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Orlando (2 Dvd)
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Here, she's at home dramatically throughout the opera. Vocally, she varies from breathtakingly superb (as in Fammi combaterre, Non Fu Gia Men Forte Alcide), to passable (as in Cielo! Se tu il consenti). In the latter, although she shows incredible dramatic comittment, she vocalises in a awkard way possibly due to untimely inspirations. Let's keep in mind though that she's suffered from serious health problems which have endangered and weakened her voice, so considering it her rendition of "Cielo! se tu il consenti" remains good. I can't help wondering how she would've sung that aria five years earlier when she was in great form... Anyway, she's back from a year of sick leave (and pregnancy), and what've heard since she came back seems to indicate that she's back to greatness... To be continued.
Now, this Orlando also introduced me to a name I hadn't heard of before : the divine "Martina Jankova". What an amazingly beautiful voice! what a great dramatic performer! and what a woman! I think she' greatly underrated and doesn't get the recognition she truly deserves... But who knows, a lead role in Orlando might've opened new doors for her, and maybe she's soon release her first recital... One is allowed to dream all right.
The rest of the cast, is nice... not great, but good.
There is a lot of "meat" for the title character and I was pleased that Christie had at his disposal a contralto, rather than countertenor for this part. The choice of Marijana Mijanovi' is an interesting and wise one. Miss Mijanovi''s voice has a sort of bottled-up quality much more similar in timbre and weight to a countertenor than any female singer I can recall hearing since the Baroque Boom. Slender and elegant, she also (and without resorting to artificial facial hair) makes a rather believable guy. Some of her coloratura (particularly in the last act, where I fear she may also have been running out of steam), was unusually produced, a mixture of the aspirated and chug-a-chug varieties - but it also seemed to be borne of a dramatic, rather than musical choice. Regardless , Mijanovi' gives a bold, theatrical performance. Her depiction of the hero's madness in the last 20 or so minutes of the second act were delightfully and theatrically horrific. This performance was particularly startling to me as several reviews I'd read complained that Mijanovi' was "unconvincing" in the trousers part. To the contrary, her turn here is one of the MOST convincing male impersonator I've yet seen.
Having already witnessed an axe-wielding Orlando, our hero begins the final scene of the act on a mostly darkened stage, appearing in a doorway, light streaming out, the ax in high relief. As a life-long horror fan, it always does my heart good to see directors not skimp on the shock factor (without resorting to the schlock factor) and with this one simple image, Jens-Daniel Herzog won a fan for life.
While I enjoyed her overall, I wish I could be even more enthusiastic about the performance of Martina Janková as Angelica. Looking remarkably like Charlize Theron in "Head in the Clouds" (right down to her costumes and wigs) she is a beguiling stage beauty. The voice, in its middle range is warm, with a feminine gorgeousness to it. Unfortunately, as she gets to the upper range and her extension, I found the sound tremulous and edgy, and not always properly tuned. Super high notes (which felt unnecessarily added on) had a particularly screechy sound, probably more noticeable in this recording than live in the house.
Basso, Konstantin Wolff both in voice and visage made an imposing, impressive Zoroastro. The voice had a rich, bloom and he dispatched his coloratura elegantly and with authority. The very bottom of his voice tended towards the gravel-voiced or even inaudible, which can diminish - if only slightly - the effectiveness of Handel's music for him, but everything else was so spot on - including his wonderful acting - that he made the role work and his contribution was a major one.
With less time to shine than anyone else on stage, Katharina Peetz was pleasant as Medoro, while not bowling me over entirely. Additionally, Ms. Peetz wasn't at all helped by the wardrobe mistress who made her Medoro appear as if an extra in a regional production of "The Most Happy Fella."
This leaves the role of Dorinda and the discovery of my new crush: Christina Clark. The American soprano from Toledo, Ohio is one of the brightest discoveries I've seen or heard in several years. A little digging revealed she primarily works in Europe these days, though about a decade ago won accolades on these shores, singing the title role of Joplin's "Treemonisha" for Opera Theatre of St. Louis).
