Ensemble

Orlando Fights World War II In San Francisco

JAMES SOHRE describes an evening
of considerable Handelian beauty

 

Director Harry Fehr finds considerable resonance by imagining Handel's Orlando institutionalized in a hospital in 1940s London.

In this highly imaginative interpretation, the magician Zoroastro is on this occasion a staff psychiatrist serving the Royal Masonic (military) Hospital, whose still empty buildings stand in Ravenscourt Park. Orlando is a traumatized RAF pilot being treated, and Fehr uses surreal imagery and interactions to comment on the wartime horrors visited on Great Britain.

Yannis Thavoris has designed a sleek rotating hospital clinic that is all chrome and black and white, effectively lit by Tim van 't Hof (based on Anna Watson's original design) with shifting moods that ranged from sterile reality to turbulent introspection. Andrzej Goulding's often brooding, sometimes disturbing projections underscored Orlando's mental and emotional state.

Sasha Cooke as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro in George Frideric Handel's 'Orlando' at San Francisco Opera. Photo © 2019 Cory Weaver
Sasha Cooke as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro in George Frideric Handel's Orlando at San Francisco Opera. Photo © 2019 Cory Weaver

As one of many apt touches, during Zoroastro's Lascia amor e seigui marte (Renounce love, follow Mars and fight for glory), newsreel videos not only show Edward VIII abdicating to pursue his love affair with Wallis Simpson, but also show the couple's notorious meeting with Hitler.

In this richly detailed production, further character re-imaginings include Angelica as a wealthy, glamorous American, Dorinda as a love-struck nurse, and Medoro as a soldier, being treated for wounds incurred during Britain's Dunkirk loss.

In Orlando's last (and only) presentation at SFO, the title role was assumed by the legendary Marilyn Horne, and a heartfelt program tribute acclaims her super stardom and heroic-sized mezzo. Following that act could have been a daunting challenge, but young Sasha Cooke mostly successfully makes the role her own.

This in spite of the fact that Ms Cooke was announced as indisposed at the performance I saw. Nonetheless the gifted mezzo coped admirably with the copious florid writing and sang with much limpid beauty. If she did not command her usual firepower and bravura, this was still an enjoyable performance, in admirable service of some of opera's most difficult music.

Sasha Cooke in the title role of George Frideric Handel's 'Orlando' at San Francisco Opera. Photo © 2019 Cory Weaver
Sasha Cooke in the title role of George Frideric Handel's Orlando at San Francisco Opera. Photo © 2019 Cory Weaver

Replacing the originally scheduled star counter tenor David Daniels, disgraced in the 'me-too' dragnet, Adler Fellow counter tenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro displayed plenty of star power of his own. His rich, pliant mezzo sound had ample poise and real character, and his lanky, handsome presence was a welcome visual. That his twenty-three-year-old star is already rising is attested to by SFO having a meet and greet signing of his recent CDs after the show.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro in George Frideric Handel's 'Orlando' at San Francisco Opera. Photo © 2019 Cory Weaver
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro in George Frideric Handel's Orlando at San Francisco Opera. Photo © 2019 Cory Weaver

The delectable soprano Christina Gansch as Dorinda might have run off with the night's vocal honors, thanks to her gleaming, suave vocalizing that was infused with knowing drama and endless charm. But vying with her in excellence and polished singing, soprano Heidi Stober as Angelica was near perfection, as her shimmering, secure singing throughout the range was alluring and engaging. Handel makes fewer demands on Zoroastro, but bass Christian Van Horn dispatched all that was required of him with knowing assurance.

Conductor Christopher Moulds kept things percolating amiably in the pit, and infused the music making with stylish acumen. Maestro Moulds led this large (for Handel) orchestra with obvious enjoyment and skill, resulting in over all good pacing and many moments of soaring beauty.

All in all, San Francisco Opera's Orlando succeeded at presenting an evening of considerable Handelian beauty.

Copyright © 28 June 2019 James Sohre,
Nevada, USA

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