Is it a good thing or a bad thing when one's mind wanders during an opera, visiting such disparate items as the recent news of Governor Rick Sanford's Argentinian dalliance to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining? I think I'm more or less happy to report that there may be at least a little method to my madness, as there are (perhaps admittedly tangential) relationships between those thoughts and images and the basic gist of Handel's opera seria Orlando. An opera which deals with unrequited love leading to eventual madness (in this case with a hatchet being swung) may sound more like a 20th century construct of someone like Berg, but the fact is Handel weaves the elements together in a suitably dramatic, yet lusciously scored, piece that, at least in its original version, added a bit of magical realism to the proceedings. If this version jettisons all of the original setting, thus making some of the characters largely incomprehensible, it offers a striking physical production and good to excellent singing and acting performances.
As he did with Ariodante and Alcina, Handel derives the germ of his plot of Orlando from an epic poem by Ariosto. In Ariosto's version Orlando is a soldier in Charlemagne's army who pines in typically unrequited fashion for Angelica, who in turn is in love with Medoro. In Handel's original conception, the entire opera is overseen in a fashion by the magician Zoroastre, whose prestidigitational propensities not only help create many fantasy tableaux in the otherwise more or less realistic proceedings, but who is able to magically coax Orlando from his madness.
In this rethought version, we get something that seems mostly be redolent of the World War I era. We initially see Orlando, as the prelude plays, having his weapon taken from him by a nurse. He later seems to be in some sort of hospital and Zoroastre is a doctor, perhaps a psychoanalyst, as he frequents a blackboard where a phrenological diagram is sketched in chalk. Orlando is an interesting piece, and one with a surprisingly modern bent, in part due to its emphasis on its title character's inner life. Orlando's madness is revealed in almost Stanislavskian moments, both musically and extra-musically, in a really riveting performance by Marijana Mijanovic (as in so many Baroque operas, especially those of Handel, the leading part was originally written for a castrato, in this case the famed Senesino).
If some of this rethinking doesn't actually click, especially with shepherdess Dorinda (the exquisite Christina Clark, who gives a beautifully fluid vocal performance) being recast as a nurse, it isn't as distracting as some purists may fear. What ultimately gives Orlando its energy is, after all, the emotions its emotionally wounded soldier is undergoing, and that can certainly be transferred to any number of time periods and conflicts.
This is a well sung performance all around, with Konstantin Wolff's towering bass making the most of Zoroastre's florid arias. If Medoro (Katharine Peetz) and Angelica (Martina Jankova) are pretty much ciphers, even in the original version, interchangeable with any of a host of other starcrossed lovers in scores of operas, both of the singers give admirable and lyrical performances here, making the most of some at times fairly paltry libretto writing. The good news is Handel's music is glorious and brilliantly diverse, and is stunningly played by the Zurich Opera's Orchestra La Scintilla under the able direction of William Christie, whose contributions to Les Arts Florissants make him an admirable choice for this production.
Orlando hasn't really risen to the top of Handel's oeuvre, and in fact was never revived after its initial brief run during Handel's own lifetime. The time is probably more than ripe for it now, with its penetrating analysis of love gone awry, especially under the auspices of battle. It may in fact be the first ever depiction of post traumatic stress disorder, and this interesting, if occasionally flawed, revision makes an often compelling case that madness, for better or worse, at least offers an escape from everyday terrors like love and war.