HANDEL’S “ORLANDO” – Tonight At The Herbst. An interview with conductor Nicholas McGagan

Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra present “Orlando’s Madness” in four Bay Area Performances, April 8th through Tuesday, April 13th
“The greatest musical form of the Baroque is opera and Handel’s works for the stage are among the era’s crowning glories,” says Music Director Nicholas McGegan.

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The last time I saw Orlando was the 1985 production at San Francisco Opera. It starred the incomparable Marilyn Horne in the title role – a “pants role”. Handsome sideburns. Roller coaster cadenzas. Style. English Soprano Valerie Masterson was on fire as the love interest, “The Queen of Cathay”, while a young and very determined Ruth Ann Swenson sang “a shepherdess”. Curls and frills all-a-twinkle. Swenson was with some heavy-hitters. It was time to unleash the prima donna. The opera – produced in co-operation with Lyric Opera of Chicago, sets by John Pascoe and costumes by Michael Stennet – was completely magical. Led by conductor Charles Mackerras, the decibel energy around Horne, Masterson and Swenson stretched between pink effervescence and volcanic blast. It sparked my interest in Handel. After a conversation with Music Director Nicholas McGegan, I am very interested in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

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NICHOLAS McGEGAN, Conductor

Seán: How did you decide on ORLANDO for the season? What’s your passion around this opera?

Nicholas: It’s a Handel opera I’ve done a great deal actually. I first played in it back in the ’70s in a production in the UK. I staged it in 1983 at Washington University in St. Louis and I’ve done it several times since. I run a Handel festival in Germany. We did Orlando in 2008 – a fully staged production, with this cast. Then last summer we took that to the Court Theatre at Drottningholm in Sweden. A little 18th Century theater where everything survived. Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Flute was filmed there. It seemed a very good idea – since we already had a very good cast who knew the score inside/out – to bring it as a means of closing-up the Philharmonia season. It was with a different orchestra, but some of the Philharmonia members play in it during the summer. So, what we’re doing at the moment is putting the cast who know it with the orchestra who is learning it. The only major difference is – when we did it Sweden we had costumes, Baroque flying machines and full staging, which of course we can’t do here. We’re in churches, concert halls, different ones every night. It’s not quite a concert performance. They’re not using music and they do move around. What we can’t do is fly up to the sky in a Dragon chariot. From that point of view, it’s sort-of like a radio play.

Seán: What does Orlando have to say to a contemporary audience?

Nicholas: Saying it’s a “Moral Tale” will put people off, of course. Ultimately, it is a moral tale: Extravagance of passion will drive you crazy.

Seán: It drives a lotta people crazy!

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WILLIAM TOWERS – “Orlando”

Nicholas: Yes! It’s a fairly timeless concept. Here you see Orlando going mad for love. His love is eventually cured by a very 18th Century character, whose name is not in the original. His name is “Zoroastro” – who is the same as “Sarastro” in The Magic Flute. He’s a benign Magus, if you like – a benign wizard. He watches over Orlando, but goes to the depths. Literally, Orlando sinks to the depths because he imagines he has gone to hell. But he’s cured by the wizard. The message is: Don’t do anything to extremes. Of course, opera is all about extremes. If it were all about being careful, then no one would go.

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Dominique Labelle and Diana Moore

Seán: How did you choose your cast members?

Nicholas: They are all people with whom I have worked quite a lot, both in the states and in Europe. So, it’s a completely international cast. The hero is sung by William Towers who is from England. We were both at Cambridge University, although he’s a lot younger than me. He is one of the rising countertenor stars of Europe. He came to Philharmonia a couple of years ago when he sang in Handel’s Belshazzar. Dominique Labelle is our “Angelica”. She is French Canadian and lives in Boston. She has sung with the orchestra a great deal over the last 20 years. She is Orlando’s love interest, but it’s entirely one-sided because she is love with somebody else.

Seán: That’s where your mezzo-soprano comes in.

Nicholas: Yes, Diana Moore plays a Moor, like Othello, a chap called “Medoro”. It’s a pants role, a female playing a male character, which was very popular in the 18th Century. Women really liked playing the pants roles because they got to show off their legs – as opposed to wearing the great sofa-size dresses. Diana is nearly six-foot tall, so she’s like Susan Graham. Diana is from England and I think this will be her American debut. She’s never been to California before, but is in love with it already.

