NIGHT TWO: a review of Cantanti PROJECT’s production of Handel's Orlando on 02/19/17 by Jeremy Hirsch, Opera Critic of 'The Entertainment Hour'
On Sunday 19 February, Cananti Poject presented its second of two sold-out performances of Handel’s Orlando in Marc A. Scorca Hall at The National Opera Center. Cantati Project is a non-profit founded three years ago by Joyce Yin, Sam Fujii, and Laura Mitchell. The company is run for singers by singers, with a mission of creating an arena for developing performers, creators, and members of the musical community at large.
Orlando is one of three opera libretti adapted from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso that Handel set to music. Here’s the basic plot: Orlando has just returned victoriously from battle, and now wants both love and glory. Orlando’s former lover Angelica recently rescued the warrior Medoro and the two are in love. Angelica’s sidekick Dorinda, also in love with Medoro, is stuck third-wheeling. The sorcerer Zoroastro watches over the action occasionally interfering to keep peace and espouse morals. Medoro and Angelica plan to elope to escape a potentially jealous Orlando. Dorinda, sad that Medoro will never be hers, accidently reveals the lovers’ plan to Orlando. He goes nuts for two acts, finally killing Medoro and Angelica in a psychotic rage. As he’s about to kill himself, he learns from Zoroastro that, thanks to the sorcerer’s protective magic, everyone he supposedly killed is safe. Relieved of his guilt and psychosis, Orlando gives Angelica and Medoro’s relationship his blessing. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief and the piece ends.
In Cantanti Project’s production, director Brittany Goodwin sets the action in a mental hospital staffed by Dr. Zoroastro and an unnamed nurse. The rest of the characters are patients suffering from mental illness. The varieties and degrees of the characters’ mental illness engenders a power structure in the asylum that enables a murky moral landscape. Orlando and Dorinda suffer from the strongest symptoms and so are most easily manipulated at the hands of the more lucid Angelica and Medoro. Angelica and Medoro garner little sympathy taking advantage of the others’ illness for personal gain.
Thanks to the characters’ precarious mental states, plot points can occur in their delusional imaginations instead of in the real world. Orlando hallucinates rescuing and falling in love with the beautiful Isabella (in the libretto this is a real event). Jealous Angelica demands Orlando’s loyalty though she knows Isabella is a figment of his imagination. Angelica doubles down on her cynicism acting out of narcissistic envy and preying on the delusions of an ill and helpless man to get her way.
The setting alters the moral implications of Angelica and Medoro’s escape plan. Because the two are long-term mental patients watched closely by the staff doctor, leaving is a fantastical game not a real-life scenario. Yet the couple takes pains to convince Dorinda they’re leaving for good, breaking innocent Dorinda’s heart. Angelica and Medoro don’t leave, no one can leave, yet they manage to abandon their friend in the process of imagining leaving. By the opera’s end, few characters are better off than how they began; a welcomed antidote to the deus ex machina of the original libretto.
Mezzo-soprano Kimberly Hann as the title character convincingly maintained an appropriately troubled countenance for the duration of the piece. Her Orlando was multi-dimensional, psychotic yet gullibly innocent. He became a genuine victim of his condition. Ms. Hann possesses a pleasantly dark mezzo-soprano voice. Her coloratura came alive in her arias’ da capo sections channeling Orlando’s well-deserved fury into fitting ornamentation.
Mezzo-soprano Kirsti Esch played Zoroastro as a negligent doctor that substitutes sedatives for competence. Women frequently play men in Handel opera, however, a woman playing Zoroastro is unprecedented, the role written for bass or bass-baritone voice. There’s no gender-based reason Zoroastro must be sung by a man. However, Handel’s music was diminished by the voice-type mismatch, if only because Zoroastro is written expertly to flatter the registers of the bass voice.
Soprano Marisa Karchin played a charming but morally bankrupt Angelica. Her voice radiated youth and her aura on stage was both confident and self-effacing. One hoped for a glimpse of menace or a clue to her motivations as the opera wore on. Angelica had more manipulative personality than Ms. Karchin seemed able bring.
Angelica’s lover Medoro was played sympathetically by mezzo-soprano Allison Gish. Her Medoro was more comforting than conniving, showing genuine compassion for Dorinda. Ms. Gish’s voice warmed up in the da capo of her first aria and maintained a solid core throughout the evening. Her coloratura was agile and stylish and like Ms. Hann’s shined most in the da capo sections of her arias.
The standout of the evening was soprano Joyce Yin, who skirted the pitfalls of the potentially pitiful Dorinda, never losing her essential optimism and cheer while erecting a captivating character arch. The audience meets Dorinda with sock puppets on both hands: her closest confidants. It turns out the puppets also cover a bandage hiding self-inflicted cutting scars revealing a darkness in the character never overtly shown during the drama. Beaten but not broken, Ms. Yin’s Dorinda triumphs through humor and force of will to realize that she is worthy of love and respect and will settle for no less.
Ms. Yin’s deft characterization was matched by her fearless singing, particularly in her aria “Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti” that begins act II. Handling the exposed coloratura with delicacy and grace, Ms. Yin managed her light soprano expertly. Her act III aria “Amor e qual vento” showed Dorinda in her full capacity. With Despina-like cleverness tempered by a genuine nature and newfound moral acuity, Ms. Yin’s Dorinda triumphed over timidity and pity, with her final cadenza launching her into her newly realized life.
The Cantanti Project teamed up with the Dorian Baroque Orchestra, a group that debuted in 2012 and consists of two violins, viola, cello, and harpsichord with Dylan Sauerwald conducting from the harpsichord. Having a dedicated baroque orchestra is a gift for this music, adding a degree of authenticity to the sound world that a conventional chamber group might not achieve. There were definite moments of musical uncertainty. Pacing-wise the momentum tended to drag during slower arias and accompanied recitatives; a dangerous formula for a potentially repetitive style of opera. However, it was clear that Mr. Sauerwald made a stylistic mark on the production, the singers uniformly sensitive to the rhetorical phrasing essential to Handel opera. In good humor, the band joined in a cute post-intermission bit of comedy. As the band tuned, Dorinda entered covering her ears disturbed by the din, eventually using all the resources she could muster to quiet them.
The production was laced with subtle comedic moments and tasty dramatic turns. Though the action came close to a stand-still towards the end of the second act, the piece generally progressed at an engaging clip with suitable cuts that allowed the da capo arias to remain intact benefitting both the singers and the drama. The production is intriguing enough to keep developing. One would hope to see a new and improved iteration in the future.