Chicago Classical Review »» Haymarket Opera Reaches New Heights With Magnificent ‘Orlando’

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By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bejun Mehta in the title role of Handel Orlando for the Haymarket Opera House. Photo: Anna Cillan

Live opera is finally returning to the big stages and shop windows of Chicago, good news for dozens of local aficionados. Even having to wear a mask seems like a minor inconvenience to endure for the chance to experience great voices in the flesh again.

Haymarket Opera is the only medium for streaming, but success is hard to dispute. Baroque Opera Company‘s 10th Anniversary Season Streaming Performance Due to Pandemic Received High Praise for Handel’s Cinematic Presentations Acis and Galatea last October and Apollo and Dafne in March.

Haymarket is now crowning its 100% Handel year with Orlando, a sprawling evening opera, shot in June and presented online. Act 1 is currently available on haymarketopera.org. (Although Haymarket Opera is releasing the stream one act at a time, the full performance has been made available to critics.)

Haymarket’s first attempt at a Handel’s grand opera turned out to be a dud in 2018 with uneven cast and vocals Squeezed. The company clearly learned from this experience and the experience of Haymarket Opera Orlando is a magnificent achievement.

It feels like under the patient guidance of founder and artistic director Craig Trompeter, everything the company has done over the past decade has built on past successes and led to this. Orlando. Haymarket refined its tradition of presenting 18th-century-style operas, from a series of elaborate and sometimes distracting hand gestures to a more natural and compelling acting suited to the camera. The Haymarket Opera Orchestra period instrument has never sounded so good. And even with the inevitable asterisk that one hears the singers on a recording and not live and in person, almost all of the actors deliver world-class vocals and believable characterizations.

The plot of Orlando is, well, baroque. The amorous warrior Orlando is reprimanded by the sorcerer god Zoroastro for abandoning his heroic duties for the amorous pursuit of Angelica. Meanwhile Angélique is in love with the African prince Medoro whose shepherdess Dorinda is also in love. Hilarity doesn’t quite ensue in the midst of romantic complications as Orlando goes mad, returns to normal (more or less) and eventually all conflicts and vicissitudes are overcome in a final chorus of love and glory.

Emily Fons as Medoro and Kimberly Jones as Angelica in Haymarket Opera’s Orlando. Photo: Anna Cillan

As complicated as the story is, Orlando is musically among the richest of Handel’s operas with a remarkably stupendous flow of memorable tunes for each of the five singers, as well as a pair of engaging trios.

Haymarket did well to hire a big star to lead the cast. From his entry aria, “Stimulato dalla gloria”, Bejun Mehta immediately showed why he had been acclaimed in the title role. The countertenor made a perfectly dashing Orlando, perfectly in tune with the headstrong and unbalanced hero and looking and sounding considerably younger than his 53 years old. Mehta sang with a refined expression and a bell tone, fully encompassing the varied vocal demands. He was touching and fiery in “Vaghe pupille”, floated a softly sung “” Gia l’ebro mio ciglio “and launched the dizzying coloratura races and fireworks of” Cielo! ” If you consented ”and“ Fammi combattere ”with impressive speed and agility.

Like most of Handel’s operas, Orlando is a real ensemble job, with several opportunities for the five cast members. Having a star like Mehta in the cast seems to have motivated gifted Haymarket regulars to an even higher level of vocal art.

It was wonderful to find the immensely gifted Emily Fons in this production as Medoro. Though she hardly suggests an “African prince,” the mezzo-soprano’s engaging and androgynous presence had a captivating impact in this pant role. Fons was infallibly rich in voice and brought a truly touching humanity to dramatic moments (however ridiculous they may be). She sang beautifully and expressively throughout, and the baroque opera singing didn’t get much better than the stirring simplicity of the expression Fons brought to “Verdi allori”.

Erica Schuller is Dorinda in Handel’s Orlando. Photo: Anna Cillan

Company mainstay Erica Schuller seems to get better and better with each Haymarket production. The soprano turned out to be a charming and loving Dorinda, singing with beautiful purity of tone and easy flexibility. Like Mehta and Fons, Schuller provided several highlights with his sad tunes, including a moving “Quando spieighi i tuoi tormenti” and a magnificent rendition of “Se mi rivolgo al prato”. Schuller was also delightful in “Amor e qual vento” – meditating on the mind-boggling tortures of love – and that humorous tune would have stopped the show if there had been a live audience in the house.

Kimberly Jones as Angelica wasn’t quite in the same league as the rest of the cast. The soprano sang competently and displayed solid agility in “Non potra dirmi ingrata”. Yet she did little of Angelica’s Act 2 centerpiece, “Verdi Piante”, and the bold top notes and temperamental intonation have prevailed more than once, as with her “Se fedel”. vuoi ch’io ti creda “hard-hitting. Jones’ elementary acting and exaggerated expressions also seemed out of place next to the understated dramatic finesse of his colleagues.

David Govertsen is Zoroastro in Orlando. Photo: Anna Cillan

As the sorcerer Zoroastro who rather awkwardly tries to control the action of the opera, bass-baritone David Govertsen was at his best, bringing power and authority with every appearance and singing gloriously.

Director Sarah Edgar, who also made a cameo appearance in the silent role of Princess Isabella, skillfully avoided the monotony of stand-and-deliver and helped the singers convey the emotional core of each tune. Likewise, Garry Grasinski’s direction of the film was fluid and resourceful, as with the camera swinging wildly to reflect Orlando’s temporary insanity.

Zuleyka V. Benitez’s striking artwork and projections provided colorful visuals, enhanced by Stephanie Cluggish’s elaborate costumes during the company’s remarkable debut. Haymarket’s Orlando also made history as the first production to take place in DePaul University’s new Jarvis Opera Hall.

Craig Trompeter’s direction offered an ideal blend of dynamic urgency and lyrical warmth. The musical director‘s tendency for majestic tempos was well suited to Orlando, with its preponderance of moving arias. The Haymarket Opera Orchestra is now a finely honed period instrument machine and has performed with fire and sensitivity as needed on this nearly three hour score.

Haymarket Opera House Orlando is a highlight for the Chicago Baroque Opera Company. It is hoped that this successful production of a great Handel opera will bring even bigger and more ambitious things to come – and with a live audience.

Haymarket Opera releases its film Orlando in weekly installments. Act I is available now, Act 2 will be released on September 23, and Act 3 on September 30. The full opera will be available until October 31. haymarketopera.org

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