A naturally effervescent personality (at times she almost seems to exude sparkles) with a clear, radiant and flexible lightweight voice, her coloratura is of the razzle-dazzle variety. She nails what seem to be about 30 trills in this music without batting an eye (okay, maybe once she bats an eye . . . sue me!) and Dorinda's music - clearly the most virtuostic in this score, is dispatched with a sense of élan and overall joy that is positively infectious. Clark appears to be a completely natural stage performer, and whenever she is onstage you can't help but keep your eyes glued to her. She's a good "reactor" - always paying attention to her fellow principals to the point where her reactions are as important as their cause. While I enjoyed much of the "business" from the other singers it, at times, felt studied or tagged on. None of this is true with Ms. Clark's performance - every action feeling germane to Dorinda's plight, including her interpolated giggles and sobs which, too often with operatic voices, come off as gimmicky and false. Clark is definitely someone to watch for, but hands off . . . she's mine!
Herzog's production at first annoyed me, moving the 8th Century era to a Fin de siècle sanitarium, with its seemingly never ending "Upstairs/Downstairs" parade of servants and nurses. It did not, however, take long for me to be absorbed by this conceit, the director, conductor and cast winning me over with brilliant musicmaking, above-par operatic action, marvelous costumes, sliding panels and ever shifting spaces for action.
While this has never been my favorite Handelian score, as here presented, the music flows beautifully, aria-after-aria, its ensembles, few and small in number, including a beautiful and rare (for Handel) trio sung with exquisite feeling and sense of time. The baroque balance between drama and comedy are perfectly balanced and there is little not to enjoy in its 3 or so nicely paced hours. This was a genuine joy.
Musically, it's beyond reproach. William Christie takes the score at a faster tempo than he did when he recorded the piece with Les Arts Florissants back in 1996, but, as was the case then, everything he's done serves the music beautifully. If anything, the differences only illustrate the fact that more than one approach can be valid. The playing of The Orchestra "La Scintilla" of the Zurich Opera is impeccable and inspired. Numbers like "Non fu giá men forte Alcide" with its horn obligato bristle with emotional fire. Gentle phrasings such as the lovely string passage that opens the second act express deep feeling without falling into excessive sentimentality. The accompaniment to "Cielo! Se tu il consent" never loses or overplays the darkness that implies the beginnings of Orlando's descent into madness. These are just a few examples.
Marijana Mijanovi' is spectacular in the role of the tormented 'Orlando'. Her singing is very strong through the upper and lower areas of her range and her shadings are very expressive. Her acting is stellar. She's a beautiful woman but her gestures and body language make her very convincing as a man. Her portrayal of Orlando's madness is chilling. Martina Janková is radiant as the lovely but conflicted 'Anjelica'. She uses a lot of vibrato to express the dramatic scope of the music but there's a quality of crystalline clarity at the root of her singing that lays a solid foundation for every note that passes her lips. As an actress (in this part anyway) she conveys seductive qualities that make it easy for the viewer to see why she's at the centre of focus for all the male characters. (They'd be dead if they didn't at least pay attention).
Christina Clark's voice is well suited to 'Bel Canto' singing (to sing beautifully in Italian). Her phrasings are exquisite. She has excellent clarity throughout her range and excellent control over her vibrato. Her acting is wonderful. She captures 'Dorinda's' sweet nature and the harshness of her situation without becoming an object of pity. The mezzo tones of Katharina Peetz are rich and filled with shadings. Her low end is absolutely lovely. Her portrayal of 'Medoro' as a rake of questionable integrity but no malice is excellent. When her character's dilemma is clarified she holds the viewers' understanding if not all of their sympathy. Konstantin Wolff has the least to do but his presence is felt throughout the opera. His portrayal of 'Zaroastro' as the manipulative and coldly malevolent 'creator' of heroes is, in its way, even more chilling than the madness that strikes 'Orlando'; unlike 'Orlando' he knows what he's doing. This is a tribute to both Wolff's ability as an actor and the work of the Director, Jens-Daniel Herzog.
Herzog does a tremendous job of keeping the story moving briskly. His sense of placing and movement is impeccable. He makes full use of both the cast and the music to flesh out the production. The set created by Mathis Neidhardt is a brilliant piece of work. It's less austere than what would be expected of a sanitarium but that never distracts from the action. There's plenty of room for the performers to move and enough space to allow different things to be shown simultaneously. The lighting design set in place by Jürgen Hoffman leads the eye to the appropriate focal points beautifully. The cinematography applied to the video shoot is very good as well. (TV) Directors Felix and Maud Breisach placement of the cameras do as much to keep the flow of the narrative moving on video as the work of the stage crew did during the performance(s) themselves.
