The New York City Opera’s new production of Orlando is the company’s tenth of a Handel opera—only 32 more to go. Each time one of these remarkable pieces reenters the repertory and audiences respond with such pleasure, I have to pause and wonder: Why this sudden demand for Baroque opera? It’s a type of music theater that only a short time ago was considered incompatible with contemporary tastes, a body of work written off as dead, buried, and irretrievable.
Well, for one thing the standard repertory desperately needs to be refreshed—new operas are scarce and come with no guarantees of success—and Handel has plenty to offer. After all, he never lost his standing as a major composer, and his operas are crammed with great music, readily assimilated and waiting to be rediscovered. Then, too, the stylized conventions of Baroque opera—the mythical plots, formal musical constructions, ritualized dramatic action, departmentalization of sentiment—actually lend themselves to a surprising variety of valid theatrical approaches. There’s really just one way to do Puccini’s Tosca, which depends entirely on how powerfully the cast can act out its melodramatic plot. But a typical Handel opera, simply by its abstract nature, has a flexibility that singers and directors can play with creatively in order to reach the piece’s emotional center. None of the City Opera’s Handel revivals has looked the same, and, so far at least, each director has found a different way to discover and communicate the spirit of the work.
This Orlando, a production first seen at Glimmerglass in the summer of 2003, is no exception. The characters come from Ariosto’s famous epic poem in which the legendary warrior knight Orlando is driven mad by unrequited love for Angelica. That’s the basic premise as the five principals pursue each other through a lush, enchanted forest, but director Chas Rader-Shieber and set designer David Zinn take off from there with leaps of the imagination that are always daring and often breathtaking. This storybook forest is painted on flats that fracture, tilt, and go crazy when Orlando’s world collapses. The illusion of human health and stability is challenged further by showing soldiers pierced by Cupid’s arrows lying onstage in hospital beds and tended to by the nurturing shepherdess Dorinda. Orlando’s wise mentor, the magician Zoroastro, makes his sudden appearances through doors and traps that give us momentary glimpses of his ordered but visionary world, while his chaotic opposite number, the child Amor, capers wildly all over the stage creating as much mischief as he can. Throughout it all we never lose sight of the characters themselves as they continue on their journey to self-discovery.
Another explanation for the present Handel boom is the availability of so many singers equipped to deal with his virtuoso vocal demands, countertenors in particular. Bejun Mehta sings the title role, and he is a riveting presence, not only as a singer of unusual technical polish and expressive eloquence, but also as an actor completely possessed by Orlando’s dilemma. Matthew White may have less spectacular music to sing as Medoro, but his quieter vocal persona has no less poise or authority, while Jennifer Aylmer’s sweet Dorinda and Amy Burton’s majestic Angelica are just about perfect. Add David Pittsinger’s commanding bass as Zoroastro and young Christopher Gomez’s puckish prancing as Amor, all responding eagerly to Antony Walker’s firm musical direction, and one wonders if Handel himself had ever seen his opera in a more compelling production.