If you book an EasyJet flight now you can pay as scandalously little as twenty-five dollars to get from Hamburg on the North Sea to Venice on the Adriatic for the traditional opera season taking place during next February’s Carnival. In less than two hours you’ll traverse the torso of Europe, cross above the rapidly receding glaciers of the Alps and come down at Marco Polo airport a short ferry ride from the increasingly submerged island city. A ticket to the opera house La Fenice will run you about seven or eight times the price of the flight, and the performance will last at least an hour longer than the time you spent sitting on the plane.
Back in the seventeenth century—the century of opera’s invention—it was far more arduous and expensive for northern culture vultures to descend on Venice for the pleasures of opera and other pre-Lenten debaucheries. But descend they did. To do so they had to make long journeys by coach, but often by ship as well, so as to avoid the snowed-in Brenner Pass leading down into the Veneto.
Among the most ravenous of these birds of prey were the Dukes of Hanover, the forbears of the current British royals. (These descendants have mostly moved on to other cultural interests, though they will appear at their Royal Opera House in London when commemorative duties demand.) Ernst August, who ruled in Hanover until his death in 1698, was derisively known by many in his own domains as the Duke of Venice: come Carnival he vacated his realm and headed south for weeks on end. Given the long days en route getting knocked about in his carriage and then the hours spent sitting in one of the many boxes he held in Venice’s opera houses, it is little wonder that he was beset by chronic hemorrhoids. His long-suffering wife, Princess Sophia of the Palatine reported from Hanover to an aristocratic correspondent in February of 1680, while her husband was living it up as best he could in Venice, that “I don’t know if I can find suitable words to describe Ernst August’s backside since I haven’t seen it recently.” Bitterly perhaps, she went on to do just that.
When posterior health and geopolitical concerns kept the Dukes away from Venice they brought Carnival to them. Ernst August was intent on elevating his house’s European standing: his marriage to Princess Sophia, granddaughter of James I of England, meant his own opera-besotted heir, Georg Ludwig, would be crowned as British King George I in 1714. Cultivating opera was crucial to the image of first rank European powers, and so Ernst August imported Italian singers, librettists, designers and composers and inaugurated an opulent new opera house in Hanover in 1689. The theater was kitted out with all the latest machines for special effects: flying chariots, thunder, lightning, waves, monsters.
At the head of this enterprise during the years on either side of 1690 was the cosmopolitan native of the Venetian Republic, Agostino Steffani, a brilliant musician, rigorously trained in Italy and Germany, and gifted with dramatic intuition, melodic fluency, and ambition. Steffani also acted as a diplomat on behalf of the Hanoverians, and, during the last two decades of his life (he died in 1728) as a Roman Catholic bishop and leading representative of the Vatican in Protestant northern Europe.
Among Steffani’s most famous operas was Orlando generoso, inspired by Ludovico Ariosti’s perennially popular sixteenth-century epic poem, Orlando furioso. Steffani’s opera was a hit in Hanover, and was staged across Germany in the ensuing decades. Three centuries on, the work received its North American premier last week at the Boston Early Music Festival in a sumptuous and richly inventive staging that those attending its first performances during Carnival in Hanover in 1691 would have marveled at.
The eighteen-year-old George Frideric Handel knew the piece, too. He passed through Hanover in 1703 and was given a warm, fatherly greeting by Steffani. Handel would later serve for a few months as a successor to Steffani in the post of Director of Music in Hanover under Duke Georg Ludwig. Handel was a great admirer of Steffani, the man and his music—so great, in fact, that the younger musician pillaged many themes, fragments, and fully formed ideas from the older composer, not least from Orlando generoso.
As chance would have it, Handel’s 1733 London opera Orlando, indebted in innumerable ways both obvious and subtle to Steffani’s work, is being performed in San Francisco. In Boston to play an organ recital at the Early Music festival, I took in Steffani’s opera last Thursday and, on returning to the West Coast a few days later, heard Handel’s rightly celebrated telling of the tale. Flagrantly indulging in bicoastal opera-going, I covered even more territory and crossed more mountain ranges than the Dukes of Hanover when shuttling back and forth to Venice. Even jammed into economy, I’m guessing that my trip was made with a damn sight more (and certainly carbon-rich), comfort, if far less class, than the junkets of Ernst August and his ilk.
Aesthetically these two Orlandos seemed more than a mere 3,000 miles apart. Both operas confront a theme beloved by the opera-loving rulers of yore: the conflict between love and duty. Orlando is a warrior who just happens to be out of his mind in love, though exactly with whom and why, his addled self can’t be sure. His unhinged infatuations might be taken as a metaphor for the risks of being fatally seduced by opera itself.
The East Coast production of Steffani’s work was baroque in the fullest sense: filled with fantasy and folly, unafraid of visual splendor, even excess, embracing its own exuberant humor. This yielded an uplifting counterpoint of energy and poise. Under the guiding hands of stage director Gilbert Blin and musical leaders Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, the opera’s human truths were ravishingly conveyed to ear and eye from the Hanoverian past into the Bostonian present. The show was colorful in every way: from the flamboyant (even risky) exoticism of the period costumes to the glory of the perspectival sets whether woodland grove or palace, to the bright lines and nuanced shadings of the singers’ voices and orchestral timbres.