The sound isn't quite what it could be. DTS 5.1 couldn't be tested because my system (pretty good conventional stereo) doesn't support it. The sound on the PCM track doesn't centre around the television as well as it should. The dynamic range and frequency separation on that track could be better as well. The Dolby 5.1 track centres properly and has better frequency separation but still falls short of what's been done on other releases. The mix is questionable at times. Much of Katharina Peetz' work on "Consolati o bella" is buried. With her pitch and volume that wouldn't have been the case on stage. These comments shouldn't be misconstrued though. The sound is good. But neither the Dolby or PCM tracks here are as good as the PCM track on the EuroArts edition of 'Persée or anything I've heard from Opus Arte.
The main menu is flawed as well. There are settings for languages and audio but none for the individual chapters. The discs are divided into chapters but having a table of contents would have been nice. This listing does show up on an optional side menu on Apple's DVD Player application however. Go Figure.
Against the whole these complaints are minor ones. The execution of this production is brilliant. It is one of the most engaging pieces I've seen on video. It gets the highest recommendation.
"...Bill Christie is not conducting his own ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, and the difference shows on his wise ninja turtle face, which looks as somber as the Zurich orchestra sounds. Handel needs to be 'sprightly,' and Christie knows it, but all he can elicit from this orchestra is stately." I haven't changed my mind about the orchestra. Some glee that I expect to hear in Handel's music just isn't to be heard from the Zurich 'La Scintilla' instrumentalists.
"... Director Jens-Daniel Herzog's dramatic reinvention of Orlando Furioso as a patient in a mental ward isn't such a bad idea on the surface, but it plays out as drab and dowdy rather than vivid and challenging. It 'works' but it's a lot of work...." Actually, looking back, I DON'T think it works. It's too distracting, too clever without being very amusing. Watching Martina Jankova (Angelica) warble with a bloody nose, for instance, just didn't jibe with the music, nor did Dorinda's frantic effort to unzip Medoro's trousers while singing of fidelity. I'm not unreceptive to the combination of modernistic staging with 'historically informed' musical performance - not at all! - but this time I don't feel that the staging and the music have quite enough to do with each other.
But the biggest problem in the production, as I wrote in my first review, is the casting of Marijana Mijanovic as Orlando. Mijanovic gives the role everything she has, dramatically and vocally. No matter how fiercely she struts and scowls, however, she never quite achieves a convincing male affect. She struggles with the tessitura of the role, which is fiendishly demanding; her register breaks from tenor to alto to soprano are musically awkward, and her breathing is faulty at times, leaving her gasping in the midst of Orlando's melismatic flights of madness. The role dominates her more than she commands it. Frankly, there are numerous male altos who would have been more effective.
The other four singers in this small cast, without a chorus, are Martina Jankova as Angelica, Katharina Peetz as Medoro, Christina Clark as Dorinda, and bass Konstantin Woolf as Zoroastro, in this staging the head psychiatrist. All of them seem to be laboring with the demands of executing their forced dramatic roles while singing with appropriate grace. Clark and Woolf make the best of it, with some very lovely arias.
As I said above, there are more coherent stagings and more polished musical performances of Handel operas on DVD these days -- a marvelous change from just a few years ago -- and several of them feature the conducting of William Christie. If you are a Handel fanatic, chances are you've already seen/heard Alcina, Rodelinda, Agrippina, Theodora, Giulio Cesare, and Hercules; in that case you, like me, will NEED to get this Orlando and form your own opinion of it. If you've never before watched and heard a Baroque opera on DVD, I wouldn't recommend this as your first experience.
The staging is uneven. Setting Orlando in a vaguely Freudian fin de siècle atmosphere is a percipient idea that yields some brilliant moments--the end of Act Two being a prime example. Regrettably, the insight is not sustained in all scenes. The character of Dorinda is left to an afterthought--profoundly unfair to the music and to Christina Clark who bravely does her best in impossible circumstances. Granted, the libretto is clumsy, but the score offers plenty of richness and depth. The attempts at humour tend to be bawdy and remain jarringly at odds with the music. I wish that the stage director had stayed with his central concept of Belle Epoque refinement and not lapsed into slapstick. Yet I cannot give the production anything but my highest recommendation. As a Classic Champagne Cocktail, it overdoes the sugar and perhaps somewhat neglects the cognac, but it still makes for some heady unforgettable evenings.
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