As light as a feather: Nico and the Navigators perform “Orlando” at the Handel festival in Halle
Love really can drive people crazy. It isn't hard to understand why a man goes off the rails if the woman he loves runs off with another man. But when just a few more minutes of opera has played out and the whole furore is remedied by little more than a snapping of one's fingers, with the man who but a moment before was stark raving mad becoming suddenly impeccably well-behaved and ready to accept the reality of how the relationships have panned out, then it should be clear to all that the storyline of George Frideric Handel's “Orlando” is best explained by something other than psychological realism.
This work, which was first performed in 1733, is at once one of Handel's most popular and most difficult operas. It is only a matter of months ago that the Norwegian Alexander Mörk-Eidem's attempt to take this rather rudimentary stalker story about a lovesick lunatic at face value ended in failure at the Komische Oper. One can well imagine that in the face of such a flop Nicola Hümpel felt justified in her resolve to come at her own staging of this awkward work from a directly opposed angle. In the Halle opera house, the Berlin-based independent theatre director doesn't care a jot about where her characters are going nor where they have come from and certainly doesn't attempt to present credible reasons for what is all too improbable. In her hands “Orlando” becomes a poetic round dance, whose images are drawn from the musical effect of the given moment. Thanks to Hümpel's informal and abstract production, which lasts a good three hours, Halle's Handel festival may well succeed in bringing a breath of fresh air to the baroque opera scene.
The success of the production should come as no surprise. Over the last few years Hümpel and her troupe of performers, Nico and the Navigators, have slowly turned towards opera, with two Schubert projects and most recently with the Handel medley of “Anaesthesia”, which was also developed for the Halle festival (and later performed in Berlin's Radialsystem). While this first array of images inspired by Handel admittedly seemed in parts to be rather artificial, the binding of the images to the framework of an operatic storyline creates a better balance for the freely associative fantasy with which Hümpel illustrates Handel's arias. Two of her Navigators are brought in to join the five singers on the pastel-coloured semicircle of the stage (Oliver Proske) and these two react to the music just as children would: Miyoko Urayama and Patric Schott spin around with arms outstretched like windmills, they perform a kind of martial-style karaoke with imaginary swords, they mess about with the shepherd's crooks and sheepskin rugs that the revolving stage has just delivered. This shift towards the poetic endows the production with a remarkable lightness and, almost without you realising it, even manages to make the characters believable. Since everybody here is behaving like children, with Angelica now preferring to play with Medoro than with Orlando, the question of psychological verisimilitude becomes superfluous. Orlando's delirium is the defiant reaction of a disappointed boy – impulsive and unbridled, but also quick to die down.
The story remains astonishingly clear, even though the five singers are only ever characterised by their offbeat fantastical costumes: Angelica with her silver space princess dress, the lily-livered Medoro as a charming E.T.A. Hoffmann character and the knight Orlando as a puzzled children's-book hero with a Russian hat and little suitcase.
That this feather-light evening wants for nothing is also due to the fact that Halle relies not on the stars of coloratura but on young and talented new performers: the wonderfully saucer-eyed young Brit Owen Willetts, who takes on the much-feared title role with a sensuous alto voice, and the young Russian Dmitry Egorov (Medoro), a silky smooth counter tenor. Both are real discoveries for baroque opera. The performance of the Halle Festival Orchestra, conducted by Bernhard Forck, the concertmaster of the Berlin Academy for Ancient Music, which is pleasant-sounding rather than electrifying, also fits in well with Hümpel's informal Handel fantasy. In the orchestral pit the music is enjoyed rather than held up on display. And that too can be a very agreeable thing.
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