Given that Carl Gustav Jung lived and worked in Zurich, the city has long been considered a cradle of psychotherapy. Setting yet another of this season’s operas in that same bed, then, seems entirely logical, albeit a bit repetitive; another recent production used the same reference. In his original opera seria – which premiered in London in 1733 as the first of three that Handel composed after Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, Orlando is the story of a great soldier who falls desperately in love with the pagan princess Angelica. Since she, however, is in love with another man, Medoro, Orlando is driven to madness, and only the magician Zoroastro’s interference prevents him from causing carnage. In Herzog’s neat production, and befitting a “clinic” stage, the original “shepherdess” Dorinda has been refitted to washerwoman/nurse, and Zoroastro slips into a lab coat to assume the role of chief psychiatrist.

<i>Orlando</i> © Suzanne Schwiertz
Orlando
© Suzanne Schwiertz

Mathis Neidhardt’s stage design was a throwback to the “Zauberberg”-type clinic, but with ingeniously moveable walls that crisscrossed one another to make various-sized “rooms” of the stage. Superb lighting (Jürgen Hoffmann) saw the cold glare of the public rooms contrast effectively with the warm glow of the lovers’ scenes. Highly compelling too, were the spotty, historic video clips of WW I trenches used as agitated backdrop to reflect Orlando’s serious mental condition. 

In the lead role, countertenor Bejun Mehta sang with extraordinary confidence and technical ability. Widely considered one of the world’s great Orlandos, he used his vocal machinery to produce an astoundingly wide range of stunning effects. He could, in fact, render his jaw completely flexible, relaxing it enough to trip production of thousands of notes, each one a like a tiny little star on his vast vocal firmament. Without exception, his stage presence and delivery were brilliant throughout.

Since, like the rest of us humans, Orlando is “on the verge of ruin when our intellect fails us”, Zoroastro encourages him from the start of the opera to “leave Venus and follow Mars” or leave love behind in the name of his military pursuits. Yet Orlando fawns over Angelika in Act I, trying to win her affection even while she craftily, but clearly, deflects his advances. Blinded by his yearning, he is as helpless in its presence as he is strong on the battlefield. Evidence of his fearless warring experience comes in the “axe” scenes in Act III, where he flails the weapon threateningly, keeping both the horrified clinic ward hostage and the opera house audience cringing with the slams of its blade into the floor.

<i>Orlando</i> © Suzanne Schwiertz
Orlando
© Suzanne Schwiertz

Baroque specialist William Christie conducted the Orchestra La Scintilla, which played with its usual refreshing merriment and poignant counterpoint. Standing on a platform that raised him higher than is usual, Christie’s commitment to to the players was plainly visible: smiles, pursed lips and personalized hand gestures accompanied his seasoned direction. The Baroque oboe and cello (Philippe Mahrenholz, Claudius Hermann) shone particularly, the marvellous theorbo (Brian Feehan) regularly lent its golden melodic line. Several in the pit also gladly followed the action on stage. Once Angelica had sung to encourage the disappointed Dorinda: “Don’t give up hope, it’s our most precious possession”, she and her lover Medoro kindly engaged the girl in a brief but prickly ménage à trois that went on just above the musicians’ heads.

Zoroastro’s was a wonderful bass: Scott Conner had that little-boy-guilty look that made for a perfect psychiatrist. As Medoro, Delphine Galou sang commendably,while Julie Fuchs’ Angelica − coiffed like Gloria Swanson − took complete command of the stage as the femme fatale, her voice consistently strong, and her projection as big and bright as Broadway.

The perky Dorinda (Deanna Breiwick) gained in ease and composure as the opera progressed; her volume at times could have well been boosted, however. Her Dorinda was great as an ingénue, but – likely after stage directions − somewhat schizoid as a woman. Then again, what can you expect from a girl who makes love with a pair of trousers, as she did near the clothes-line in Act I?

Sadly, though, she and the hero Orlando were both still alone when the curtain went down. It might have been happier, as had been suggested, if “Love were a matter of will, and not of destiny”. Instead, in the final scene, the others departed, leaving Orlando on the stage in the epaulets and sash of a decorated military hero. He stood self-assured, even proud for a moment, then sank into his knees, the “inside” of his massive cloak revealing a brilliant red satin that spoke of his total despair.