is unknowingly twinned with Orlando in their unrequited love. Booth can go from total despair to ecstatic rapture and the audience believes her feelings to be nothing less than genuine. This is love, and it hurts. Tim Mead shines as Orlando, and his handsome face recalls the sad heroes of the past, such as Lancelot and Orpheus. Silver and Radley make the audience squirm with delight at their insufferable love for each other. The most obviously odd aspect of Orlando is the castrati. Although Tim Mead and Andrew Radley are not castrati (the part of the review where I breathe a sight of relief) but countertenors, the titters from the audience during the love duets was telling. The incredible, pure voices of Mead and Radley are indeed unsettling to listen to when combined in duet with Silver or Booth, because they blur one of the things taken for granted about humanity: gender. Men sounding like women in opera was not a new phenomenon during Haendel’s career (in fact, they became more popular than tenors and basses for male roles) but the Edinburgh audience’s obvious bewilderment was what made the opera something to talk about as the lights went up after the first act. Scottish Opera’s embrace of the strange makes its production an unexpected, highly unique success.

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