Since Handel operas came back into the public eye in the second half of the 20th century, there have been multiple attempts to move the setting of Orlando from the time of Emperor Charlemagne’s battles with the Saracens (as specified in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the source of the opera’s libretto) to circumstances that a modern audience can potentially better relate to. In Peter Sellars’ version, the action took place at Cape Canaveral and on Mars! For Pierre Audi, the knight Orlando was a fireman turned arsonist.

Sasha Cooke (Orlando) and Christian Van Horn (Zoroastro)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Harry Fehr – the director of a production initially conceived for the Scottish Opera in 2011 and now making its way to San Francisco – boldly but not gratuitously moves the action to a British military hospital during the 1940 Blitz. Orlando is an RAF pilot treated for symptoms of a post-traumatic stress disorder under the care of Zoroastro, no longer a magician but an overconfident psychiatrist practicing electroconvulsive therapy and still pulling the plot’s strings. Orlando’s love interest, Angelica, a princess from Cathay, has been recast as an American socialite, falling in love with Medoro, another wounded soldier. The fifth main character, Dorinda, just as helplessly in love as Orlando, is converted from a shepherdess into a ward nurse. The vague, Arcadian landscapes were mapped by scenic designer Yannis Tavoris into a revolving set comprised of several cleverly furnished hospital interiors populated by non-singing employees busily moving around. It is surprising how well all these transformations worked, letting Fehr focus, as he mentions in his program notes, on the “very human drama of love, confusion, and betrayal, which is captured so precisely in Handel’s profound score”. If there was a directorial faux pas, it was the repeated and unnecessary display on the glass panels separating the hospital rooms of a multitude of confusing projections illustrating Orlando’s sick thoughts.

Sasha Cooke (Orlando)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Premiered in London in 1733, Orlando includes some of Handel most remarkable music. Conductor Christopher Moulds, making his company debut, led a lean and clean performance of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Nevertheless, his rendition left the impression of certain lack of involvement and of insufficient differentiation between various numbers. Orlando requires a strong group of soloists capable of both negotiating the bravura vocal lines and providing depth to the characters. Interestingly enough, every singer in this War Memorial Opera production was making a role debut.

The title role was conceived for the famous castrato Senesino, primo uomo in many of Handel’s London operas. Today it is sung by either mezzo-sopranos or countertenors. Sasha Cooke only occasionally (“Gia l’ebro mia ciglio”) brought forward the velvety sonority she is known for. The part seemed to sit low for her vocal range. Even more, she did not fully portray Orlando’s mood swings, his inner conflicts between love and duty, his evident madness. Soprano Heidi Stober was Angelica, the American socialite reminiscent of Wallis Simpson, who can be perceived as both scheming and profoundly in love. Her cool, even icy voice provided a nice contrast – especially in “Consolati, o bella”, the famous Angelica-Dorinda-Medoro trio – with Christina Gansch’s warm soprano. Switching easily from comedy to melancholy, with a bright coloratura, a good control of volume and wonderful phrasing (“Amore è qual vento”), Gansch clearly endeared herself with the Californian public. Zoroastro was interpreted with the usual sturdiness and authority by reliable bass-baritone Christian Van Horn.

Heidi Stober (Angelica) and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Medoro)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The evening’s most revelatory performance came from the young countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro. Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2017 and currently a second-year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, he displayed not only a mellifluous voice but also a remarkable musicality. He emphasized Medoro’s earnestness in such arias as “Vorrei poterti amar” or the sublime “Verdi allori”. Nussbaum Cohen seems already prepared for a great career that should include the title role of this very opera.