From Achilles to Zidane, there are few things more poignant than a hero's fall from grace. Such is the subject of Handel's 1733 opera Orlando, the tale of a knight driven mad by love, or, in Netia Jones's sometimes moving, often baffling modern-dress production for the Early Opera Company, a lager lout who loses his temper. Setting aside the inexplicable presence of a tanning machine and a fibreglass Friesian on stage, and a general over-reliance on computer imagery, Jones's production has some touching moments. Unfortunately, none of these are concerned with the eponymous hero's loss of reason, for Jones's sympathies lie with Dorinda (Amy Freston), an innocent shepherdess in love with the wrong man, and Medoro (James Laing), an innocent princeling in love with the wrong woman.
Jones is not alone in feeling for Dorinda and Medoro - Handel gave them several of the most lovely arias in the opera, and two thirds of the ravishing Act I trio - but Orlando would be a good deal more effective had she given similar thought to its less likeable characters. Instead, Angelica (Claire Booth) is a bi-curious vamp with Lana Turner hair, spike heels, a shrink-wrapped skirt-suit, and drag artiste hand gestures, Zoroastro (Dean Robinson) is a blank-faced boffin, and Orlando (William Purefoy) a computer game-addicted, lager-swilling drunk whose moods lurch clumsily from sentimentality and self-pity to aggression. So far has this knight sunk from his former heroism by the first scene that his eventual mental collapse has little impact. It is not a question of "if" he will go mad, but "when", and when he does, in one of Handel's most innovative accompanied recitatives, it is expressed in a diffident little dance while a digitised death-match takes place on the screen behind him.
For all the oddities and inconsistencies of Jones's staging - and regardless of the setting, Orlando, Angelica and Zoroastro have to be more than mad, bad, and dangerous to know for the drama to be properly tragic - it was good to hear the opera sung in English, with a tiny period instruments orchestra, in the intimate setting of Wilton's Music Hall. If Freston's sweet, shimmering, beautifully mobile, technically faultless soprano and Laing's serene countertenor stole the show, it was still a pleasure to hear the title role sung in Purefoy's firm, flexible falsetto. Robinson had little to do but deliver Zoroastro's didactic arias in fulsome voice, and this he did. And though I worried about Booth's compressed vibrato, she is a charismatic and confident performer. Directing from the harpsichord, which he also played superbly, Christian Curnyn delivered one too many Christie-esque rallentendi but painted some delicate and unusual colours in the exquisite orchestral recitatives. The Early Opera Company is certainly stylish. All it needs now is some substance.
Speaking of substance, know the feeling when you hear a work for the first time, can't imagine how you'd lived so long without hearing it, and can't wait to hear it again? That was the feeling I had at the London Sinfonietta's Late Night Prom of Hans Werner Henze's rarely-performed 1973 song-cycle Voices: a work so imaginative in its instrumentation, so clever in its choice and setting of the 22 poems, and so funny, cruel, bitter, shocking, smart and sorrowful in its portrayal of the human condition that it is hard to believe it has not become required listening.
Yes, there are some harsh sounds (the urban inferno of "The Electric Cop"), some demanding sounds ("Screams"), some that are truly nightmarish (the dragging chains and laboured sighs of "The Leg-Irons"). But the beauty of the beautiful sounds ("Das Blumenfest") is overwhelming.
Scored for mezzo-soprano (Mary King), tenor (Christopher Gillett), and an ensemble of 15 versatile players held together by Oliver Knussen, Voices uses 80 "instruments" - including strings, woodwind, piano, steel band, accordion, chains, a dizzying panoply of tuned and non-tuned percussion, brass (played in the usual way, and breathed through in imitation of troubled sleepers), mandolin, ocarina, recorded sound (here a speech by George Bush), and balloons (burst like gunshots) - to illustrate verse by Brecht, Ho Chi Minh, Erich Fried, Heine, Mario Tabino, African-American poet Victor Hernandez Cruz, and others on the subject of personal and political resistance.
As a poetry collection, Voices would be strong. As a song-cycle, with musical influences ranging from the brittle cabaret of Weimar, to calypso, mambo, sprechstimme, and late Romantic art-song, it is devastating: a model of using music to convey verse, rather than using verse as an excuse for a nice tune. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what the Florentine Camerata laid out as the purpose of songwriting back in 1600.
After despairing of the Proms programming only three days earlier - at the National Youth Choir of Scotland's beautifully sung performance of a nonetheless inexcusable rag-bag of Bernstein, Poulenc, Hovhaness, Musgrave and Orlando Gough (Prom 20) - this extraordinary 80th birthday tribute to Henze restored my faith in the festival. Voices finished at 11.45pm, with but a handful of exhausted and ecstatic listeners still there. We were the lucky ones.Reuse content