Orlando, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, September 2015Posted on 28 September 2015
In Ariosto’s early sixteenth century epic poem Orlando Furioso (Frenzied Roland) that forms the basis for this opera, Orlando was one of the foremost warriors in Charlemagne’s court. Torn between his love for Angelica and his duty to go to war he has a nervous breakdown. In the meantime Angelica’s love has turned to the wounded Medoro, healed under the care of Dorinda, who has fallen in love with him.
Adapting this story from 800 AD to something more modern, director Harry Fehr has very sensibly set it in the Second World War with Orlando as an RAF fighter pilot. Experienced pilots were to be treasured and helped, and the magus Zoroastro who helps Orlando recover, while keeping the emotional rollercoaster in check, has been transformed into the senior trick cyclist in a WW2 psychiatric unit (as psychiatrists were known in those troubled times). His study of stars and constellations has been converted to medically scientific matters, and this excellent production, with its wonderful central design by Yannis Thavoris that turns through 180˚ to enable scene changes, is a revelation.
It does full justice to one of Handel’s most fascinating and unusual operas, well conducted here by Rinaldo Alessandrini with marvellous singing from the cast of five principals. Daniel Grice in the bass role of Zoroastro made a commandingly stylish psychiatrist with fine vocal embellishments, well served by supernumeraries who convincingly played his assistants, along with Fflur Wyn as beautifully-voiced Dorinda, here a hospital nurse rather than a shepherdess. Her successful rival for the finely sung Medoro of counter-tenor Robin Blaze was expressed by the lovely voice of Rebecca Evans as Angelica, and these two lovers along with Dorinda produced a superb blending of voices for the trio at the end of Act I.
The subtle warmth of Anna Watson’s lighting at this point was repeated at the start of the second Act when Fflur Wyn’s Dorinda sat by the window delivering a lovely soliloquy in her song of the nightingale. The production beautifully juxtaposed tranquillity and healing along with human anxiety and the strongly wayward emotions of Orlando, whose frenzied thoughts occasionally appeared on video projections. His representation by counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo was outstanding, brilliantly acted with excellent masculine anxiety and fine vocal attack. This role, originally written for an alto castrato, well suits Zazzo’s theatrical and vocal gifts, and this opera’s emotional complexity is brilliantly served by Fehr’s wonderful production, originally created for Scottish Opera.
Performances continue at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 3, 7 Oct; Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 14 Oct; The Bristol Hippodrome, 21 Oct; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 28 Oct; New Theatre Oxford, 4 Nov; Birmingham Hippodrome, 18 Nov.