A few days after the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky did Handel at the Berlin Philharmonie, the city’s Comic Opera took its production of the composer’s Orlando out of mothballs. The ghosts of the great Saxon and his leading man Senesino were on the prowl again last Monday night.
The Komische Oper was born in the Berlin rubble of 1947, two years before the founding of the German Democratic Republic. The theater had been built in the late 19thcentury and for several decades housed the famous Metropol-Revue until the Nazis closed the place down in 1933 on account of its imputed decadence. The spirit of that degeneracy still enlivens the goings-on under the theater’s roof.
Much of the building was destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II, but the auditorium itself was spared. The opera house backs onto Berlin’s most famous boulevard, the Strasse unter den Linden, and its architecture reflects a complex dialogue between old and new. The interior is all neo-rococo glitz, the dome held up by stucco gods sporting six-pack abs, gilded arrows and kindred weapons of love and war. This banquet of ornament is sheathed outside by sheer stone facing that replaced the original war-wrecked façade. Maybe there is some sort of architectural index revealing how the simplicity of a façade stands in inverse proportion to the complexity of moral deviation pursued behind it. Failing wiretaps and clandestine video surveillance one can’t verify this hypothesis in the Hollywood Hills or the leafy Berlin suburbs. But to do research on this topic in the city itself all you have to do is buy a ticket to the Komische Oper.
Who knows if the same equation applied to Handel’s house in London’s then-new West End. Still standing and now home to the Handel House Museum, the house fronts onto Brook Street and presents a handsome, reserved image to the overpriced consumerist jamboree of New Bond Street. It is not known whether Handel’s notorious appetite for food extended to sex, but according to prevailing scholarly opinion, Handel would have directed such urges towards members of his own gender. Maybe opera provided enough of an outlet for the yearnings of his own heart. Either way, no one has ever captured the delights and despairs of love more memorably on the musical stage than he.
His greatest operas were mounted in London in the 1720s and early 1730s under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Music, its costly operatic efforts underwritten by a consortium of wealthy aristocrats aided by grants from the King. The greatest of the company’s male singers was the Italian alto castrato
Senesino, who premiered many of Handel’s greatest roles, heroes of the stature of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Handel and his audiences liked their heroes to sing in the range of women’s voices, with power and finesse in equal measure. The relationship between the two outsized-figures, Senesino exceedingly tall and Handel extremely wide of girth, was always a tempestuous one. Both were men of huge talents, ambitions, and egos. They battled one another with varying degrees of hostility for more than a dozen years. Even Handel’s dutiful biographer John Mainwaring, writing in 1760 the year after the composer’s death, wouldn’t take sides in his account of the conflict:
“Handel, perceiving that [Senesino] was grown less tractable and obsequious, resolved to subdue these Italian humours, not by lenitives, but sharp corrosives. To manage him he disdained; to control him with a high-hand, he in vain attempted. The one was perfectly refractory; the other was equally outrageous. In short, matters had proceeded so far, that there were no hopes of accommodation.”
This was the state of affairs by January 1733 when Orlando was premiered in London with Senesino in the lead role. Handel had composed the three-hour work over the space of about six weeks a few months before, when Senesino was plotting a move to a new competing opera in London run by rival nobles. One suspects that Handel already knew that Senesino’s days under his musical direction, if not under his control, were indeed numbered. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Handel bestowed on Senesino for what turned out to be his last Handelian role not a hero from antiquity but a rampaging loved-crazed knight, irrational and violent.
On the broadest level, Handel’s Orlando investigates a favorite conflict of the opera stage, that between love and duty. But given the epic struggle between Handel and his leading man that by 1733 had reached the point of no return, it is hard not to hear this extraordinary opera as a commentary on the pair’s own love-hate relationship. Not unrelated to this was the madness of the operatic endeavor itself, which seems inevitably to pit obligation to the larger musical and dramatic project against the whims of self-fulfillment or even self-aggrandizement. Senesino’s first aria as Orlando (“Non fu già men forte”) responds to the on-stage master of ceremonies Zarathustra’s admonitions against amorous dalliance with the counter-argument that Achilles and Hercules pursued the ladies without becoming effeminate. The mention of these heroes can be heard not only as an almost scoffing reference to the kind of roles Senesino had previously played on Handel’s stage, but also to both men’s relations with women: Senesino was, even according to Mainwaring, a great hit with the ladies although his abilities in the sack were at the very least hampered by castration (perpetrated against him at the late age of thirteen); like so many gay men of our own time, Handel may have idolized the opposite sex when on the opera stage, but he apparently never jumped into bed with one of its members, diva or not.
