So far I seem to be the only person I know who unreservedly loves Justin Way's new production of Orlando. It all turns on the sheep, you see. There are a lot of them in this production (not real ones — this isn't Francesca Zambello) and they get up to all kinds of increasingly surreal shenanigans. Orlando's personal madness is mirrored in a world turned upside down and multi-coloured, where a humble office lamp is the moon, nobody is capable of a normal relationship and barnyard creatures are unbound by such a paltry force as gravity. Last year's Alcina was pretty magical, but Orlando — by the same team, director Justin Way and designers Andrew Hays and Kimm Kovacs — leaves it in the dust. It opens in the normal world and then everything just goes to pieces and flamboyant havoc ensues, creating along the way several tableaux worthy of La Cieca's Regie quizzes.
The boundless imagination of the design team blew my mind. Even leaving the sheep aside, this is such a visually captivating production. The costumes are fabulous. I think almost everyone (including the singer herself) covets Orlando's red leather army uniform, and Dorinda seems to have stepped straight out of a storybook — actually she kept putting me in mind of Lauren Childs' Lola. Rachelle Durkin's Angelica makes one of the best operatic entrances I've ever seen; I'll say no more than that, although Opera Australia's website does its best to spoil the surprise. I'm mightily impressed by the attention to detail (musical as well as textual) that's evident in Way's direction. I'm thinking especially of the extraordinary trio in which Angelica and Medoro carelessly crush Dorinda's little heart by announcing their plan to run away together. I'm also thinking of the torn wallpaper, another little flash of genius I don't want to spoil by explaining. It won't appeal to everyone, but then I don't suppose any production of anything ever appeals to everyone, so that's fine. As for me, I love it. I don't know. Must be all that MTV I (don't) watch, eating away my attention span and cheapening my taste. Or not.
Two singers in this show give what I think might just be the best performances I've yet seen from either of them. They're Richard Alexander (Zoroastro) and Hye Seoung Kwon (Dorinda). I've sort of grown accustomed to Richard Alexander as one of those reliable, always OK but never amazing singers, with a useful sort of voice and generalised stage presence, who never looks entirely convincing in his old man make-up. His Zoroastro is a real step up — his singing is far more nuanced and creative, and he seems to have a definite grasp on the character. I don't suppose anybody was listening very closely to his first aria, but that's hardly his fault, what with the Kylie Minogue homage happening behind him, and he sings it wonderfully regardless. Maybe now I can finally stop confusing him with Richard Anderson. Hye Seoung Kwon's Dorinda is madcap and adorable, a lovelorn shepherdess who channels all that unrequited love into compulsive sock-knitting for Our Boys Over There. Vocally you couldn't ask for a better fit — after hearing Hye Seoung as both Oberto and Alcina last year, this is precisely the kind of role I wanted to hear her in, somewhere in the middle between bit-part boy and raging temptress. It also makes me more bewildered than ever by Opera Australia's decision to cast her as Fiordiligi in the Melbourne season of Cosi next year.
Our Orlando is Sonia Prina, and I'm happy to report that up close and without a beard, she doesn't look a thing like Eddie Izzard or Prince. Roles like this one are the reason singers such as Sonia Prina exist, so it's no surprise that she's excellent. It's not a voice I have been able to warm to — even since I forgave her for not being Ewa Podles — but that's not a criticism, it's just a quirk of personal taste. But I did like Tobias Cole more and more as the performance progressed; I heard so many people raving about him after his Cesare in 2006, and he more or less lived up to the hype.
I'm so transparent, aren't I? Yes, I'm saving Rachelle Durkin for last. I know the opera is not called Angelica but it's probably not long until I start inadvertently referring to it as such — I call Rinaldo, "Armida" and Giulio Cesare, "Cleopatra" almost without exception. I have made my feelings about Rachelle more than clear. That said, even I have to concede that her Donna Anna was not quite right. In Angelica she's back to the sort of blistering triumph I expect, however. The most preposterously difficult Handelian coloratura is but child's play to Rachelle: she not only meets the challenge but seems positively to relish it. Not that it's all about the fireworks. Her iridescent tone is just as striking in simple, lyrical music as in the fast'n'furious stuff and possibly even lovelier. I know Orlando's mad scene is the centrepiece, but my own personal showstopper was Rachelle's "Verdi piante", an aria I love but had totally forgotten came from this opera.
One of the nice things about Handel at the House is the reconfigured orchestra. It's shrunk to period size, and the floor of the pit is raised closer to stage level, making for lovelier sound, greater intimacy and, I would imagine, something resembling humane working conditions for musicians used to playing in that horrible cavern. With Handel specialist Paul Goodwin at the helm they make a glorious noise, in better form even than they were for Alcina.
What a relief that I enjoyed this so much. Because, on the strength of Alcina, and the mania it induced in me, I've been stockpiling tickets for Orlando. Alright, so it wasn't that much of a risk, since it's the Rachelle/Handel combination which makes me do these things, and that much at least was a guarantee. But it's much better when the whole experience, and not just the prima donna, bears repeating.