Witness of History: Orlando at the Wiener Staatsoper

Olga Neuwirth – Orlando

Orlando – Kate Lindsey
Narrator – Anna Clementi
Guardian Angel – Eric Jurenas
Queen/Purity/Friend of Orlando’s Child – Constance Hauman
Modesty – Margaret Plummer
Sasha/Chastity – Agneta Eichenholz
Shelmerdine/Greene – Leigh Melrose
Dryden – Markus Pelz
Addison – Carlos Osuna
Duke – Wolfgang Bankl
Pope – Christian Miedl
Orlando’s Child – Justin Vivian Bond
Putto – Emil Lang
Doctor 1 – Wolfram Igor Derntl
Doctor 2 – Hans Peter Kammerer
Doctor 3 – Ayk Martirossian
Orlando’s Girlfriend/Lead singer – Katie La Folle
Lead singer – Ewelina Jurga

Opernschule der Wiener Staatsoper, Chorakademie der Wiener Staatsoper, Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Matthias Pintscher.
Stage director – Polly Graham.

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria.  Saturday, December 14th, 2019.

With this new opera, premiered just last week at the Wiener Staatsoper, Olga Neuwirth and her librettist Catherine Filloux made history.  Orlando is the first opera written by a woman to be performed on the main stage of this venerable institution.  The weight of history is heavy, especially in Austria, and the need to make a real statement to rewrite the centuries of wrong, in the space of three and a quarter hours, must have been exceptionally demanding.  However I left the theatre tonight with a question, does Orlando work as a cogent musical-dramatic experience?

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

The answer, for this spectator, is that Orlando as it currently stands is an audacious, ambitious and assured piece of musical writing.  But it also felt that it tried to do too much.  Yes, this is a work that creates a real step forward for this institution, bringing it (literally) kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.  At the same time, it felt that in covering so much ground, Neuwirth and Filloux’s libretto remained on the surface, never quite delving underneath to bring out the essentials at the heart of the work.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Orlando is billed as a ‘fictional musical biography after’ Virginia Woolf’s eponymous work.  In this respect, it’s a piece inspired by, rather than a setting of, the literary source.  The first half of the evening is a fairly straightforward retelling of Woolf’s biographical novel.  The second, imagines what might have happened had Woolf lived until today.  Neuwirth and Filloux addressed the Shoah, illustrated with names of those lost projected on the stage, while a recording of the slow movement of Bach’s double violin concerto played.  They also brought up 1960s counterculture, with a band on stage featuring electric guitars, a drum kit and a Hammond organ.  There was a section on right wing populism, sexism in literary theory, the horror and tragedy of child sexual abuse and, just when it seemed there was nothing left to explore, the well-trained children’s chorus started singing about climate change.  The absolutely exhilarating sequence where Justin Vivian Bond, playing Orlando’s child, gave a rousing speech about their identity as gender non-binary, was definitely a highlight of the evening – a terrific moment of standing up to a traditionally conservative audience.  But it didn’t quite dispel the impression that this is basically a work that is two operas in one – a piece that could conceivably be split and developed further into two substantial operas.  This impression was sustained by the fact that the theme of Orlando’s writing not being taken seriously, after her change of gender from male to female, was barely explored.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Polly Graham’s staging also brought out the two-sided nature of the evening.  The first half was very austere, visual interest provided by screens at the back of the stage offering random imagery, as well as a live-action camera offering close-ups of Orlando.  The chorus was marched on and off, singing their music from tablet computers.  In the second half, the screens took on more colour.  A deliciously raucous scene, celebrating trans identity, and also a tartan-bedecked figure simulating orally devouring ladies’ genital areas, were certainly memorable.  I must admit I wasn’t expecting to hear the lines ‘It’s great to have a vong/It’s great to have a ding-dong’ at the Wiener Staatsoper.  With an extensive cast, and a large number of cameos, it was inevitable that, apart from the title role, we barely got a sense of the others who were important in Orlando’s life.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

