Orlando, Royal Opera House, London
Death by symbols
Wednesday 08 October 2003
Love makes the world go round - or so the old adage tells us - but did Francisco Negrin, director of the Royal Opera's rather tiresome staging of Handel's Orlando, have to put quite such a spin on it? For the greater part of the opera, his protagonists pursue each other in ever-decreasing circles around an overworked revolve, hurling themselves through one door after another, and from one intrigue to the next. As a metaphor for aimlessness, it's certainly graphic. Eros, the god of love, is seen manually assisting the revolve at one point as if it were some kind of roulette wheel. Would that he had run out of arrows before Negrin ran out of ideas.
The real problem with this show is overkill. Too many symbols, too much business. And the ideas may be sound in theory but they are messy in practice. Anthony Baker's designs, for instance, are poorly finished. They look as though they've been on a lengthy tour before arriving at Covent Garden. And since the central visual metaphor of this production is one of systematic disintegration, then surely they must be pristine to begin with?
Again, it's a case of the idea being better than the execution. Orlando - a warrior knight - chooses love over glory and pays the price for his folly. As his passion grows, so his reason diminishes. The love that finds seclusion in Arcadia gradually breaks down. So Baker's images of Arcadia - a series of fanciful wall-paintings set within the context of a grand 18th-century mansion - are slowly violated, stripped away. But are they beautiful enough to begin with? I think not.
And it's one thing suggesting the descent into chaos on a stage and quite another creating it. There are moments here where you can't see the wood for the trees, or the trees, in this case, for a forest of lances. Like I say, too many symbols. When it's really simple, it's really strong. Orlando's "mad scene" at the close of Act II is played out in a mirrored room daubed with the names of his unfaithful lover and her new infatuation. The idea that Orlando bears witness to his own disintegration is a powerful one. But by then we are exhausted from too much visual information.
Orlando has never before been staged at Covent Garden. Astounding, you may think. But seeing and hearing (or, sometimes, not hearing) this cast grappling with the fearsome technical demands of the piece, maybe there's a reason. Where do you find the singers for it? On paper, this cast looked like the answer. But without exception they were all over-parted in a house this size. Alice Coote is a singer I much admire and she looked amazing - the set of the jaw, the deportment, the physical attitude, all spoke of man not woman. But for all the refinement and beauty of her singing - the pale, ethereal shading of her ravishing final-act lament was daring, to say the least - I doubt whether the performance carried much beyond the stalls. The heroic numbers all lacked weight in the coloratura, particularly where Handel places the pyrotechnics low in the voice.
The Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling (Dorinda) was similarly challenged in her bucolic set-piece in Act III. They don't come much more difficult than this, and she deserved her ovation - she dazzled. Which Barbara Bonney (Angelica), on this occasion, did not. The voluptuous flutter and silvery top to the voice was still there sporadically, but intonation was shocking in her first aria, and she only came into her own much too late in the evening.
The hot young counter-tenor of the moment - Bejun Mehta - sang her young seducer Medoro with masculine tone and some style, and the much-hyped Jonathan Lemalu (Zoroastro) almost persuaded me that basses can be both authoritative and agile. But while Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment tickled our senses, Negrin assaulted them.
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