Seán: As a native San Franciscan, I can appreciate that.

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Wolf Matthias Friedrich and Susanne Rydén

Nicholas: I’m a 25-year resident and very proud of it, too. So, I’m very happy to show everything off to these people. Our German bass, Wolf Matthias Friedrich, who sings “Zoroastro”, will make his American debut. He is a coloratura bass. He sings hundreds of notes, very deep.

Seán: Is the character the same as in Mozart’s Magic Flute?

Nicholas: In a sense, yes, but he’s a benign wise man.

Seán: How often do you run into a coloratura bass?

Nicholas: Rossini has a lot of them. Handel always wrote for specific singers and this guy, Antonio Montagnana, was an absolute star. He could sing both low and fast. He was one of Handel’s very best singers and “Zoroastro” was written for him. Then there’s one more character, “Dorinda” – she’s an addition to the piece, not in the original poem. She’s a shepherdess. What she represents – in this crazy world of heros and heroines, wizards and queens – is the person who actually works for a living. She’s enchanted by all these crazy rich people and, at the same time, gets hurt by them. She’s in the sort-of soap opera world of the fabulously wealthy.

Seán: In other words, way-outside The Circle.

Nicholas: She talks to the audience and says, “What are all these crazy people doing here?” The role was actually created for a Neapolitan comic singer who had recently arrived in London. Handel added this role for her, to be the Everyman / Everywoman.

Seán: Isn’t it amazing how a composer finds inspiration through a particular celebrity? They compose for that personality, but the same “individual” keeps showing up as the centuries roll by.

Nicholas: They do! Mozart and Handel always wrote for specific singers. And if the singers changed, the piece was re-written. For example, when Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro, the soprano who sang “Susanna” was Nancy Storace. When she left and someone else took over, he rewrote some of the role – in an opera that we think of as perfect. Because, the lady playing it had other things to offer. They did not think of opera – as Wagner did – as being written in stone.

Seán: Do we know which version survived?

Nicholas: In Figaro, both versions have. We know exactly what was written for whom. In the case of Orlando, it’s very easy. It was given ten performances when it first ran in 1733 and was never revived. So, we’ve only got the first version. He never revised it. The reason being, the person singing “Orlando” – called Senesino – went back to Italy. He was not only a fantastic singer but a brilliant actor. It was a role tailor-made for him – to act crazy. Not all singers could act well. It was such a role that could not be repeated by anybody else.

Seán: Does the resurgence in popularity of 18th Century opera have anything to do with the number of countertenors coming on the scene these days as opposed to about ten or fifteen years ago?

Nicholas: I think that’s certainly got something to do with it. David Daniels has an enormous following. It’s also about great mezzo-sopranos like Susan Graham who sing a lot of this stuff. There are lots of opera companies – both big and small – who are doing these composers, including operas by Vivaldi. San Francisco Opera did at least one [Orlando Furioso, 1989]. The trouble with a lot of the Vivaldi operas is that we have the librettos but the music has been burned. When theaters burned down, the music got lost. We know that he wrote perhaps twice as many operas as have actually survived. But we still have about fifteen, so we should be very happy.

Seán: That would keep the Philharmonia busy for a while. What’s on your calendar after Orlando?

Nicholas: I go straight to Europe to do some Beethoven concerts and then another Handel opera,Tamerlano. That’s happening in Göttingen, Germany – where my Handel Festival is. No break, no piece for the wicked.

Seán: But that’s a good thing, right?

Nicholas: One Handel opera followed by another is a great thing.

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THE PHILHARMONIA BAROQUE ORCHESTRA

Handel’s Orlando will be presented at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco on Thursday, April 8th, at 7:00 p.m.; at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on Saturday, April 10th, at 7:00 p.m. and on Sunday, April 11th, at 6:00 p.m. and at Palo Alto’s First United Methodist Church on Tuesday, April 13th, at 7:00 p.m.
Click here to purchase tickets on-line: ORLANDO

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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