"laced with subtle comedic moments and tasty dramatic turns"
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NIGHT TWO: a review of Cantanti PROJECT’s production of Handel's Orlando
March 7, 2017 - Jeremy Hirsch, critic for The Entertainment Hour
Nothing gladdens our heart more than seeing a "Sold Out" sign at the opera. No, opera is not dying in NYC, but it is taking new forms. Last night we were privileged to join Cantanti Project's production of Handel's Orlando. The libretto for this opera was adapted from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, an epic poem that provided Handel with material for two other operas, Alcina and Ariodante, all marked by complicated plots. Orlando is a fellow who just can't stay out of trouble.
Director Brittany Goodwin thought seriously about the silly plot and came up with an interpretation that worked just fine. Obviously a lot of teamwork went into this tight ensemble piece and it worked well. With astute understanding that this tale is one of delusion and obsession, she has placed the action in the psychiatric ward of a mental hospital with the magician Zoroastro transformed into a psychiatrist. We are not sure whether the creative team was aware of the 2007 Zurich production which was also set in a mental ward following the first World War. Making sense of all the love triangles would challenge an expert in geometry.
The contemporary aspect of the tragic aftermath of combat added to the value of the interpretation. The long history of the joys and pains of loving and losing love, the jealousy, the rejection, the lies and betrayals have all been fodder for the theater since its birth. PTSD would make a person more than usually vulnerable to all that. Truth to tell, this concept would probably not have been welcomed at The Metropolitan Opera. Every time we have seen a director's imagination run wild on a Handel work, we have been unhappy, since the dialogue generally seemed to have been shoehorned into the setting.
But Ms. Goodwin's concept worked well on the small stage at the National Opera Center and a number of creative choices by Set Designer Johanna Asgeirsdottir added to the success. The opening scene takes place with poor Orlando lying on a stretcher requiring sedation from the medical staff. A cabinet of pharmaceuticals was there to make things plain.
More action takes place in the art therapy room where there is an easel and paints and a scroll of paper on which trees and carvings could be drawn. There are three other patients who portray the characters troubling Orlando's mind--Dorinda the shepherdess whose wrist-cutting scars have been covered up by sock puppets, Angelica the Princess of Cathay who sports a crown apparently made from drinking straws, and her lover Medoro.
The fact that all the parts were sung by women put the work in a different light, so to speak. Pronouns in the score occasionally underwent a gender switch. The psychiatrist (Zoroastro) is a role generally sung by a bass but Kirsti Esch's mezzo (to our ears, a contralto) managed the low tessitura just fine but exhibited enough flexibility for the fioritura. Her "Sorge infausta una procella" was a highlight of the evening as she restored Orlando to sanity.
Orlando's femininity in the person of the beautiful mezzo Kimberly Hann was no problem since female military personnel can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder just as badly as men. Ms. Hahn was as impressive vocally as she was dramatically; she managed to generate sympathy for her distress as she interacted with Angelica who rejected her for the Prince Medoro. We loved her "Fammi combattere", in which she tries to convince Angelica of her love.
The role of Angelica was beautifully sung by soprano Marisa Karchin with impressively bright tone and facility with the embellishments. In "Se fedel vuoi ch’io ti creda" she convincingly pretends to be jealous of Orlando's interest in Isabella, a character he has rescued but who doesn't appear.
As Dorinda, we heard soprano Joyce Yin herself. (She, along with Laura Mitchell and Sam Fujii, founded Cantanti Project three years ago.) Her character gets a lot of gorgeous arias, our favorite of which was the arioso "Quando spieghi tuoi tormenti" in which she bids farewell to her sylvan home, including the nightingales, like which she sounded. She also has a number of humorous bits such as covering her ears when the orchestra tunes up.
Dorinda is in love with Medoro who is (of course) in love with Angelica. The role of Medoro was sung by Allison Gish and not as a pants role. In this version, there is lots of lesbian love in the psych ward! Medoro gets some great arias as well, our favorite of which was "Verdi allori".
Another highlight of the vocal score was the trio in which the lovers Angelica and Medoro try to console Dorinda, "Consolati o bella". One is reminded of the gorgeous blending of three female voices in the finale of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.
As far as the instrumental score, Maestro Dylan Sauerwald led his musicians in a spirited reading of the gorgeous score which seems to have been judiciously cut. From the harpsichord he conducted the Dorian Baroque Orchestra, comprising a string quartet for this performance. Marina Fragoulis and Edson Scheid played the violins, Edmundo Ramirez, the viola, and Margalit Cantor, the cello.
There will be one more performance on March 5th at 7:30 at Shetler Studios with some of the same excellent cast, and some other fine singers, accompanied by William Lewis at the piano. We recommend it highly, especially to those who find Handel's plots ridiculous and the performances too lengthy. This adaptation lasts but 2 1/2 hours and is high in entertainment value as well as musical value. No wonder it sold out!