For only the second time in its history, the San Francisco Opera mounted a production of Handel’s operatic masterpiece, “Orlando”. Its first series of performances took place 34 years ago, during a time when baroque opera was only beginning to be performed regularly after an absence from the operatic stage of two centuries.
For 2019, the company chose a production that shifted the opera’s time and place to London, England in the early days of World War II. Seeing characters whose origins are in medieval myth costumed for the early 1940s and singing baroque opera is a surreal experience, but proved to be dramatically effective.
[Below: Orlando (Sasha Cooke, left), a Royal Air Force pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress, is under the care of Zoroastro (Christian Van Horn, right), a physician working at London’s Royal Masonic Hospital; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The opera has five roles, each requiring virtuosic vocal ability. For each of the five performers, it was a role debut.
Sasha Cooke’s Orlando
Texas mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who previously had sung the role of Medoro elsewhere, took on the challenge of performing the lead role, Orlando. Singing Orlando requires not only vocal prowess, but – especially in Fehr’s cinematic telling of the story – the ability to project a character who suffers from mental instability.
[Below: Orlando (Sasha Cooke) suffers a psychotic episode; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Cooke’s total performance was technically strong, even though there were times when Cooke seemed to be guarding her vocal resources for Orlando’s big scenes in each act. She was especially effective in conveying, through her physical performance, the character’s shifts between reality and illusion.
[Below: the Royal Air Force pilot Orlando (Sasha Cooke, center) is the object of tests by hospital medical personnel (supernumeraries); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have reported on Cooke’s performances in two world premieres Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013 and World Premiere Review: Ovations for the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs – Santa Fe Opera, July 22, 2017 , the latter as Laurene Jobs, Steve’s supportive wife, a role that will be repeated when the opera is presented in San Francisco Operas’s 2020 summer season.
[Photo: The pilot Orlando (Sasha Cooke) has been released from the hospital to return to duty in the Royal Air Force; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have praised Cooke’s performances in such standard reperatory roles as Magdalena [Review: McVicar’s Magical, Masterful “Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, November 18, 2015] and Hansel [A joyous “Hansel and Gretel” in Doug Fitch’s enchanting production – Los Angeles Opera, December 9, 2018.] Her Orlando provided another opportunity to assess the artistic skill and wide-ranging repertory of this talented artist.
Heidi Stober’s Angelica
Wisconsin soprano Heidi Stober performed the role of Angelica,
Handel has lavished melody on Angelica’s music, as he did with Cleopatra’s, another role in which Stober has excelled [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Resilient “Julius Caesar” Showcases Anthony Roth Costanzo and Stellar Cast – October 27, 2017.] Baroque opera is only a facet of Stober’s impressive repertory which abounds in the light-hearted roles of Mozart bel canto comedy, dramatic character roles, and an iconic American musical [Aboard San Francisco Opera’s “Show Boat”: Showy Cast, Abundant Show-stoppers – June 1, 2014.]
[Below: the role of Angelica, a wealthy American, is performed by Heidi Stober; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In the original source material Angelica is a Queen of Cathay, who is pursued by Orlando, but is in love with Medoro, an African prince. Fehr transforms Medoro into a soldier, hospitalized for wounds suffered during the British defeat at Dunkirk. Angelica becomes a wealthy American, whose taken a special interest in the wounded soldier.
[Below: Orlando (Sasha Cooke, left) plays into a scheme conceived by Angelica (Heidi Stober, right) to trick him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I especially liked Stober’s performance of Angelica’s aria Cosi giusta e questa speme, with the aria’s interplay with an infectious recurring motive performed as a duet by San Francisco Opera’s concertmaster Kay Stern and second violinist Beni Shinohara.
Christina Gansch’s Dorinda
Making her American debut as the shepherdess Dorinda (in this production, a ward nurse) was Austrian soprano Christina Gansch. Her stylish singing of her first big aria, Ho un certo rossore, identified Gansch as a major operatic talent.
[Below: the nurse Dorinda (Christina Gansch) finds herself enamored of one of her patients; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s Medoro
Also making his San Francisco Opera debut, is New York counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.
