From Charlemagne to the Blitz, in S.F. Opera’s Orlando

Director Harry Fehr on the decision to update Handel's opera, and why Baroque pieces don't get performed as often as they should.

So many Romantic operas gush with highly emotive paeans to love as the ultimate virtue that you could be forgiven for thinking that’s what opera is intrinsically about. And while the San Francisco Opera staged Bizet’s Carmen in its 2018-19 season, it also chose to resurrect Orlando, George Frideric Handel‘s 1733 adaptation of the earlier Italian epic, Orlando Furioso

Initially set during the reign of Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.) when the magician Zoroastro attempts to coax the warrior Orlando back into battle, S.F. Opera updated it so that it takes place during the Blitz, the German aerial bombardment of the U.K. in the early phase of World War II.

SF Weekly spoke with Orlando director Harry Fehr about updating the story from the ninth century to the 20th century, why love may not necessarily be the greatest after all, and why Baroque operas like Orlando don’t always see the light of day. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


In terms of updating the story from the time of Charlemagne to the Second World War, was that an artistic decision that you made with respect to contemporary politics, or to make the opera more accessible to contemporary audiences, or was there some other rationale?

I supposed the starting point for it was that it’s not the easiest narrative to convey clearly, given the away Handel and his adapters make the rounds, with characters being cut off, et cetera. The motivation for what is going on can make the clarity of the narrative difficult, so my design team and I were really keen that we should present it in a way which makes it feel as clear and as straightforward and as engaging as possible.

I suppose that’s the way that I always approach working with slightly problematic writing. We looked for ways to present the narrative in the clearest way possible when dealing with a narrative which involves soldiers suffering in a time of war — and particularly someone with a strong interest in the hero Orlando’s psychological state. It just became increasingly apparent that we wanted to go into a period closer to our own time. We considered the First World War but ultimately, the Second World War seemed most appropriate for various details in the plot.

Considering the history of all wars since World War II, they’ve always had a much murkier moral valence whereas the Second World War — almost unique among wars — has a very clear-cut case of good guys versus bad guys. Was that helpful for you?

It’s true. To be honest, that degree of moral certainty wasn’t at the forefront of our minds. Even while I concede your point, the very fact that Zoroastro (Christian Van Horn) — who is a magician in the original and in this production is a psychiatrist is trying to get Orlando (Sasha Cooke) back to fight at any cost — his motivations seem slightly murky. I’m interested in our audience leaving the production questioning whether the technique that Zoroastro has applied to try and cure Orlando of his madness, of his suffering, are really worth it simply to get him back into a plane so he can fight.

Are there any elements of the original Handel opera that you retained or snuck in in a way that mostly well-versed fans might appreciate on the first viewing?

I suppose what I hope that I’ve done is that I’ve found crafty and sometimes even witty ways to present the narrative which remains faithful to Handel’s intentions but which works with the setting we’ve provided. One example is that early on in the piece, Zoroastro is trying to convince Orlando to give up his lover Angelica (Heidi Stober) and return to battle, and the libretto does that by presenting him of an image of various heroes of antiquity asleep at his feet. Obviously, the idea behind that being if you follow love, then you lose all sense of glory. So, for example, images of Hercules no longer fighting a battle but instead allowing himself to become soft, or as Zoroastro says, by being in love.

To present that analogy in the context of the Second World War, Zoroastro presents a series of slides to Orlando detailing the relationship of the English king Edward VIII with the American divorcée Wallace Simpson in the mid-1930s. I appreciate that an American audience may not know this bit of history as immediately as a British audience would do, but Edward was unable to marry a divorcee and he gave up what many considered to be his duty in favor of love. So he abdicated to marry this divorcée. However, in the mid-1930s, he and Wallace developed some sympathy toward the German regime and he met Hitler on several occasions. So what this slideshow shows is how Edward ultimately forsook his duty for love and essentially became a Nazi sympathizer.

Hopefully most audiences have seen The Crown Season 1, so maybe they know about this chapter. But yeah, that’s slightly obscure. It’s also a very different conception of love than an opera like Carmen presents.

I enjoy all repertory as someone who likes to go to the opera and listen to it at home, but sometimes with Puccini — for example — I tend to feel manipulated into feeling very specific responses. Whereas, if I listen to Handel, I find it intensely in a way that feels as if I have a bit more space to find my own response to what’s going on. I think that it’s a key theme often in Handel’s work: the battle between love and duty. That’s not original to Handel — Verdi’s works display that as well. But I suppose Orlando particularly is a piece which doesn’t seem to push one agenda over the other, so all the characters are quite complicated, they all have positive and negative sides to their character.

So Angelica, for example, is the heroine — but she’s not in love with the hero. She’s not in love with Orlando. She’s in love with someone who’s much younger than her, and so she deeply questioning the legitimacy of that relationship, whether she should allow herself to have these feelings. While we have this other character, Dorinda (Christina Gansch), who’s in love with the character of Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who Angelica is also in love with) but Dorinda is certainly not a romantic. Her journey through the piece is that love can bring great joy, but it can also bring great suffering and distress. I think that’s quite a modern way of looking at love — unlike the 19th-century repertory, which can sometimes suggest that love is the be-all and end-all.

Orlando is considered is quite technically difficult for the performers, is it not?

Absolutely. What was fascinating, when I think about Handel’s work, is that he was writing for the very best singers. He would get the very best European singers to come to London and to sing for the very discerning London public, and his music absolutely pushes what the voice is capable of doing, along the lines of coloratura which is very difficult and demands great breath control et cetera. All five of our singers are absolutely up to the task, but they have to be world-class singers to be able to do so.

I know the last time the San Francisco Opera performed this was in 1985. Has this been languishing in relative obscurity simply because of its difficulty, or because baroque opera not much of a draw as the Romantic workhorses?

It does seem to be the case, as you say, that pieces like Carmen and Tosca get done again and again and again, and Baroque opera seems to have a slightly  smaller audience, which I think is a shame because I think it has great draws to it. What I can also say is that Handel has a huge number of works. He wrote something like 40 operas and actually I think one of the reasons that Orlando doesn’t get done so much is that because a company wanting to program a Handel opera has so many to choose from. I will say that Orlando is one of the very best. It’s from a particularly rich period of Handel’s artistic life in the early 1730s, when he adapted three operas from Orlando Furioso. I can see why it doesn’t get done all the time, but I think if one is choosing Handel, then Orlando is one of the very best to program.

Orlando, five performances through June 27, at the San Francisco Opera, tickets here.

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