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The main challenges taken up by Pierre Audi – stage director and director of the Nederlandse Opera – for this new production are to approach Handel’s work without bias, to take a close look at Orlando’s journey into madness and to develop contemporary mechanisms which allow a modern form to be given to magic and baroque machinery. He proposes an unexpected and spectacular view, with the flames of desire and destruction dominating under the gaze of reason, which takes the form of an alternately threatening and kindly eagle.
During the presentation of the model for this production, you pointed out the special importance of Orlando in Handel’s work. What do you mean by this?
Unlike other operas by Handel such as Tamerlano and Alcina which I have already staged, or Rodelinda or Ariodante, the story of Orlando is rather static with no element of suspense. It is a psychological – or even philosophical and mystical – opera which expresses very profound ideas, but which does not linger over an anecdotal narration. The result is that the theatrical work requires another investment: it is not enough to tell the story – one must also enter into the magic of the opera. In the 18th century, the (visible) transformations and the changes of scenery were an integral part of opera. Nowadays, a modern allegory must be found to link this theme with our contemporary sensibility.
You are familiar with the source of this opera, as you have staged Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso.
Yes, Ariosto’s Orlando furioso is used in very different ways by a great number of painters, composers, etc. Orlando’s madness has always fascinated artists. Handel did not use it in an opportunistic way to make beautiful music or vocal acrobatics; on the contrary, there is a true psychological study of the character which makes the opera captivating. Orlando is a fabulous character whose role is difficult to sing but also very interesting to play. The entire opera defines itself according to this main character. And Bejun Mehta is the best singer for this role, which makes the project all the more exciting. Orlando contrasts with the other characters in the story: Zoroastro, the Angelica-Medoro couple and also Dorinda. Zoroastro is important but somewhat oversimplified: he is a catalyst who brings out conflicts, without moralising. He offers a solution in the end, but this does not necessarily mean that Orlando is cured. In a certain way he is, but madness in love is not a curable disease. The main conflict in the opera is related to the pain of unrequited mad love, in favour of an 'ordinary' relationship. A failure to understand this causes Orlando to dive inwards and to battle with this refusal. His passion is transformed into violence, which is depicted in the opera without judgment or condemnation. The audience must feel Orlando's pain – very difficult and at the same time very beautiful.
How did you approach this story?
We decided to tell the story in an indirect manner. The only action in the opera is the destruction of Dorinda's house and the attempt to murder Angelica in the third act. This action is our starting point for entering into Orlando's torments. We imagine the latter as a heroic fireman as well as an arsonist who is dangerously fascinated by fire. The tension between the two extremes expresses the conflict between duty and love, presented by Zoroastro at the beginning of the opera. Faced with Angelica's refusal, duty quickly takes on secondary importance, as Orlando cannot live without expressing his passion. He cannot resolve this conflict except through violence or nihilism. In the first act, we imagined that Dorinda's house had already burnt down – we still do not know that Orlando had set it on fire – and that everybody survived. The second act was imagined as Orlando's nightmare: we are transported into his mind and experience his obsessive jealousy. In the third act, Dorinda's house is being rebuilt as the characters try to return to their lives. For Orlando, the problem is not solved and he tries to destroy this happiness. Zoroastro intervenes in order to give this suffering a happy ending. But how should the opera end? The character of Orlando is deeply marked by his conflict and his refusal to accept the situation. His madness is a 'flame': it is not possible simply to throw water on it. It should be left to burn until it goes out. The story remains open. The most difficult choice Orlando must make is to 'accept' a situation. But because he refuses to accept it, his only 'solution' is to internalise his madness instead of expressing it. The result is that Orlando is a character who is fundamentally alone. His solitude is mythical. Like Oedipus and Orpheus, he is a tragic figure who lives according to his shortcomings and gives rise to compassion, but who is never cured. Unlike Orlando, Dorinda succeeds in overcoming her difficulties – including the pain of unrequited love – by turning to religion. She accepts her fate.
According to the Zoroastrian religion, Zoroastro goes back to the fire god. Here, we use the symbol of fire – which is the symbol of Zoroastro – to make a link with Orlando: he is a fireman and in a way Orlando's 'boss'. The cult of fire and fascination with fire are at the heart of our concept.
How did you design the scenery?
The scenery was designed as a closed space – a place which is difficult to access and where one feels imprisoned. It is dominated by three landscapes (one for each act) centred on Dorinda's house. In other words, the same theme is presented in three different ways. Two video screens – one integrated into the scenery and one outside the scenery – will allow us to show the 'cinematographic' development of the story towards Orlando's destructive act. The house is transformed in each act: in the first act, the house is burnt in a realistic manner; in the second act, the house is set in a 'gothic' landscape, which corresponds to Orlando's nightmare; in the third act, the house is being rebuilt, representing renewal and hope. Video is used in an iconographic fashion in order to add a cinematographic dimension to a philosophical work. The camera 'intervenes' in the action in the same way that Zoroastro does. It is a new experience for me and a new step in the development of my theatrical expression.
Is this use of video inspired by cinema?
Video will be used lightly at the beginning of each act. I have already used video, but never with this type of theatre or with 17th or 18th century works. Here, video allows us to 'deconstruct' the story and to present a linear work in a non-linear fashion, by imagining certain parts as being flashbacks and others as flashforwards, and by mixing different types of reality. It is true that – already in my first Monteverdi production – I have played with narration times to achieve greater maturity in a story's time line. Until now this has been done in a relatively classic framework, yet with Orlando, the video elements are added to strange scenery and costume transformations.
Is it also a way of rendering the magical aspect of this opera?
Yes, absolutely. We present Orlando's storm of 'destruction' by using mysterious and repetitive actions – a technique which is comparable to that of certain filmmakers such as Michael Haneke. After the fashion of a certain type of cinema, in this case a trivial event contrasts with a very profound personal tragedy.
Interview by Marie Mergeay