Haymarket Opera Company 2021 Review: Orlando
Fifteen years ago, I had just enrolled in the second year of university in economics. I worked in the small contemporary art gallery and enjoyed the daily communication with living artists, the interpretations, the ideation and all that my 18 year old brain could bring to the visual arts. And for five long years, I was absolutely sure that I was doing a great job and no matter how much I loved art history, I thought this type of work was the most important because the appeal of people to modern art was really difficult and an essential direction of the local art scene.
And so, five years later, I got my first contract with a museum. It was only then that I began to understand the infrastructure of art, industry and how it should serve the arts. Besides inspiration and brilliant ideas, there was always something that came before. And while some pieces live on, never lose their relevance, others remain in the shadows, and many are constantly being redesigned and redesigned. But who decides their fate?
What is a good museum? The most obvious answer is a collection. You won’t compare the collection in the Met Museum or the Louvre to the museum in my hometown. And yet there is one more important thing: curation.
The way we see the masterpieces of the past when their creators passed away centuries ago is largely not our own. We read the texts, we see the light, and we think about it. And yet there are always more people than just a spectator and creator, there is a voice that tells us what to notice and how to approach the work – the voice of the curator.
And that’s what happens in opera, no less than in the visual arts. And the most common approach curators take to old masterpieces is to make them relevant. Rethink, rethink. Opera companies here are closer to galleries hosting exhibitions, where some productions become true masterpieces, others fade away after years or months. But few give an idea of the source.
Opera as a museum
When Haymarket Company announced that it would release Handel’s “Orlando” in three parts, many began to analyze this modern approach (linked to COVID). Is it too difficult to manage three hours of Handel? Is it a marketing strategy? After a year of direct communication with a company, knowing their approach and their sense of responsibility, I thought they had a better reason. What was their “Orlando” talking about?
“Knight warrior Orlando is madly in love with Angelica,” the company said. I couldn’t help but think about the warrior-countertenor and how the common perception of that voice has changed over the centuries.
The hero with the voice of a silk countertenor is part of the taste of the time and the aesthetic of the late Baroque, already outdated, almost eclipsing in many arts in Handel’s time but still alive and popular in music. The music that was meant to be divine and abstract, and all that was natural in it, felt like something trivial, devoid of artistic qualities. How far it is from our understanding. And how hard would it be to fit that into the big picture (update) of the director’s vision? And what can make us believe and feel what people did almost 300 years ago?
The lyrical source is beautiful indeed, but do we keep Handel in “Orlando” sane and unless we change the approach, the perspective, the vision? Should we modernize “Orlando”?
I have heard “Opera is not a museum” so many times and yet, I’m sure it should be. Not always, but in some cases yes. There are many pieces that have not been heard because they have been written for centuries. And if one has the knowledge, passion and responsibility to bring back not only the original sound, but also the original vision, we should only praise it.
Let’s not think about conservation. Haymarket is a company that used many practical innovations from the start of the pandemic. And the company approached “Orlando” with great preparation and confidence. If you look at the production team, besides the CEO of Haymarket and the Music Director, all of the professionals behind the production are technicians. Specialists who do not aim to preserve but to present the piece to the public as vividly and brilliantly as it was created.
A good curation is when the author has passed away a long time ago and the goal is to bring his initial vision to life. It begins with a list of aspects of the work that were important to the creator.
In “Orlando” it would be a vocal part – starting with a strong but sensual protagonist, who has to develop a complicated emotional character arc. Star countertenor Bejun Mehta is definitely a good choice for the lead role. His voice is powerful and supple, having all the characteristics of bel canto, remaining well above the usual range. The youthfulness and sweetness of her voice is then naturally developed into a wider range and soon filled with fiery anger. So opposite and so believable.
Then comes a bouquet of feminine voices, different but perfectly harmonious. Erica Schuller was a sweet abandoned Dorinda, bringing the best of her truly sad parts. Kimberly Jones’ nimble instrument was another princess gem like Angelica. Meanwhile, mezzo Emily Fons, with her rich and expressive voice, was a beautiful embodiment of Medoro, the androgynous presence in Handel’s opera. Each of them easily amplified and emphasized the vocal presence of any other character on stage.
And let’s not forget the “voice of reason”, even through the “modernity” of its timbre, speaking to the rest of the characters as out of time. David Govertsen with his rich and heavy baritone-bass, was a necessary anchor of the emotional staging.
The next element is the reading of the score and the orchestra. Craig Trompeter’s old sheet music readings still sound so natural that I often wonder if he is ignoring all the rules and regulations or if he is simply forgetting his ego, giving in to the flow of music. The orchestra follows it just as naturally and effortlessly; which in fact means incredible passionate passions and dramatic instrumental climaxes.
The third is aesthetics. As with previous screen productions, the setting for “Orlando” is the original work of Chicago artist Zuleyka V. Benitez. All paintings were created especially for the show and inspired by the panels of the historic Baroque theater, allowing you to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Handel’s theater. Meanwhile, the subjects of the paintings follow the story literally without lofty, abstract metaphors that reinforce the storyline and its epic mythology. Designer Stephanie Cluggish created laconic period costumes, which made the characters visible and stood out from the epic canvases.
And the last element of a good curation is more modern and dictated by the circumstances: time to watch. And here I am assuming the business hypothesis has been found to be 100% true. For “Orlando” you need time to dig. These days we don’t go to fancy venues, we don’t put on our most exclusive clothes, we don’t shine. But do you think many of us would find three hours to sit and watch without a break? No. And even fewer would know when to take a break.
This is why three prongs dictated by the company as a curator work so well. In addition, the release schedule – once a week – gave enough time to think, review, enjoy the performance afterwards in silence. All of these feelings allowed a build up and need to clean them up and see the beauty of the eternal patterns. Because being just one form – high-pitched voices and gold-clad harmony – “Orlando” would never have survived the centuries. It’s so much more and with a low-key, low-key curation from Chase Hopkins, you can make the most of it.
I think you could easily put this production of “Orlando” in an empty room and it couldn’t be left empty. It would be full of beauty, sound, life and a vision of George Frideric Händel.