Orlando, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

Opera-goers know to suspend their disbelief while taking off their coats.

But, in Scottish Opera's new production of Handel's Orlando, director Harry Fehr pushes too far the audience's willingness to believe what is in front of their eyes. His elaborate concept threatens to overpower the music but, in the end, the singers pulled it back.

In the original Orlando, a mighty warrior in Charlemagne's army is torn between his love for the exotic queen Angelica and his desire to return to battle. He descends into madness before Zoroastro, a magician, cures him. Fehr moves the action from the late 700s to 1945, and puts the cast in a mental hospital. Orlando and Medoro, his love rival, were written for castratos and are often, in contemporary productions, sung by mezzo-sopranos. Fehr casts counter-tenors. Orlando becomes a high-voiced RAF pilot, Angelica a worldly American socialite. The magician is a senior psychiatrist with newfangled knobs and dials.

The idea has a precedent: in 2006 Zurich Opera set Orlando in the First World War. But, here, the concept fights against the simple pleasure of the luscious music. The heart of the story, the heroic Orlando's internal battle between love and war, gets lost.

It wasn't the cast's fault that their arias were full of swords, trusty steeds and the desire to return to their pastoral idylls. Claire Booth was a scene-stealing Dorinda, adorable in her swishing navy cape, the most animated actress in a piece which demands much more than standing still and delivering set-pieces.

Tim Mead, making his Scottish Opera debut, produced a technically impressive performance of this terrifyingly difficult role, delivering tender arias while prone on a hospital trolley, cleverly underplaying the notoriously demanding, tempo-changing "mad scene" at the end of Act Two, while projections showing his mental disintegration flashed on a screen behind him. Scottish Opera favourite Sarah Silver's spoilt socialite was shorter on charm, although, in the sweet trio that concluded Act One, she delivered the most memorable notes of the night.

With a cast and orchestra like this the fussy set, tricksy back-projections, and concept that bought its own plot-holes were distracting and unnecessary.

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 529 6000) 3 and 5 March

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