The crowd go bonkers for the crazy Orlando as dull old reason is pitted against the power of love.

Theatre Royal, Hobart

March 28, 2014

Handel’s Orlando comes from 1733, his final operatic period before Italian fun gave way to the more sober format of the English oratorio. That transition seems to be reflected in this enlightenment tale based on Ariosto where a ‘wise’ mage (of sorts) rescues his favourite hero from the chaotic, irrational throes of Cupid’s darts. In other words, in Orlando it’s reason versus love and we’re clearly meant to be rooting for reason.

What Chas Rader-Shieber’s neatly conceived, enchanting production for New York’s Glimmerglass Festival (now making landfall at Hobart Baroque) does so cleverly, however, is to show us just how much more enjoyable love can be – and it does it with grace, style and a sly smile, backed up by some excellent performances. Indeed, the director almost manages to make you forget that it’s only because the characters keep conveniently losing each other out there in the woods that anything much happens in Orlando at all.

Rader-Shieber sets it all in a kind of enlightenment hospital for the lovesick, wittily represented by one poor patient lying in bed literally peppered with arrows – a nice touch sees young Tom Hawkey as a cheeky, redheaded, bow-and-arrow-wielding ‘Amor’ constantly threatening to upset Zoroastro’s philosophical plans, subverting his ideas of rational glory and defacing his heroic statues. Rader-Shieber has comedic ideas aplenty and deploys them with a smart sense of appropriateness and a deft touch.

A good share of the honours must go to David Zinn’s magical set and costumes. His beautifully painted, enchanted forest complete with secret doors, sliding panels and twinkling stars sits elegantly on the stage of Hobart’s dinky Theatre Royal. With a cast dressed in sumptuous Handelian-period clobber (lovers in shades of red, pink, purple and orange, the sagacious Zoroastro in tutorial grey), every time someone comes down to the footlights you get that “this must have been what it was like in baroque London” frisson.

Conductor Erin Helyard must also take his share of the glory, leading the Orchestra of the Antipodes from the harpsichord with taste, flare and an enormous sense of style. It’s one of Handel’s more eclectic, experimental scores with nods both to the future integrated operas of Gluck while indulging his audiences’ popular taste with a glance backwards to the Purcellian school of English pastoral. Helyard has also tightened the musical drama considerably with the judicious excision of some of the more expendable da capos. It’s a sensitive pruning job and one that pays dividends in forward momentum. The only musical grumble is that the pleasures don’t always extend to the orchestra pit. The playing is invariably stylish but the technical nuts and bolts are not always secure with some painful moments of compromised intonation. Vocally however it is an evening of almost unalloyed pleasures delivered by a cast of five fine American singers.

Heading the pack is Kathryn Lewek, a soprano making quite a name for herself with a notable Met debut in The Magic Flute among her recent credits. Her Angelica is an absolute triumph combining vocal security with dramatic passion. It’s a full-bodied, creamy voice, even across the full range with an easy top. Added to that is a near-perfect sense of line allied to exemplary breath control culminating in a magnificent Act III Cosi giusta e questa speme with full da capo. She’s a lovely actress as well, which sees her invariably nailing her livelier numbers as well – Non potra dirmi ingrate is sung with pin-point accuracy. Her ensemble work is first-rate throughout – the trio Consolati, o bella is a fitting climax to the first act thanks to some fine vocals and a nice sense of the awkwardness of the situation from all three singers.

Her near equal is Randall Scotting’s highly watchable Orlando. He delivers a most convincing dramatic and musical performance coping pretty well with the relatively low tessitura of the role (it was a late Senesino part and Handel probably took into account the strengths and weaknesses of his aging star castrato). His vocal choices are imaginative and always stylish – Fammi combattere is terrifically decorated – and he grows in intensity as the evening progresses, delivering an excellent mad scene, aided and abetted by Helyard who adds some original touches in the orchestra.

Anna Davidson’s charming Dorinda is played as a sort of pastoral nurse-cum-maid-of-all-work, busying herself about the hospital beds with much clever business, yet capturing that special sense of pathos that the character requires. Vocally it’s a very pretty voice, best at the top, and she’s excellent in her spunkier numbers (Amore e qual vento in Act III is a knockout). Only in her wistful Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti (complete with period bird calls) does she occasionally lose pitch.

The manipulating ‘magician’ Zoroastro isn’t the most well thought through of dramatic roles – he tends to come and go – but Tom Corbeil manages to be a suitably commanding presence when he is there, capturing the killjoy character’s manipulating qualities. He exhibits a rich, appealing bass voice, secure in his roulades, with a comfortable top and some lovely bottom notes.

Daniel Bubeck, the other countertenor in the cast, makes what he can out of the slightly wet Medoro (originally a trouser role for a mezzo), managing to be a bit duplicitous with poor old Dorinda and a trifle put upon by Angelica – there’s a lovely suitcase gag at the end of Act II. It’s a strong voice, if placed a little far back, making him sound less heroic than he might. Despite that, he blends nicely with Lewek.

Minor quibbles aside, Orlando is a terrific ensemble effort all round and it’s another feather in the cap of Leo Schofield, who for the second year in a row has spotted a standout international production and brought it lock, stock and two smoking baroque barrels to Tasmania. By the end of the evening, Orlando wasn’t the only one to go crazy – the audience justifiably went nuts as well.

Orlando runs at the Theatre Royal until April 4.

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