Airy production could use more driving force
BY ANDREW PATNER
Repeated Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday June 3 at 7:30 p.m., Friday June 6 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday June 8 at 3 p.m.
When Brian Dickie took over and transformed Chicago Opera Theater eight years ago he announced that COT would steer both late and early in the operatic repertoire and leave the midsection of grand opera to "the big house" on Wacker Drive.
As a part of this mission, COT has done invaluable work in presenting -- and often premiering -- works of the 17th (Monteverdi) and early 18th centuries (Handel). The company is now rounding out its 2008 season at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park with a rare revival of Handel's 1733 psychological pastoral Orlando, seen only once before in Chicago, at Lyric Opera in 1986 with the great Baroque pioneer Marilyn Horne in the title role, June Anderson as the coveted princess Angelica, and Gianna Rolandi, now the director of Lyric’s Ryan Center for young artists, as the rock-solid shepherdess Dorinda. (The portrait of Handel at left, attributed to the German Balthasar Denner, is from 1733, the year of Orlando's première in London.)
COT’s new production, with Handel veteran Raymond Leppard in the pit and young Australian stage director Justin Way handling the action and concept, shows the difficulties and rewards of presenting this historic masterwork before a contemporary audience.
One change since the 1980s is the remarkable renaissance of male singers taking on the roles created for the high-voiced castrati of Handel's time. Both the title role of the warrior driven mad by love and rejection and his rival Medoro were played here by countertenors, British Tim Mead and Canadian David Trudgen respectively. Another is the assumption -- correct as it turned out on Wednesday's opening night -- that today's operagoers know what to expect from Baroque opera, and tune their ears and pace their attention accordingly.
Orlando tells its story, adapted by Handel from Aristo's 16th century Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso (1877 Doré illustration at left), in an often elliptical fashion and there are none of the duets, trios, quartets or big choral numbers that would become a part of the genre of opera in subsequent periods. Individual singers sing, and then sing again, verse, chorus, and repeated and ornamented versions of same.
But a modern audience does want some clarity in storytelling, something that was overwhelmed by inappropriate comic bluster 21 years ago at the Civic Opera House and that that has escaped Way's much too episodic treatment for COT. As the opera itself takes place in an imaginary and timeless world there is nothing wrong per se with Way's recasting it in a film noir fashion and time period. Consistency and clarity are all we ask and these are lacking here.
In fact, there is a feeling musically and dramatically in this production of too much air around everything and no driving force moving everything along and connecting all the elements. Set and costume designers Andrew Hays and Kimm Kovac confuse us and Aaron Black's lighting has to play catch up with the concept.
That said, we are bathed in beautiful music skillfully played by the COT orchestra under Leppard's leadership. And this next generation of singers shows promise, although only American bass Oliver Neal Medina, as the sorcerer Zoroastro, and, especially, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman as Dorinda, seemed fully commanding on opening night. The others, including American Kate Mangiameli as Angelica, will grow in the run. But on Wednesday it was only when Chuchman, a current member of Lyric's Ryan Center, took off with Dorinda's avalanche of a second act scene that we had the full wonder and glory of Handelian opera -- one that we have come to expect thanks to the efforts of such advocates as COT.