With the full resources of the house at her disposal, Neuwrirth uses an enormous orchestra.  The score is exceptionally well crafted, revealing an extraordinary ear for sound.  Neuwirth, and her sound designers, skilfully manage to echo the chorus and orchestra, with resonances emerging from the chandelier, bathing the house in a glow of sound.  The fact that the strings were tuned a quarter-tone below the rest, leaving us with a perturbed sense of not having a tonal anchor, was ingenious.  The score had so many echoes of those who had gone before, often simultaneously – renaissance polyphony combined with a jazzy beat, hints of Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler, along with bluesy wah-wah trumpets.  But again, it left me with the overriding impression of being seriously impressed by the artistry behind the music, along with a sense of the ambition and audaciousness exploited to the full, but trying to say too much, and in so doing lacking a concentrated, cogent musical narrative.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Matthias Pintscher led the Staatsoper orchestra, rock combo, children’s and adult choruses with skill, marshalling and maintaining the disparate forces together with ease.  It had clearly been thoroughly well rehearsed, the only blemish a single ragged brass entry in the entire evening.  The ladies of the Staatsoper chorus sounded a little blowzy in the renaissance polyphony sections, but the chorus, as a whole, displayed an impeccable accuracy of pitching.  A special mention to percussion soloist, Lucas Niggli, who was seriously impressive in his interjections.  From my seat, in a loge to the side, the sound design balance wasn’t always optimal for Anna Clementi’s Narrator and Bond’s Orlando’s Child.  Bond’s inspiring speech was all but drowned out by the musical forces, despite Bond being amplified.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Neuwirth’s vocal writing was challenging, not least for Kate Lindsey’s Orlando.  It’s a massive sing and Lindsey was absolutely tireless throughout.  Neuwirth gives the male Orlando a very low tessitura, which Lindsey navigated with dark chocolate chestiness.  She exploited an admirable range of tone colours – varying her use of vibrato, for instance, or switching between a full-bodied, ruby-red mezzo, to a bright shining soprano-ish height.  She navigated some florid Handel-inspired passagework with ease and revealed an elegant legato in a haunting arioso.  Tonight, Lindsey gave us a career-defining performance of inspirational dedication.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Eric Jurenas was a constant presence on stage as the Guardian Angel.  The role takes him to the heights of his rounded countertenor, but the registers were absolutely integrated, and he blended magically with Lindsey in their duets.  Leigh Melrose’s roles took him to the extremes, into tenorial heights and beyond into falsetto.  He dispatched the challenging music with accuracy and no little enthusiasm.  Agneta Eichenholz’s roles revealed a soprano of pearly duskiness and ease on high.  Clementi’s spoken delivery as the Narrator was clear and laconic, even if she was often drowned out by the sound mix.  Bond sang as well as spoke, which they did in a compact, buzzy baritone, more than holding their own with their operatic colleagues.  The remaining cameos, some extremely short, revealed the wealth of talent available to the house.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Orlando is without doubt an extremely important work and is a significant moment in the history of this house – and of opera in general.  It’s a work of ambition and vision, skilfully written.  There were some terrific moments – with quotes from Lady Gaga, Beth Ditto and the Rolling Stones in the libretto.  The gender and genre-busting elements were inspirational, and that precise refusal to conform to form, to gender and genre, gave this work a tremendously vibrant edge,  Yet ultimately, I can’t stop reflecting on the fact that this is ultimately two operas in one and that, as a result, a number of elements – especially those reflections on the differential treatment of women’s work – were underdeveloped.  As an evening at the opera, exceptionally well performed, it was definitely enjoyable.  At the close, the warm reception to this brave and audacious work, given to the cast by the sold-out auditorium, made for a very satisfying conclusion.

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  1. >>The first half of the evening is a fairly straightforward retelling of Woolf’s biography. The second, imagines what might have happened had Woolf lived until today.

    That’s a surprise! I thought it was re-telling of Orlando, VW-written fictionalized biography of Vita Sackville West?

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