Review – Orlando, Scottish Opera

Aha, my review of Orlando has now gone up at the Opera Britannia website. Rather late in the day, but I gather they have recruited someone new to get the reviews up much quicker in the future.

Here is what I said:

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Scottish Opera – Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 14 February 2011

Scottish Opera’s Orlando is a vehicle for some fine virtuoso singing but the evening never amounts to anything greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, though some of those parts are a delight, others fall short of expectations leading to something of a mixed bag.

Harry Fehr has chosen to update the setting of the piece to 1940s London. A young airman (Orlando) lies in a London hospital battered by both love and war. Seeking to heal him is his psychiatrist Zoroastro. Around him are his nurse Dorinda, a love struck American socialite Angelica and the object of her affections, Medoro, one of the other patients. Generally speaking, this time-shift works reasonably well. It does bring some coherence to a work which might well puzzle us had the original setting been maintained.

The piece opens with Zoroastro (Andreas Wolf) examining his young RAF patient. Instead of reading his future in the stars, Zoroastro examines pages of printouts from a machine which has been taking readings from Orlando’s damaged brain. Medical charts replace calculations drawn from the zodiac. Wolf’s Zoroastro did warm up through the evening. However, he never owned the stage and his opening declamatory arias need a good deal more strength behind them. As he sang of the various battles in Orlando’s brain between love and valour, it seemed for a while as though he was going to lose the battle with the orchestra. He did, however, come into his own later on and though never quite precise enough with Handel’s relentless scales had a resonant and warm voice that seemed to resonate more the longer we listened.

Two very fine performances came from the female leads. Claire Booth’s Dorinda brought an agonising intensity to the put-upon nurse who was never destined to find the love she craved. This was a nurse who blustered about wearing her heart on her sleeve leaving us in no doubt at all about the emotions that she was feeling. This was the finest acting of the evening and came with a glorious voice utterly uninhibited by the intricacies of the score. Her talent was matched by the equally good  Sally Silver as Angelica. The score gives Angelica the greatest glories when it comes to the high notes, but in truth there was nothing to choose between these performances – both delightful, clear and completely committed.

Andrew Radley gave good support as Medoro. His duets with Ms Silver provided the most touching moments of the evening. His character seems the least complex of the proceedings. It’s a busy plot in which nothing much seems to happen, yet happens frantically. Although there is little happiness to be found in the story, Medoro does at least get the girl and Radley’s affectionate singing often managed to insert a gentleness amongst the otherwise hectic business around him.

But what of our hero? Tim Mead’s Orlando was simply dazzling. Looking every inch the flying ace, his voice was astounding from its first notes right through to the close. This kind of opera can seem strange to many contemporary audiences. Though the characters are battling on stage for one another’s hearts, the truth is they are battling in a competition of virtuoso voices for our own. There can have been few present whose hearts did not beat a little faster at the sight and sound of Mead. Much is expected from an Orlando. Much was delivered by Mead. The clear articulation of the complex running passages, particularly in his mad scenes, never took over from the sheer beauty of his voice. The paradox of those scenes is of course, that the more out of control Orlando’s mind becomes, the greater the control over breath and diction that the performer needs. Mead made this seem effortless; an extraordinary achievement well worth the generous appreciation of the crowd.

So, with some glorious singing on the stage, what was not to like? Things were mostly under control in the pit. A sparkling overture had wonderfully crisp dynamics and things began well. However the orchestra, unlike the singers, did seem to get more weary the more the evening progressed. By the third act there were some obvious problems with tuning amongst the strings.

Stage direction was again mixed. The hospital scenes were enhanced by the presence of half a dozen actors who filled out what would otherwise have been a rather sparsely populated place. One puzzling scene occurred early on when Medoro shuffled out of the hospital ward with a leg injury only to seem to return a few moments later with his arm in a sling and a bandage around his head. In fact it soon became apparent that this was in fact one of the non-singing actors playing a bit part. However the fact that he came on in identical pyjamas and wearing a similar moustache made one briefly wonder whether the hospital had invented a new cure for a gammy leg by snatching Medoro’s walking stick in the corridor and beating him about the head with it.

The hospital setting was finely achieved by Yannis Thavoris’s elegant, deco designs with scene changes aided by a handy revolve. The elegant simplicity of the set was something of a contrast to the score, but none the worse for that. Sometimes simplicity is best and this was once case where that was certainly true.

However, some of the goings on around the singers were decidedly odd and point to lazy stage management. Throughout the overture there was a smell of dry ice in the theatre and all through the first and second acts wisps of smoke seemed to keep appearing at random from the left of the stage. In fact the smoke was not needed until a fire scene in Act III and was a distraction that no-one needed. Coming and goings could be seen in the wings, even from a good seat in the stalls.

In addition to this there was the puzzling behaviour of a certain tree which was sometimes visible through the double doors of the hospital’s lobby and sometimes not there at all. Even more curiously, at one point the double doors swung open to reveal the tree shimmying into position and then lurching with a quiver to a halt. This kind of carelessness was distracting and took the eye away from an otherwise excellent design.

There has been a lot of video used in Scottish Opera productions recently – sometimes to great effect. Its use in Orlando was a little less inspiring than some of the efforts we have seen (notably in Mr Broucek last year). Back projecting onto the hospital ward’s frosted windows was a good idea. Using the video to provide us with a commentary of what was going on in Orlando’s mind was not a bad idea either. However, the images were simply too repetitive. When he was worrying about love we saw a glittering ring. When he worried about Medoro’s success with Angelica we saw a register signed with their names. Over and over we saw the same things. There should either have been a lot less going on using the projectors or a lot more. It would have been much more creative to use the video work to give some hints of the back story and let us know how Orlando came to be there at all.

The plot, after all, is unsatisfying. The deeply troubled Orlando is simply cured by Zoroastro’s magic at the end. Whether that device is accomplished by the wave of a Magus’s wand or by the ECT therapy that we saw on stage in this production, we come away having learned little about the characters and even less about ourselves.

Overall the evening was satisfying enough and indeed occasionally astounding. However the fact remains that this was a three star show which offered some of its artists the opportunity to show off their five star singing.

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