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Handel’s Orlando by Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre, Oxford

A review by Julia Gasper

“Of knights and ladies, of love and war I sing, / Of deeds of valour and of chivalry.” That was how Ariosto described his lengthy epic poem Orlando Furioso, set in the time of Charlemagne and the Crusades.

There were operatic versions of this story before Handel’s, as the epic provided librettists with endless material. A tangle of love-stories, heroic deeds or terrible catastrophes, it was a goldmine for stage drama, but it did pose one great challenge  – how does a composer, working within the fairly narrow conventions of Baroque opera, adequately present a character who is mad?  This is a challenge to which Handel rose amazingly well. His music is inventive, ingenious and expressive, as the character of Orlando ranges from melancholy to distracted jealous fury and uncontrollable rage. Lawrence Zazzo gave a powerful performance in this lead role, showing talents as an actor as well as a singer.

Orlando, the war hero, is suffering at the start from what might be termed depression, and refuses to return to the battlefield. The cause is his love for the pagan Angelica, whom he rescued from some monster or other. However, knights have no monopoly on heroism, and Angelica herself saves another knight named Medoro from a similar predicament, and falls in love with him. This is bad news for the fair Dorinda, who has nursed Medoro and secretly loves him herself. Out of a mistaken kindness, he feigns that he does love her, but she is not deceived. Angelica for similar motives pretends to Orlando that she loves him and for a while he is taken in, but his later realisation of the truth is all the more painful. Like Othello, he is consumed by a jealous fury. There is a lexical interchange between words for insanity and extreme anger: the Italian word furioso resembles our English “furious” while in modern America “mad” means “angry” and insanity has to be described as “crazy”.

It is not a new idea to set this opera in the time of the Second World War  – it was first used by Scottish Opera  – but it is worth reviving, as it works well. The action takes place in a hospital, where both Orlando and Medoro are being treated by a host of doctors in white coats and nurses in smart, starched uniforms. Zoroastro, the magician whose task it is to cure Orlando, is a psychiatrist, and also acts as a counsellor, urging him to return to his duty, as there is nothing nobler or greater than military heroism. He is sung by the fine bass, Daniel Grice. Personally, I think that this psychiatry business is taken a bit too far, as instead of Zoroastro’s magic potion in Act III, we are shown Orlando being strapped down and given electric shock treatment, something that never worked and is one of the less illustrious chapters in the history of medicine. However, you go to an opera to hear the music and this does not disappoint.

As the flighty Angelica, Rebecca Evans was absolutely outstanding, with many thrilling top notes and a brilliant tone. Her acting was very amusing; she managed to light a cigarette during a mournful aria, regretting that she cannot love Orlando, because love is not a choice. As faithful and deserving Dorinda, dainty Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn was delightful, her voice pure and bright, her phrasing exquisite. In Act 2 she has an aria of lament and regret, sung to the nightingale, whose song the strings imitate, and this was performed with great poignancy.

The reason Handel’s operas were neglected for two centuries is that so many of the lead roles including both Orlando and Medoro, were written for castrati. Nowadays we have trained counter-tenors to take on the roles, but the result is that, frankly, there are too many high voices in one opera. It seems odd for men to try to compete with skylarks such as Rebecca Evans and nightingales such as Fflur Wyn, instead of doing what they can naturally do better. If I were producing this opera, I would be tempted to just drop the castrati parts by an octave and get some tenors to sing both male leads. This would be anachronistic, but no more so than the present production with its RAF uniforms and pictures of Hitler and Edward VIII.

Altogether, this is a memorable production that entertains and does full justice to Handel’s wonderful, vigorous score.

Julia Gasper.



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Oxford based journalist and consultant, who writes about business, especially the global energy business including exploration. Also editor Oxfordprospect.co.uk. Writes about a variety of topics including production, power generation including renewables, innovation, investment, markets, technology, regulation, leadership, policy making and management.


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