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Mr. Furioso from Zurich on DVD

available at Amazon
Handel, Orlando, La Scintilla / Christie / Mijanović, Janková, Peetz, Clark, Wolff

(released on September 30th, 2008)
For being among the most interesting (others might even say: “among the few great”) Handel Operas, there are surprisingly few options for listening to Orlando (an inadequate, heavily cut 1963 live recording with Janet Baker, Christie’s on Erato with Patricia Bardon, and Hogwood’s on L’oiseau-Lyre [oop] with James Bowman), and none to watch it until now, that Arthaus brings us the 2007 Zurich production of Jens-Daniel Herzog under the baton of William Christie. And what a production and performance it is!

The period instrument orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, “La Scintilla”, races through the opera at a clip a good deal brisker than William Christie does on his recording with Les Arts Florissants. Lean but with ample sound, this is largely to the benefit of the music and the listener, because the tempos are bracing and the opera is done with in just over 2 ½ hours, without (m)any cuts.

The singing is very fine, too – although the acting is better, still. As on his Erato recording, Christie uses an alto, not a counter tenor, for the lead role of Orlando. With Marijana Mijanović he picked one who can not only portray the part realistically, visually, she also sounds rather like a good countertenor: an ineffectual middle, but a wonderful bottom. (Not that I’d usually describe a woman in those terms.)

Martina Janková as Angelica is a tremendous actress and she owns the stage even with little gestures. Her voice is more something to get used to: pretty in principle, but with a questionable vibrato that reminds me of Erika Koeth. If this were an audio-only recording, it might strike a pair of picky ears as borderline annoying. As it is, it’s simply part of her character.

The imposing presence of Konstantin Wolff’s Zoroastro (achieved by a mix of stature, looks, acting, and a solid, though not overwhelming or dominating, voice), the clear and lovely Dorinda of Christina Clark, and the pleasantly inconspicuous Katharina Peetz as Medoro round out this fine cast, excellent actors all of them.

For all its considerable musical qualities, the star of this Orlando might be the production of director Jens-Daniel Herzog and the gorgeous sets and costumes of Mathis Neidhardt. The story, carefully updated to an early 20th century-, Great War-setting with slight touches of the American 1920s, takes place in a sanatorium for anti-heroes and burn-out victims that Herzog describes in the incisive liner notes as exuding an air of “Magic Mountain”. It does, with the weary and exhausted, love-sick Orlando arriving to recover and leaving after a “One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest” style surgery (lobotomy?) that turns him back into a proper warrior and fighting machine. That transformation is depicted by a magnificent, poignant costume change, Orlando stepping out from behind the surgical curtain in full military, Napoleonesque regalia.

The attention to detail and realism in the direction of the singers/actors (check out Dorinda slapping Angelica a bloody nose, for example) is as impressive as the stage itself. The slightly tattered golden and brown hues of the sumptuous set make for a baroque warmth. The movable walls and rooms (so solid, they don’t look movable or temporary at all) create countless spaces, rooms, hallways, angles: a labyrinth that evokes The Shining on more than one occasion. The direction takes another cue from that film in the opening of the mad scene when Orlando stands in a door, brightly back-lit, hair messy, a raving grin on his (her) face and an axe in hand.

In updating Orlando, Herzog doesn’t re-structure the opera, but leaves all the baroque elements in place – except in a guise that viewers can relate to while at the same time having the proper distance from it for such a story to seem authentic. Even the baroque happy end, the lieto fine, is there – without veil of irony or the common ‘mockery dodge’ applied when directors feel embarrassed of the material they work with. The whole thing is good on the ears, a feast for the eyes, and feels true to Handel at his most innovative throughout.

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