Despite the period setting not quite working, and a truly terrible ending (it was written in the 18th century, for a different time), the Welsh National Opera’s production of Orlando flows and frequently flies from start to finish.
Opera Seria may translate directly as Serious Opera, but it’s hard to imagine Opera as funny, particularly with how melodramatic it may get – and good God does Orlando go for melodrama! Telling the story of war hero Orlando’s fall into mental illness, madness, and delusion after his recovery from the very physical wounds of war. Every element of the story is comparatively small, played to the biggest possible extent – billowing out of all proportion with superbly entrancing music to back it up.
Orlando (Lawrence Zazzo) has recovered from his wounds at war (in this production obtained in World War II) thanks to the work of Zoroastro (Daniel Grive), a doctor/magician/philosopher. Zoroastro wants Orlando the war hero to get straight back to the fight and abandon love, but Orlando is too madly besotten with Angelica (Rebecca Evans). Angelica however, no longer loves Orlando, but loves Medoro (Robin Blaze), another injured soldier, who she has cared for, and loves. Yet Medoro was quite the player whilst lying in that hospital bed, for the nurse Dorinda (Fflur Wyn) has also become unstuck with her depth of feeling for Medoro. This quadrangle of lovesick mortals will collapse as Medoro and Angelica plot to run away together and their secret affair comes to light, driving Orlando into a jealous, and heartbroken insanity.
Yes it’s completely ridiculous. Coronation Street and Eastenders are Soap OPERAS, not Soap Shakespeare. But there’s something so powerful about the idea of love as both restorative and corrupting, and that all those afflicted with it can be in turn pathetic and cruel. When Evans’ Angelica first arrives onstage, she feels like a breath of fresh air, a happy and powerful character who will soon be free. Yet as the music moves along, she becomes more and more cruel and manipulative, and Evans makes her completely watchable throughout. Her sadness at leaving her home (here a hospital) to flee with her lover is palpable, yet the highlight of her performance are the tiny notes of comedy she sprinkles over the role, letting Angelica come to life. Her lover Medoro meanwhile, is played with confidence by Blaze, although how Dorinda comes to describe him as “young and handsome and strong” isn’t quite clear – Blaze’s Medoro is not that man. In fact he’s also a bit of a sap, carelessly cruel in his treatment of Dorinda.
Dorinda meanwhile, played by Wyn, gets the worst treatment of the opera’s story. When she practically disappears in the second and third acts however it’s a real shame, because her character’s pain at being madly in love, yet to not have it reciprocated, is so real and potently communicated by Wyn. If she was silent, you could still hear her screams; she sings like a true star. Where Evans’ Angelica has one of the deepest voices of the troop, Wyn’s floats on the high notes as Dorinda is enveloped in depression. Similarly Zazzo’s Orlando, taking on a part that was first played by a Castrato, has a powerful yet unfathomably high-pitch for a man famed to be the greatest warrior of them all. His descent into madness is captivating, yet also slightly hard to comprehend. If you spend half the show flitting back and forth from surtitles to stage to understand the Italian songs, you can easily miss how the manic musical style of Handel and the performances themselves all spell it out.
Director Harry Fehr makes an interesting choice to set this production in the height of the London Blitz, in a London hospital, yet it’s not used to the best capacity. One token reference to bombing raids at the close of Act two is the only time it seems that the setting relates to the onstage events. The characters are drawn straight out of Ancient Rome, with all the references to Pluto and Hercules. One wonders what the show could have looked like had it been set not in wartime London, but wartime Berlin. The heightened drama seems an ill fit to British sensibilities. This is a shame, because the actual staging of Orlando is near-flawless – opening in an operating theatre which seems to be unnecessarily small given the hugeness of the Mayflower, the back wall rotates and is set at different angles for different rooms. The most memorable use sees the wall spin whilst Angelica exits and enters through the door set in its centre. However, the most emotional comes when it stops side on to the audience, so Dorinda can stand and sing out a window, framed in her perpetual isolation, the only one visible.
If it weren’t for the preposterous and drama-destroying deus ex machina of an ending, this story alone could make Orlando utterly unmissable. Even that huge disappointment on board can’t sink this excellent production.
The Welsh National Opera continues their tour of Orlando with performances in Llandudno, Oxford and Birmingham. You can find more details here.