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Composer Jan Van Outryve, director Wouter van Loy, and the Muziektheater Transparant and DeRoovers companies are driven first and foremost by a desire to provide adolescents with an original and contemporary introduction to Antonio Vivaldi’s compelling music. In a clever staging comprising video projections and photography, this extraordinary oratorio – a refreshing collage of several of the most beautiful pages by the Italian composer – tells of Orlando’s love and passion. This production for old and young is the ideal chance to surprise your children or grandchildren.
What does the Orlando story have to offer a modern-day public?
When it comes to the character of Orlando, there is no ignoring the work of Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), an Italian poet, playwright and courtier at the ducal court of Ferrara. In 1516 he wrote the almost biblical epic poem Orlando furioso. It is a collection of verbally transmitted stories about the warrior Orlando and undoubtedly the source of the wealth of stories about Roland the Furious. I first came across Ariosto’s work when I made the production Viaggio sulla luna with graindelavoix and Björn Smeltzer for De Zomer van Antwerpen. In that show, which hinges around Orlando, we more or less had to do everything ourselves, from instrumentalist to puppeteer. It was a tremendous experience for me! We performed it among the audience in a large shed lit with candles. Even then I was struck by the sheer power and simplicity of those ancient stories and the opportunities for making images around them both musically and in terms of content. I had an overwhelming desire to translate them into my own world of sound. It was rather like the feeling you have when you read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example. Not only is it about people you don’t know, but you sense that something sacrosanct is being told that concerns us all. Things which everyone knows are expressed in such a way that they take you by surprise, rather than that you gradually come to hear of them. The Orlando story really has that sense of timelessness. In Orlando’s famous Lamento it is not only he who mourns his beloved but also the stones, the night, the trees, the whole of nature, everything weeps with him.
What prompted you to write the music for your Orlando and what were the influences?
It all started with Muziektheater Transparant asking me to do something with Antonio Vivaldi’s music and the Orlando story. Together with director Wouter Van Looy, the plan developed not literally of setting to work on Vivaldi’s masterpiece Orlando furioso but rather of looking for a symbiosis between the visual style of Ariosto’s story and the rich world of Vivaldi’s music in general. I really liked the idea of going back to the source and the search for the right music, the right instrumentalists and the right singers led by chance to something else which greatly influenced me: the work of the French artist, engraver and illustrator Gustave Doré. He visualized parts of the Orlando epic with his pen drawings in such a way that the surroundings of a scene, the subject matter of the surroundings, the temperature of the light and the external natural elements prevail over a situation between people, which is also what I wanted to achieve with the music. After a long experimental phase which resulted in a youth project entitled Villa Vivaldi, we eventually arrived at a form that might be described as an oratorio poem: story lines and characters zoom in and out, and what is left is partly a feeling of indefinableness and partly a strong sense of recognition.
So how did you decide which of Vivaldi’s works to choose?
I can best compare my approach to a child in a sweetshop crammed full of music goodies by Vivaldi. The output of that man in his lifetime is nothing short of incredible: concertos, operas, religious music, etc. With Vivaldi everything is crystal clear: life, youth, the cocaine of life, the southern, extrovert belief. Solos are often a tribute both to a particular instrument and to the freedom of life, and in addition to the passion of his music and the impressionist colours of his notes, the extrovert contrasts very sharply with the introvert. I take a large bag to put the best sweets in and take them home, I savour their presence, I divide them up or take one out to eat and eventually begin playing around with it. Then I go in search of instrumentalists and singers, people who move me, often people I already know and who know my way of working and have confidence in it. I think of other instruments from our time (always with the performer in mind) which would fit in well too. That is how I chose Hammond for ‘steaming coloured continuo’, percussion as the ‘school of emotions’, the diatonic accordion for ‘melancholic seduction’, one ‘upper filled violin free styled’ and one ‘contemporary roasted filled violin’, a cello ‘oozing romanticism’ and an ‘acoustically grounded’ double bass. A soprano for ‘the soul’ and a baritone as the storyteller. I make arrangements for this set of instruments, I look for a form, put everything into my computer, take it out again and I phone someone to try something out. Along the way new elements surface: selected passages of text, images we are looking for and things we want to be sure to say. I begin writing new things myself and I use my inspiration to add something timeless to the whole thing. That way I construct my own Orlando story from a sort of enormous box of Lego bricks.
How can the audience distinguish between the different characters in the voices with just two singers?
The musical form I chose is a concert form, comparable to an oratorio. Two singers tell a story about something that took place a long time ago. So as to penetrate the emotions and sensitivities of the different characters, they briefly act as if they are those people. After that they step out of their role again and continue with the narration. A translation of the text is projected so that the audience can follow that and understand who is singing what where and consequently be carried along by the music to the words of Ariosto.
You are also a performing musician, a lute player. What does it feel like not to take an active part in performing a work you have been so closely involved in?
In some projects I perform myself, but sometimes I like to keep a distance so that I can hear better what is happening. As a lute and continuo player, I know Vivaldi’s music inside out. It is the role of basso continuo players to accompany and fill in where necessary. The great advantage is that you get to see a lot of music and you learn to understand it from the bass part. I love the old musical practice which, while respecting the old masters, tries to build a bridge to earlier music and then looks for a way of performing it. But I don’t see it as any different from other musical influences: they create in me a desire and a need to respond to something, to make it into my own story.
Recorded by Linda Lovrovic