Friday, October 4, 2019

Conducted by Ethan Schmeisser, Handel's "Orlando", performed by singers of the Israeli Opera and with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, plays in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

Daniela Skorka, Alon Harari (photo:Maya Meidar Moran)
In collaboration with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, the Israeli Opera performed Georg Frideric Handel’s opera “Orlando”. Directed by Shirit Lee Weiss, the conductor was Ethan Schmeisser. Soloists were Oded Reich, Alon Harari, Tal Ganor, Daniela Skorka and Anat Czarny. The opera was sung in the original Italian, with surtitles in English and Hebrew. This writer attended the performance in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre on September 26th 2019.


Orlando (HWV 31), an opera seria in three acts, composed for the audiences of Georgian England, premiered at the King's Theatre in London in 1733. A roaring success, it fuelled the London craze for Italian opera seria, a genre focusing strongly on solo arias for star virtuoso singers. The opera’s origins are Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”, a tale created for readers of the early 16th century, featuring characters taken from the 12th century French epic “La Chanson de Roland”, an imaginative account of Charlemagne’s vassal Roland’s heroism in a battle. The libretto for “Orlando” was adapted by Carlo Sigismondo Capece. How astonishing it is to think that this masterpiece lay in obscurity for 240 years, not to be revived until 1959, when it was performed at the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon, England. 


With orchestra members seated at the back of the stage of the Henry Crown Auditorium, this was not your usual concert opera performance. With no backdrops and no background ballet, three “islands” in stage created locations, on which most of the opera’s action took place. And there were few props - just a number of tall, long-stemmed flowers, moved around and replanted by the singers from time to time. It was the singers and their emotional agendas, however, who filled the stage space in every respect. The artists, all of them Israeli opera singers, were splendidly cast. As the magician Zoroastro representing the force of reason, baritone Oded Reich, relishing one of the spiciest of Handel’s roles written for the low male voice, was powerful and authoritative in voice and action, lurking at the edges of all goings-on, observing  or advising (finally saving Orlando from his psychotic behaviour) and effectively engaging in the language of movement throughout. In the pants role of the Moorish warrior Medoro, offering some of Handel’s most beautiful music to sing, mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny, her smooth-toned and lustrous voice endorsing her compassionate role, addressed the fine detail of arias and duets, giving yearning and sensitivity to the part in one of the opera’s entangled love situations. The shepherdess Dorinda, betrayed by Medoro, was played by Tal Ganor, her delicate voice filling out in silvery agility as the opera progressed. Daniela Skorka in the role of Angelica, Queen of Cathay, was demonstrative, dramatically convincing, powerful and seductive through the various personae which the character assumes, whether playing up to Orlando's devotion which she cannot return, or in her more sincere, impassioned professions to Medoro, as she expresses all in competent, fine vocal form through the exhilarating music Handel lavished on the role. And then there is Orlando, here played by countertenor Alon Harari. Handel wrote the role of Orlando for a leading castrato of the day, Senesino, for whom he had previously created seventeen leading roles. Unlike most of these previous roles, that of Orlando lacked extended arias that would offer opportunities for showy ornamentation; incensed, Senesino left Handel's employ as a result. The role of Orlando is, nevertheless, technically demanding, requiring not only vocal prowess but also the ability to project a character who suffers from mental instability, a man wallowing in deranged passion, as he shifts between reality and illusion. Alon Harari took the bull by the horns, giving fine expression to Orlando's mad scene with the shifting harmonies and rhythms that evoke the sense of chaos and disorder that have afflicted the hero. Harari’s performance also displayed his fresh, stable and rich voice and his lush palette of colours.


Costumes (Maya Meidar Moran) were varied and reflected the different personalities - Dorinda dressed in naive, pastel colours, Medoro in modest beige, Zoroastro mostly in black (his "war-paint"  make-up somewhat sinister), Orlando in clothes as dark as his soul and Angelica in a titillating black dress. There were also long, blood-stained cloaks worn by singers at specific moments. 


The storyline of the opera juggles love, jealousy and values, as it mocks conventional beliefs that women are most attracted by proud heroes. Angelica and Medoro’s union, her falling in love with a gentle, vulnerable and humble youth, symbolises the victory of love over the brute force and cruelty, as represented by Orlando. Shirit Lee Weiss’ bold production plays down none of these elements, as it tingles with the potency of every aspect of the emotional roller coaster at hand, addressing human weakness and strength, and emphasizing the urgency and physicality of love. 


For the overtures, accompaniments and courtly dances, Maestro Ethan Schmeisser led players of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem with subtlety and elegance, shaping melodic contours and reflecting the beauty and power of Handel’s masterpiece. They were joined by harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon and Ophira Zakai on theorbo, endorsing the Baroque sound world.


Featuring five excellent young homegrown singers, the Israeli opera’s 2019-2020 Baroque Series has got off to a formidable start!


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