Monday, March 14, 2011

We will barock you (6): Orlando Borioso

Orlando Furioso, Théâtre des Champs Elysées (TCE), March 12 2011

Pierre Audi ..... Director
Jean-Christophe Spinosi ..... Conductor

Marie-Nicole Lemieux ..... Orlando
Jennifer Larmore ..... Alcina
Verónica Cangemi ..... Angelica
Philippe Jaroussky ..... Ruggiero
Christian Senn ..... Astolfo
Kristina Hammarström ..... Bradamante
Romina Basso ..... Medoro

Ensamble Matheus
Chorus of TCE

This opera is one of many art-pieces directly inspired by the Ludovico Ariosto's eponymous poem. Ariosto's poem was groundbreaking in the 16th century as it clearly marked a break with the style dominated by epic stories recounting great achievements of magnus warriors. He gave a magic spin and gave the epic characters depth, emphasized their sentimental side. He did that by making them  interact with gods, enchanters, and what not. Many painters (Tiepolo, Ingres, Doré...), and composers were thrilled by the story of Orlando and the paladins: examples are Lully (Roland), Rameau (Les Paladins), three operas by Vivaldi (Orlando Furioso, Orlando finto pazzo, Orlando), three by Handel (Alcina, Orlando, Ariodante), one by Haydn (Orlando Paladino)...
Today that story is obviously too far fetched to be recounted directly, but clever and inspired directors recognize the authors' intentions and figure out the way to make it plausible and touching to us.

This story looks a bit too messy at first sight and it is not surprising that Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso was his major failure. The plot can be 'tweeted' if you decompose it in two love triangles: one with Angelica who is in love with Medoro but is courted by a brave but madly jealous Orlando, and another with Alcina, the enchantress, who uses her power to make Ruggero adore her instead of his beloved Bradamante. OK the second triangle has Astolfo in the game too, but you do not need to follow him to catch the drift. Now the things get messy as the two love triangles almost constantly comunicate with one another and a casual listener can easily lose a thread while indulging in numerous similarly sounding arias. The opera is 4 hours long (with intermissions), and --let's say it!-- it is monotonous if you are not too crazy about the baroque repertoire. That's where you need a good witty director to prevent from boredom setting in...

Recent Orlando we could see at the same theater was the one by Handel, also premiered this season and produced by David McVicar. I saw that premiere too and I was not too thrilled about the show, most probably because only several months earlier I saw McVicar's excellent Semele at the same Théâtre des Champs Elysées, that scenically had so much in common with Orlando.

And so here comes my punishment. Pierre Audi is someone I appreciate a great deal, mostly for his fantastic artistic direction of De Nederlandse Opera -- one of the very top European opera houses-- where each year numerous new productions are created, many of them audacious and/or innovative, and all of them of very high quality. The shows he directs, however, can be good, or pretty bad. I'm afraid this Orlando Furioso will fall into the latter category.

The show is boring: nothing actually happens on a minimally lit stage, with the sets that are in fact enlarged photoshopped pics/prints of medieval halls. There is a sliding door that opens occasionally to give to a better lit space -- the characters evolve slowly by going to that "back room" and then come back to us, to the badly lit front colorless space.

Ah yes, there was a big three-layered chandelier that would slowly descend from above the stage, to eventually release a puff of white smoke to mark the point when the charm ceased to work (or vice versa, dunno!) Apart from that chandelier, there were several chairs in Act-1 that got replaced in Act-2 by a big chair and a large table -- was it to underline that a magic/trick worked (made the chairs/table larger)?
Aren't you already bored by reading this? Monotonous baroque arias in a non-existing dramatic action, on a dimly lit colorless stage, with caricature acting consisting of exaggerated gestures to express their love pain, fear, rage, madness, regret, joy... zzzz...
If you don't trust me you are welcome to see it yourself on Mezzo-TV, as they will live broadcast from Théâtre des Champs Elysées the show scheduled for March 18 at 19:30 (cet).

