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SEEN AND HEARD  OPERA REVIEW
 

Handel, Orlando : Soloists, Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells Orchestra, Gary Cooper (conductor), Wigmore Hall, London, 21.6.2008 (AO)

William Towers :Orlando
Rebecca Ryan : Angelica
Christopher Ainslie : Medoro
Marlene Grimson : Dorinda
Nicholas Warden : Zoroastro




Willam Towers - Picture © Courtesy of Indepent Opera at Sadler's Wells

Independent Opera may slip under the radar in terms of public profile but it is one of the most exciting developments in the London scene of recent years. London offers numerous opera companies and festivals, but Independent is outstanding.  Its first production, in 2005, was the Rossini rarity La Scala di Seta - The Silken Ladder  in which  Independent was  already showing its hallmark inventiveness.  This is a very small company indeed, but they turn this to advantage : big budgets don’t necessarily spur talent and innovation. Independent succeeds because it draws on a group of very bright, creative individuals who believe passionately in what they do.  Their 2006 Handel’s Orlando was a spectacular achievement.  For a fraction of the cost of the Covent Garden production, Independent put on an amazing theatre-in-the round, using the whole space in the tiny Lillian Bayliss Theatre to absorb the audience into the action.  Brilliant lighting and silhouette projections created a magical atmosphere no ordinary set could evoke. Independent's  Orlando evokes the very spirit of the opera where reality blends with myth, gods with man.  It was true to period, using modern techniques to evoke what Handel might have imagined.  “Triumph in Adversity” sums up the plot in Orlando, and is also the ethos of Independent Opera.

This wasn’t a staged performance unfortunately, but again, this fact had advantages in that it it illuminated other aspects of Independent Opera’s approach.  Alessandro Talevi, the Director, has a genuine feel for the music at the heart of an opera.  In the staged production, the orchestra was centre stage, encircled by a plinth on which the singers could act, sing and suddenly disappear from sight by dropping into the pit.  But the concept is that the orchestra is the “core”.  At the Wigmore Hall, there isn’t anywhere else to put the orchestra other than on the main platform, so the original production concept of “musical opera” carries through seamlessly. It’s hard to know what to call Independent’s orchestra as they are all listed individually by name, but that tells us something – the musicians here are valued as much as the stars and perhaps that’s why this performance was so full of commitment and energy. These are young musicians, not experienced virtuosos, but they play with uninhibited, free spirited vigour, perhaps closer to the “new music” freshness this would have had in Handel’s time.  Early music isn’t museum music, and was meant to be seen as well as heard.  It was a joy to watch Gary Cooper conduct from the harpsichord and to see the magnificent theorbo (a kind of giant lute) in action.

Yet this wasn’t always a popular opera, and wasn’t revived until the growth of interest in baroque music in the mid 20th century. Perhaps the surreal metaphysics in Orlando appeal to modern audiences. The “mad scene” in Orlando is a technical tour de force, but it’s also emotionally moving, as the hero becomes anti-hero. We don’t just observe from the outside marvelling at Towers' vocal prowess, because the 20th century has taught us a lot about tormented heroes.
Orlando was an uncomplicated man of war, but is now beset by things he can’t comprehend. The opera begins with the usual conventions of love and false love, but from that point everything unravels. Misunderstandings and mishaps pile up relentlessly. This production takes the very deviousness of the plot as a starting point : its focus is the anarchy of fate, not the solution. Suddenly, Handel seems surprisingly relevant to our times. Similarly, modern audiences can appreciate the psychological depths.  Angelica thinks and tries to understand her emotions and even the air-head ingénue Dorinda is aware of deeper feelings.

Of course much of the pleasure of baroque does come from the decorative trills and inventions, the endless variation of repeats and elaborations. It wouldn’t be “baroque” otherwise.  But here the technical virtuosity was underpinned by direct, clear expression.  William Towers was outstanding. In the accompagnato and aria “Non u già men Alcidehe manages to convey the rough and ready masculinity of the role through the higher reaches of the countertenor register.   Note, he’s accompanied by two natural horns in what is essentially an orchestration for strings. Similarly in the mad scene “Ah ! Stigie larve”, he was so stunning that the audience exploded into applause.  Towers certainly has the measure of Orlando, having sung it often.  He stunned Royal Opera House audience when he suddenly stepped in for Bejun Mehta in the Covent Garden production in 2003 - please see Melanie Eskenaz's  Seen and Heard review at the time. The last five years have seen him develop into perhaps the best of his generation. He was impressive in the 2006 Independent Opera production, but here he exceeded even his own high standards. There were microphones in this performance: hopefully it was being recorded so all can see why Towers has such a following.

Rebecca Ryan sang Angelica in the 2006 Independent Opera production too, but here her voice was richer, rounder and very impressive.  Also from the 2006 cast were Nicholas Warden as Zoroastro and Christopher Ainslie as Medoro,  This also says something about Independent Opera, for it inspires genuine team loyalty.  Alessandro Talevi may not have taken part in this non-staged performance, but his charisma was behind it.  The finale was glorious, a through-composed climax which defined voices and instruments individually and tutti, woven together in intricate tracery. 

Independent Opera seems to re-think the very idea of opera afresh. Even its booklets are distinctive, informative yet to the point with nothing extraneous.   They also have seemed to have rethought marketing strategy.  Lots of the audience were first-timers, though many had listened to opera on recording. Many were young, and there were a lot more ethnic minorities than usual.  And why not? They’ve come for music and drama, which is universal.  Orlando certainly isn’t superficial dumbed down work. It demands a certain level of intelligent listening, proving that good work, performed with enthusiasm and passion, can inspire audiences beyond the usual profile.  Independent Opera is a tribute too, to the vision of its sponsors. It runs an Artist Support programme, rather like the Royal Opera House does, to encourage young talent and give them opportunities.  Indeed, Independent Opera operates two fellowships in conjunction with the Wigmore Hall and Sadler’s Wells'  Matthew Rose, the up and coming bass who holds the IO/Wigmore hall fellowship at present.  Money spent sponsoring Independent Opera goes a long way.

This November, Independent Opera will be staging a full production of Pelléas et Melisande at Sadler’s Wells. Tickets have already sold out for one of the three nights, so word is getting around that this company is something special. For further details about Independent Opera and its support scheme see :
http://www.independentopera.com/

Anne Ozorio


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