[Reminiscing Viehbrock: Nadja Stefanoff as Alcina in Vivaldi’s “Orlando furioso”, Bremen 2013. – Photo Credit: Jörg Landsberg]
While Händel’s operas get tackled more and more often by conventional repertory theater companies, a Vivaldi in such a setting is still a bit of a novelty. Naturally, I was thrilled to hear that Bremen planned to put on “Orlando furioso”.
After seeing the performance (which made me think throughout “someone has watched their Stuttgart Alcina thoroughly!”), I have to admit that it made me think – not just on a musical and scenical level (good and solid on both counts), but on doing Baroque opera within non-specialized opera companies, what that means for casting, and how casting ultimately navigates my expectations as a viewer.
Conventional opera companies, as Germany has a fabulous great many, are supported by tax money (and facing crazy cuts in recent years, but that is a harsh topic for another time) and cover the classic repertory: late 18th to mid-20th century, mostly. Other than in most other countries, German theaters play repertory (x productions per year in intermingled repetition, no break phases) instead of stagione (one production at a time, a row of performances, then a break while the next production gets rehearsed), which is a marvelous thing, since it makes works a lot more available, even if it means a lot more stress for the people involved.
So what happens when such a company – medium-sized in case of Bremen – tackles Early Music opera repertory? Other than big festivals and large Europeans houses, there is usually no budget to buy a specialized period ensemble, so the normal opera orchestra (modern instruments, usual repertory 18th to 20th century) has to tackle it, the only exception being the continuo group (cembalo, Baroque bass/viola da gamba, theorbo and or chitarrone) and perhaps a few selected guest soloists, since the conventional opera ensembles usually don’t have Early Music specialists on their payroll – which mainly means no countertenors and, in case of Vivaldi, no contralto.
When I first read the cast listing, I assumed that at least the Orlando would be a hired guest, not a company regular. It was a man’s name, so I assumed they had hired a countertenor. I confess to being snobbishly miffed at that since I love my Orlandos with contralto depth and enough power to truly rattle the hinges on “Nel profondo”.
Imagine my surprise when, in between the company’s yearbook and the evening’s program – I realized that with the exception of Bradamante (double-cast; the other one was also part of the regular company), the entire production had been cast out of the regular company soloists. So Martin Kronthaler in the title role was not a guest countertenor but a baritone (with some Early Music training). Now I know there *is* an official baritone version for the “Orlando furioso” by Vivaldi himself, unearthed last year in Beaune, but this wasn’t it.
If you recall the lavish Paris production from 2011, there was Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Orlando, contralto) next to Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero, soprano/mezzo), Krstina Hammarström (Bradamante, mezzo) Romina Basso (Medoro, mezzo), Veronica Cangemi (Angelica, soprano), Jennifer Larmore (Alcina, mezzo), and Christian Senn (baritone).
In the Bremen production, we were three mezzos and a contralto (and a good hour of music – the work had been cut to under three hours) short. I kid you not.
Next to Martin Kronthaler (Orlando, baritone), there were Hyojong Kim (Ruggiero, classical lyric tenor), Cristina Piccardi (Bradamante, soprano (!)), Christoph Heinrich (Medoro, bass-baritone), Alexandra Scherrmann (Angelica, soprano), Patrick Zielke (Astolfo, bass – some fine acting here, one to watch out for) and, as the lone mezzo, Bremen audience favorite Nadja Stefanoff (Alcina, mezzo), whom I caught three years ago as swoon-worthy James Dean Octavian.
So actually the only roles unchanged were Alcina, Angelica and Astolfo, while the rest was removed from the familiar mezzo/contralto realm an octave lower: tenor, baritone, bass-baritone, bass. It does make a great difference. I never realized how attuned I am to having a lot of Baroque heroic parts translated to me by mezzo voices and faced with the fine Bremen performance, I felt like an utter Early Music festival snob.
The singers were fine. Not just “oh, for someone without a degree in Early Music, this is quite admirable”, but for the most part, truly fine. The fissures were most audible when it came to fast coloratura and long runs, both things bigger, “conventional” opera voices are generally not educated towards. It took me a while to get into it – especially as man after man walked out, opened his mouth and sang… low – but in between the singing and a solid psychological reading (staging: Ana-Sophie Mahler) in a weathered hotel lobby setting, the evening was convincing.
The orchestra, conducted by guest Olof Bomonn, was a particularly pleasant surprise. They played a fantastically crunchy, transparent, dynamic and flexible Vivaldi and you wouldn’t have guessed that their next opening is going to be “La Traviata”. Really impressive.
Still, I missed my contralto. And my mezzos. And – both snobbish and shallow – I missed women in trousers running after other women. Bradamante *was* wearing trousers (tight Glencheck riding pants and heels), but it just wasn’t the same watching her chase after a tenor (never mind that pink pajama set her wore. We shall not speak of it). Not even a countertenor or male soprano!
And I felt like a hypocrite, with all my: “It’s about the voice, not the body!” – because while a lot of it is about the mezzo voice and its qualities that I have lerned to read and hear as gender-transcending, I am also someone raised within a clear biologially based gender dichotomy who cannot unsee the sex. I don’t notice it when I see women playing men’s parts since that feeds into my individual disposition of desire, but I did, that night at the theater, strangely notice it in the absence of women’s bodies, and high voices.
The latent queerness that still breathes a different concept of body (even if much of it is anachronistic projection from us latter-borns) that draws me strongly towards Baroque opera was nearly nullified here, and despite it being – as said above – a well-sung and well-acted evening, it didn’t connect to me as e.g. the 2011 Paris production did, even though the staging there was arguably less concise there.
The Bremen production is probably the straightest setting of any “Orlando” episode I have ever seen. And on one hand, I understand that it is the only way – and in this case, with a very successful result – to do Baroque opera within a conventional company frame: cast from within the payroll, transcribe parts if necessary, focus on singing and acting well. And I do want this repertory to grow roots within companies and audiences that usually stick to Verdi, Wagner and Mozart. But on the other hand, I wonder whether the massive shift of sonal sphere does take too much away from the essence of “Orlando furioso” and of the oscillating Baroque queerness that the mezzo voice embodies so well – especially in a work about the borders of the mind and the relation to madness.
And I am left wondering: is this only a fake argument of a disgruntled opera dyke who felt robbed of her shallow engagement with female bodies interacting in a romantic setting on stage? Shouldn’t I get over my own hypocrisy and focus on good singing, acting and storytelling? Or is there indeed a spirit of both sound and body (and the lack of sexually defined bodies) that is particular to Baroque opera and that ends up extinguished under the framework of modern day casting and hearing conventions?
On a final note, though, the evening wasn’t all straight. Leave it to Alcina (the wonderful Nadja Stefanoff, whose voice clearly is no Early Music vehicle, but is just as clearly is an enganging singer-actress with a hefty middle register) to queer the evening up a little with hitting on Angelica throughout the first act while she helps her win Medoro back. And it makes sense, really: Alcina has been through a slew of knights, animals and inanimate objects (okay, those two after the fact . we know the story), so it didn’t feel like a stretch to think she’d bewitched a princess or knightress along the way, as well.
Actually, I always wondered what would have happened if instead of Ruggiero, Bradamante in her chain armour would have appeared first on Alcina’s enchanted island. After all, a mezzo is a mezzo and the body shouldn’t matter? – But that’s perhaps a story for the books of Fiordespina…