Happily, the show was musically more successful. All the singers were truly brilliant, with Jennifer Larmore clearly standing out. Her role is big, her singing is not only beautiful and technically impeccable, but all the difficulties as she cruises through tough patches of gravi become particularly beautiful because they sound spontaneous. Brava! No surprise that in the end she received as many cheers from the crowd as Marie-Nicole Lemieux who really gave her all to make the character as credible as possible. She too was vocally impressive even though the announcer said that she and Philippe Jaroussky were under the weather but nevertheless decided to sing.
Philippe Jaroussky is a big star and his arias are followed by exaggerated "bravos" by his fans [which is a bit annoying because it gives a wrong impressions that his singing was so much better than that of the other singers] With that being said, his first aria was absolutely wonderful. All the other singers were brilliant too: Verónica Cangemi, Kristina Hammarström, and Romina Basso (who was a pleasant discovery for me), as well as Christian Senn.

I believe the intention to stage this opera was mainly related to a huge success the same orchestra and Jean-Christophe Spinosi, with a slightly different cast, had enjoyed a little more than 5 years ago when they'd set a standard for this opera: this is the reference recording. It was praised across the board, the concerts were followed by rave reviews... Well, while it musically still sounds great, I am not sure it gained anything with its current staging.

Several production pics:
Act-1: back print from the first pic above is lifted and you see more light in the background

Orlando is becoming madly jealous - he can even lift the table on his back; never mind the Baba the Turk kind of beard Marie-Nicole Lemieux was wearing... Bless her!

This is the famous scene with a chandelier releasing a bizarre  smoke...

Celebration of the marriage between Angelica and Ruggiero The only moment in the show when the colors did not look totally black-and-white

Orlando is now totally mad and Alcina in a background is laid on a pile of sand

My (bad) CC pics:

Marie Nicole Lemieux as Orlando
Philippe Jaroussky and Jennifer Larmore

Kristina Hammarström and Christian Senn

Veronica Cangemi

Pierre Audi and J-C.Spinosi

OK, to finish on a positive note, listen to a beautiful aria from this opera -- Sol da te sung by Philippe Jaroussky:

and another one sung by Jennifer Larmore:


  1. i just got back from the closing night performance (22mar2011) and i am with you on a lot of points. while i have enjoyed the recording and the live broadcast of concert performances in the past, i am not sure that this translation to the stage added anything to the beauty and drama of the work as we know it. in fact, i was left underwhelmed and more than a little confused. for one thing, i found the need for the singers to play up the drama for the stage robbed them of the focus in the singing; in fact, more than once, they sounded exhausted or out of breath. i say this by way of comparison with the singer who replaced romina basso at the 11th hour (we were informed that she got into paris only at 4 pm today!) and who sang from the orchestra since she didn't know the staging/blocking (she had a non singing double on stage). she, daniela pini, sounded much more in control and sang with nuanced emotion. i am not against staged performances but many times, i find singers tend to overact and this can take away from their vocal stamina. for e.g., it's easy to act crazy/mad but not so easy to do it well. ms lemieux's mad scene and mad portrayal belonged to the first sense; it was sad to see some of the vocal shadings and colouring gone by the way side from all the fumbling and dashing around which left her breathless in parts. the same can be said for ms lamore to some degree. by comparison, mr jarrousky whose character was not given over to such histrionics sang sublimely. it is no wonder he got more 'bravos' (i agree that he may have a more vociferous local fan base but i am not convinced that that is the only reason). Pierre Audi's direction may be to blamed for all this. Many times I found that the singers were just told to turn on 'drama' switch, as it were, without any correlation to the musically material or dramatic intention of the scene. I found there was very little dramatic coherence or character development so that it was hard to identify with any of the characters in their personal psyche. I had so much expectation for this to be a truly stunning success given its history and gestation but was left underwhelmed. this was a truly top-notched cast and they can all do justice to the piece. it is just the dramatics and development that needs to be majorly fine-tuned for this opera to not end up as a curiosity that leaves some of its audience alienated and confused.

  2. Hi Andrew and thanks for your comment. I hope Jennifer was great on the final night as she was at the premiere.

    I understand your points and obviously agree, although one point is maybe worth rehashing a bit. I don't mind if the singers sound a tad less good than they do on the recordings, of all the stage action compensates by bringing some extra quality to the piece. My beef with Audi's staging was that the singers were running like crazy (Orlando) but only to portray a caricature of a madly jealous person, instead of bringing something "new"/different out of the work that could not be communicated through music alone but could have been done through image, gesture, or interaction among characters.

    With a staging like this, the cuts to shorten the opera would have been welcomed on my end ;)

    Thanks again and cheers