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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Opera Review: The Reality of Their Surroundings

MSM presents Haydn's Orlando Paladino.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Loco del calor: Kidon Choi (left) and Cameron Johnson in Orlando Paladino.
Photo © 2014 Manhattan School of Music.
It's not always easy to make opera appeal to contemporary audiences. When that opera is Haydn's 1782 opera Orlando Paladino, a court opera written for the private theater of Prince Esterhazy and based on an Italian epic poem that premiered in the year 1513, the task is doubly difficult. Happily, the Manhattan School of Music and director Robin Guarino have closed out their season with this bold, innovative production that explored the increasingly blurred line between the packaged insanity of so-called "reality" television and the terrifying reality of actual insanity.

Ms. Guarino, whose credits this season include an interesting double bill by Gotham Chamber Opera, presents the somewhat antiquated storyline in claustrophobic television studio--the setting for a "reality" show like Big Brother. Pop-art eyes and bold colors predominate, and the characters (medieval knights, squires and ladies in the original libretto) hurtle through the unit set as the cameras drink it in. The opera audience itself becomes the ultimate voyeurs as the story of Orlando's madness and eventual rehabilitation plays itself out.

No singer was allowed to dominate the ensemble, thanks to judicious trims and edits to the score in William Tracy's performing edition. Conductor Chritian Capioccia led crisp, clean textures in the Borden Auditorium pit, working and maintaining close contact with the singers throughout the two acts.  Tenor Elliott Page used his agile, bold instrument to good effect as Orlando, when he wasn't sitting downstage snorting cocaine off the screen of an iPad or engaging in (jittery) Asian-style meditation. His glowering presence anchored the visuals of the evening, part actor waiting in his dressing room, part a reflection of the attention deficiencies of the modern celebrity.

Baritone Cameron Johnson brought an easy likeablity and considerable charm to Pasquale, a proto-Figaro who gives this show much of its comic energy absolutely nailing the Act II aria where he parodies the faded genre of opera seria in a very Haydn-esque outburst of musical humor. This was one of the most astonishing displays of conservatory training seen onstage in recent years. Baritone Kidon Choi bulled his way across the stage as Rodomante, in a knockabout performance that was as funny as it was fearless. Finally, tenor Thomas Mulder was sweetly ineffectual as the ardent Medoro, Orlando's rival for Angelina's hand.

As Angelica, Leela Subramaniam displayed an impressive young voice that flew fearlessly into the high tessitura of the part, singing Haydn's athletic vocal lines with agility and grace. Alcina (Margaret Newcomb) appeared as the "celebrity" host of the program, giving advice to Angelina by telephone and appearing on the cover of her own Oprah-like magazine.  Kerstin Bauer's soubrette-sized mezzo was suited to the part of Eurilla: she had real chemistry with Mr. Johnson in their witty Act II love duet--which took place downstage as the TV set was converted into...

An asylum. Ms. Guarino unveiled her plot twist. The whole "reality TV" set--a collective hallucination of the main characters, is really a particularly brutal mental institution with Pasquale, Eurilla and "Doctor" Alcina serving as its keepers. The trappings of the studio were gradually stripped away. The two TV stagehands (Justin Austin and Alexander Frankel) are revealed to be orderlies. The pop art is replaced by a medication schedule. The television cameras become stock security monitors, and Rodomante's hand-held cam becomes a Fisher-Price toy.  As for Orlando, his "madness" turns to docility after the burly Mr. Page was strapped to a table and given electroshock therapy.

The final scene of Orlando was set squarely in the madhouse, with the massive opera-ending septet staged as a form of group therapy. As Rodomante attempted to "film" the action with his toy camera (being sent repeatedly to the "corner" by Pasquale), Medoro (now an obsessive-compulsive) kept trying to mount Angelina. In all this chaos, the freshly zapped Orlando sat and stared, singing his lines as the chaos whirled around him. It may not be what was planned for in that theater in Esterhazy, but it might be a success on deep cable.

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