[Below: Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen) recovers from his wounds at Dunkirk; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The role of Medoro has some of Handel’s most beautiful music to sing (in an opera that abounds with beautiful melodies), including Medoro’s plaintive aria Se ‘l cor mai ti dira, which Nussbaum Cohen elegantly dispatched.
[Below: Dorinda (Christina Gansch, left) revealing that she had fallen in love with Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, right) gains the sympathy of Medoro and Angelica (Heidi Stober, center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
His voice blended in the ensemble pieces (rare in Handel’s operas) – duets with Stober’s Angelica and a trio with Angelica and Gansch’s Dorinda.
[Below: Released from the hospital, Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, left) is reunited with Angelica (Heidi Stober, right), the woman he loves; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Christian Van Horn’s Zoroastro
The only low voice among the five singers is that of New York bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. He of an elite group of American artists who have received the prestigious Richard Tucker Award.
Van Horn brilliantly sings the role of Zoroastro, one of the juiciest of Handel’s roles written for the low male voice.
[Below: Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro, a physician on the staff of London’s Royal Masonic Hospital; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In Fehr’s staging, the magician Zoroastro is transformed into a pyschiatrist on the staff of Royal Masonic Hospital, a military hospital whose now-empty buildings still exist in London’s Ravenscourt Park. Fehr’s hospital-based “Orlando” allows Fehr to make sly references both to the state of medical and psychiatric practice at the beginning of the 1940s and to traumatic events in Britain.
As a example of Fehr’s imaginative exposition of the text of the opera’s libretto, Van Horn sings Zoroastro’s aria Lascia amor, e seigui marte! Va, combatti per la gloria (Renouce love, follow Mars, and fight for glory) as videos of Edward VIII renouncing his obligations as king to pursue a love affair with Wallis Simpson flash on a hospital movie screen. A moment later, Fehr drives home his point with images of Edward’s and Wallis’ notorious meeting with Adolf Hitler.
[Below: the military psychiatrist Zoroastro (Christian Van Horn, far right) is determined to persuade the shell-shocked pilot Orlando (Sasha Cooke, far left) to return to duty, showing him films of Britain’s former king and his wife meeting with Adolf Hitler; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Maestro Christopher Moulds and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra
From the first moments of the Overture, Maestro Christopher Moulds, leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in his San Francisco Opera debut, captured the beauty and power of Handel’s masterpiece.
[Below: Maestro Christopher Moulds; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In between the Handel’s luxuriously melodic arias, were wonderful plot-moving passages of recitative accompagnato. Moulds assembled a musical quartet for these continuo passages. Moulds himself plays one harpsichord, Ronny Michael Greenberg plays a second harpsichord; David Kadarach, San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s first chair cellist plays his cello and internationally recognized baroque instrumentalist, Richard Savino, plays the baroque guitar and theorbo.
Harry Fehr’s Production
The highly imaginative production is the creation of Director Harry Fehr, whose “Orlando” production has been performed previously at the Scottish and Welsh Operas. The opera is one of the trio of Handel’s operatic masterpieces (along with “Ariodante” and “Alcina”) based on the once popular fantasies of early 16th century author Ludovico Ariosto.
[Below: Director Harry Fehr; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
“Orlando” is an opera that was composed for the audiences of Georgian England. Its source material – Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” – was created for the Renaissance Europe readers in the early 16th century. Ariosto’s work itself used characters derived from the 12th century French epic La Chanson de Roland that is an imaginative account of Charlemagne’s vassal Roland’s heroism in a rearguard historical battle that took place during the late eighth century.
In his program notes, Fehr describes his thought processes in how to present “Orlando” in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to the characters. Rather than imposing a predetermined “concept” on staging the opera, he studied the text of each aria, and it was from this experience that he came up with a contemporary way of presenting the emotions expressed by each of the five characters that would make sense in a modern context. I found both his reasoning and his final product to be persuasive.
I enthusiastically recommend the production for those who appreciate baroque operatic performance (even including those who might be skeptical of a time-shifted production – the original story having been time-shifted many times over the past 11 centuries). I also recommend it for newcomers to baroque operas.