Can it be a coincidence that the last role Handel crafted for Senesino is one in which the primo uomo deserts his soldierly post, and then rants and raves across the stage killing the object of his love (at least thinking he’s killed her) and then falling into a madness-induced coma? The mad scene that closes Act Two is one of the most ingenious, bizarre, and convincing of the insanity set-pieces so beloved by opera, but later reserved for women characters. In the sprawling recitative that opens this tour de force, one that would have given Senesino’s singing and acting abilities tremendous possibility for display, the music lurches from thundering orchestral octaves, eventually in the fully unhinged time signature of 5/8, to delusional heroic fanfares alternating with threnodic chords of self-pity. Fragments of lyrical melody are battered by jagged outbursts. Never was the bipolar condition more acutely diagnosed in musical form. The aria that ensues (“Vaghe pupille”) begins naïvely, harmlessly flirtatious, before its B section breaks out into a demonic passacaglia riven by hellish chromaticism. The return to the opening coquetterie is then all the more twisted and disturbing. (The Zürich Opera’s 2006 production, presents a brilliant performance and staging of this scene, and the entire opera, with the Serbian alto Marijana Mijanovic in the title role. One could see this gripping musical monologue both as a gift to Senesino and as a parting curse, a present that mocks and magnifies both giants.
With their promiscuous relation to gender, Handel’s operas are excellent fodder for the fantasies and follies of the kind favored by Komische Oper. The company’s theatrical brand is in large part based on healthy, and occasionally unhealthy, doses of outrage, which run from snuff scenes (Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail), to taking the hammer and tongs to the music itself and dismantling the last page of the score (Don Giovanni). Many of the bad boys among German opera directors such as Peter Konwitschny (responsible for the just-mentioned assault on Mozart) are nearing seventy, so a new generation of provocateurs has to take over, among them the Norwegian Mark Mørk-Eidem. He has emerged from the playpen with many of the same toys previously wielded by the older enfants terribles: play pistols and knives; virtual-reality goggles and t.v. screens; a wide selection of ladies’ underwear, as well as women’s clothes in men’s sizes suitable for cross-dressing; plastic props of psychotropic drugs; digital cameras; and mini-mart goodies, from sparkling water to candy bars.
Since there are apparently no castrati to be had these days, the generally accepted way to deal with the high male voices used by Handel is to give his heroic roles to countertenors or women in drag. Mørk-Eidem hit on the apparently novel idea of making all four of the would- and wouldn’t-be lovers in Handel’s telling (two men and two women, Orlando, Angelica, Medoro and Dorindo) women, and putting them in a VW camper van in a 1970s forest. Legate of the gods, Zarathustra is here a whacked-out hippy with Medusa-like dreadlocks, a bare chest and groovy necklaces, and a hookah stoked with the shake from huge marijuana leaves. It remains unclear what duty the lesbian Orlando has to discharge; she dons fatigues that might point towards Red Army Brigade tendency, but this is never made clear. Nonetheless, these gals know how to sing around the camp fire, especially when praising nature, though even here (as in the pastoral Quando spieghi, sung with sweet but perhaps too-retiring charm by Ingrid Frøseth) the director, rummaging through his gizmos and goodies, couldn’t resist overdubbing Handel’s tuneful recorders with canned birdsong. I’m not categorically opposed to major interventions or even radical surgery on the part of today’s theater-makers when reviving old works, or even, for that matter, to adolescent arbitrariness dressed dramatic experiment. But it does grate when these gags don’t even succeed in provoking or alienating the audience, but instead achieve nothing more than aimless annoyance.
Handel’s Orlando closed back in 1733 after ten poorly-attended performances. At the Komische Oper the house was maybe a quarter full. Perhaps it was the Monday night and the cold weather, but more likely culprit was the production’s lack of coherence and creativity, and its failure to exploit the immense potential this opera of magic and unrequited love offers us moderns beyond a titillating grope-up in in a VW camper.
In the end Orlando, sung with surety and conviction by Mariselle Martinez at the Komische Opera, was awakened in 1733 from his deranged slumber by an elixir brought down from heaven by a stage eagle. He had fallen asleep while singing through the heartrendingly beautiful aria “Già l’ebro mio ciglio” to the extraordinary accompaniment of two violas d’amore, whose sympathetic strings resonant lovingly with the bowed ones above—a fitting metaphor, as well as a devastatingly intimate sonority that is perfectly attuned to the fate of the character. With the singer silenced by sleep, the return to the opening music is given over to the plaintive strings alone.
At the Komische Oper the restorative fluid came in the form of a six-pack of the local Berlin mineral water still in its plastic wrap. This handily healed the wounds Orlando got by blowing his/her brains out against a white backdrop with one of those toy guns equipped with a very loud blank. That the gunshot came in the midst of one of the sweetest, most poignant among Handel’s musical creations was something of a shock, and cast the tender postlude of the violas in a baleful light that could still not extinguish their message of hope in the midst of despair.
After coming to his senses for the final chorus, the chastened Orlando forswears love for unnamed, and perhaps (at least in Berlin) unmentionable, duties. It is an outcome that could apply as equally to the operatic warriors Handel and Senesino as it does to the deranged hero that brought them together at the end before they parted for good: even if both men were unlucky in love, they at least had each other one last time.