HANDEL, OF HOBART
Orlando makes a baroque centrepiece to Leo Schofield’s music festival in Tasmania, writes Matthew Westwood
HOBART Baroque was inaugurated last year with a production from the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio of a little-heard piece by Haydn, L’isola
disabitata. The opera was not strictly from the baroque period, having had its first performance in 1779. Still, there’s a historical frisson in the piece that is roughly contemporaneous with European settlement of Australia, although Tasmania was certainly not the “uninhabited island” described in Haydn’s opera.
Leo Schofield’s music festival was also occasion to use Hobart’s Theatre Royal as a little opera house. The 1837 theatre, with its classic horseshoe shape and lovely decoration, was ideally proportioned for Haydn’s chamber opera.
The second iteration of Hobart Baroque brings to Tasmania an opera more firmly located in the baroque repertoire, Handel’s Orlando of 1733. Schofield has again found a small-scale production from an international opera house, suitable for the Theatre Royal stage, and brought with it a young cast of foreign singers.
The production, directed by veteran Chas Rader-Shieber comes from the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, where it was first presented in 2003. Glimmerglass is a summer opera festival — an American equivalent to Britain’s Glyndebourne — where several operas are staged during a two-month season. The theatre is just outside Cooperstown, home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Coincidentally, Rader-Shieber’s brother, Tom Shieber, is director of the baseball museum.
“He’s a great opera fan, which I love,” RaderShieber says. Of baseball he adds: “I do enjoy it; I don’t follow it. It’s a gentleman’s sport when played properly.”
Glimmerglass is a kind of operatic idyll. “The grounds are beautiful, the stage is a good size, but the house feels very intimate,” he says. “It’s a wonderful place to work. Because it’s a summer festival, you end up with several productions working at the same time. The thing about these festival opera companies, that is beautifully different from repertory houses, is that quick families are made.”
The director will be familiar to some Australian opera-goers, especially those who follow the work of another boutique company, Sydney’s Pinchgut. Shieber directed that outfit’s most recent venture, Cavalli’s Giasone, and a 2008 production of Charpentier’s David and
His speciality is baroque and early classical operas, including no fewer than 15 by Handel. A
MAGIC IS PART OF REAL LIFE IN THESE WORKS, BECAUSE IT IS ALWAYS ABOUT PEOPLE, NOT TRICKS CHAS RADER-SHIEBER
characteristic of so many of these pieces is the da capo aria: a singer is given a melody (“A”), then a contrasting section (“B”), and returns to the “A” section with elaborations and embellishments. Some listeners find this repetition tedious in the extreme, but Rader-Shieber hears opportunity for invention within the formal constraints of da capo. Indeed, he speaks of the da capo aria as representative of opera’s larger scheme: a formal design that can accommodate infinite variety.
“Structure is so much at the centre of baroque opera, and in Handel structure is incredibly important,” he says on the phone from his home in Philadelphia. “And this sameness of the aria structure — I don’t mean it in a pejorative way — encourages you to push and pull and twist, and to think about how to enliven that form, again and again and again.”
The story of Orlando can be briefly summarised: the Christian knight Orlando has fallen in love with the exotic queen of Cathay, Angelica, but she is in love with an African prince, Medoro. A shepherd girl, Dorinda, is also in love with Medoro, thus setting the scene for lovelorn melancholy and, in Orlando’s case, jealousy and madness. At the climax of his breakdown — he has a “mad scene” at the end of Act II — he is swept away by the magician Zoroastro, who restores Orlando’s sanity and his rightful vocation as a warrior knight.
Orlando’s mad scene is not like that of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, to whom Donizetti gives an extended coloratura showstopper: a songbird going spectacularly off her tree. By Handelian standards, Orlando’s mental collapse is relatively brief but intense, a musical madness of different rhythmic forms and time signatures. “We are talking about somebody who is moving into madness from the moment we meet him,” Rader-Shieber says. “Orlando goes mad because he isn’t on the right track: the opera is about finding one’s true self, one’s true nature. We follow this wonderful young man who is born to be a great warrior, but what he wants more than anything is to be a great lover. It drives him crazy.” Rader-Shieber and designer David Zinn have set the opera in an enchanted forest, in which Dorinda tends to the truly wounded and the sick-at-heart. The director has also introduced the figure of Amor, a non-singing cupid to be played by a Hobart boy.
Orlando is one of those magic operas, so beloved of 18th-century audiences, that are filled with special effects. Zoroastro the sorcerer has power to summon sudden changes of scene, and commands Jupiter’s eagle to deliver a potion to heal Orlando’s madness. Rader-Shieber does not reveal what transformations may delight audiences in Hobart; but he regards the magic in baroque opera as a metaphor for the inner life of the characters, not merely an excuse for theatrical shock and awe. “In general, Handelian spectacle is intimate spectacle,” he says.
“There is something very beautiful about that idea. I love fireworks and big spectaculars, but it’s not what I make very much … The magic comes out of humanness; it is used to describe emotion. Zoroastro is a mentor who uses magic to educate, sometimes painfully. But magic is part of real life in these works, because it is always about people, not about tricks.”
The season of Orlando for Hobart Baroque will showcase young American singers: countertenors Randall Scotting (Orlando) and Daniel Bubeck (Medoro); sopranos Kathryn Lewek (Angelica) and Anna Davidson (Dorinda); and bass-baritone Tom Corbeil (Zoroastro). Erin Helyard will conduct the Orchestra of the Antipodes for the four performances.
Schofield has programmed a nine-day showcase of local and international artists, including Russian coloratura soprano Julia Lezhneva (appearing with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra), Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata performing arias from his album of baroque villains, Bad Guys, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Timo-Veikko Valve, playing Bach cello suites.
Rader-Shieber says the Hobart season of Orlando has given him a chance to revisit a beautiful production, which he has also staged in a much bigger theatre for New York City Opera. “To have a production that I love, and to have ideas that I still believe in, but with a whole new cast and a variation on the original production, is tremendously enlivening,” he says.
“Incumbent upon the stage director is to guide the ship, and have all these singers on board. Hopefully we are all going on the same fabulous island vacation.”
Hobart Baroque, March 28-April 5.
Main picture, director Chas Rader-Shieber with performers Anna Davidson, left, and Kathryn Lewek rehearsing Handel’s opera Orlando for Hobart Baroque last week; scene from the original production at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York in 2003