West Coast Handel was visually stark, minimalist, muted, not just by comparison with the sumptuous staging in Boston, but because baroque opera is at its essence an art form of extravagant display, which, if downplayed or just plain ignored, has to be made up for with plentiful imagination and even more taste. British stage director Harry Fehr had the clever notion to set Handel’s Orlando in a hospital in 1940, the broken hero a fighter pilot suffering from PTSD in the midst of the Battle of Britain. But aside from a would-be suicide rope thrown over a modernist light fixture, a brace of curative shock therapy, and the usual updating gags of cigarettes and sexy luggage, there was not much action or art to captivate during the long arias. The onstage antics were more distracting than delighting.
Even the video projection forsook gripping tableaux in favor of the psychological probings of faces and eyes and a ring coveted then spurned. This stuff looked like outtakes from the credits for a Netflix series. Indeed, I began to wonder if Fehr’s recipe merely combined various ingredients of Brit-fluff: two parts The Crown with one part The King’s Speech. At the outset the screen at the back of the stage showed images of the abdicated Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson shaking hands with Hitler—royal “heroism” in a crisis it has never recovered from. This Windsor (i.e., Hanoverian) embrace with the devil was perhaps being offered as another vague explanation for the title character’s neuroses—and the nation’s, too.
Through no fault of their own, many of the voices were often unable to penetrate far into San Francisco’s cavernous War Memorial Opera House. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was often covered by the orchestra: a fine enough symbol of the clouding of Orlando’s reason, but not recommended for Handel’s bracing stretches of song. The title role was originally taken by a powerful castrato, the male alto Senesino, that singer who premiered so many of Handel’s great heroes. The part was probably just too low for the diminutive Cooke, who would have been dwarfed physically and vocally by Senesino. Yet her performance of the long and tortured mad scene in the third act, with its startling shifts of rhythm and harmony was riveting. The boos that greeted her bows were unfair. Christina Gansch was winning as the naïve shepherdess, Dorinda, her coloratura clear, her expressive range broad, her tone pure but warm. She also possesses a glittering trill—perhaps the most important eighteenth-century trick since every aria ends with one. The brightly-futured countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (whom I heard as David in Handel’s Saul https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/04/19/call-saul/ earlier this year) was a noble Medoro. Cohen is agile in the demanding Handelian passagework and there is richness to his sound, gravity to his acting. Baritone Christian van Horn sang powerfully and with flair as the sorcerer Zoroastro, transformed in San Francisco into a white-smocked psychiatrist.
Visible just below the lip of the stage, British conductor Christopher Moulds’s was the most vigorous physical presence, his swooping arcs and trilling fingers held high above his head, though these motions did not impart the punch and precision that a top notch Handelian orchestra demands.
The Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, its members seated facing each other in a long narrow rectangle according to the practices of the baroque opera house, was led not by a conductor but by first violinist, Robert Mealy. The San Franciscans have a much wider repertoire than the baroque specialists in Boston, but it is nonetheless remarkable that even without a conductor the latter were far more precise, whether in sprightly or lyrical stretches.
The Boston production embodied the baroque ideal of variety in unity. One recognizes and thoroughly appreciates the individual contributions of the team: stage director, choreographer, production designer, orchestral players, singers, and dancers. These elements can be appreciated individually, but the cumulative, cooperative effect is stunning, the product of historical research, sensitivity, and—most important—creativity.
Steffani’s sorcercer is named Atalante (baritone Jesse Blumberg); he has the habit of descending from the cloudscaped skies in a fancy flying chariot. Once on the ground he enlists the often wayward aid of canny comic sidekick, Brunello (tenor Zachary Wilder). At the close of the second act Atalante decides to sow confusion by creating a phantom palace and staffing it with decoy courtiers. In concert with director Blin, choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière made these court dancers automatons, wound up by their creator and let go.
To the elegant strains of Steffani’s dances, these mechanical beings clumsily attempted minuets and other court dances. They managed some of the steps but most bumped into one another, moving about rather like James Brown transported to Versailles and doing his robot dance in the finest French fashion of the day.
Their charming , ever-inventive movements produced a multi-layered commentary on the miraculous fluidity of the human body, on the superficiality of court life, and even on the nature of consciousness—all concerns of the period’s philosophers and artists. On the right occasion, and especially in the theatre, kings and dukes were fond of having their own pretensions and rituals sent up. There is historical precedence for this style of pseudo-mechanical dance, but its invocation required a leap of imagination aided by comprehensive skill and historical understanding. What emerged from this misbegotten beauty was a provocative commentary on the ancien regime and even the present-day ways of monarchs and their minions. In the grand finale at the close of the evening these baroque androids had been transformed by some other power (their own?) and now moved with human grace and self-awareness. Buoyed by Steffani’s last dance, the question hung in the applause-filled air: what is the difference between man and machine?
Unlike the high-voiced Orlando in Handel’s telling, Steffani’s was a tenor, here done with crazed conviction by Aaron Sheehan, wide-eyed and open-voiced. (Sheehan was also heard as Jonathan in the above-mentioned Saul). Whatever the changes in vocal style and training since Steffani’s time, no difference can be as drastic as that resulting from the barbaric Italian practice of castrating boys.
Steffani’s arias are generally shorter than Handel’s, and he is a particular master of duets: Handel learned in very specific ways from Steffani’s talent for crystallizing the emotional states of characters and their relationship to one another. These talents found unforgettable form in Boston in the second act duet sung by Angelica (soprano Amanda Forsythe) and Ruggiero (countertenor Christopher Lowrey). The two are brought together by unlikely circumstance, each lamenting the loss of other loves. She sings first—“If you are gone, O light of my life, I am full of dread”—a yearning, almost fearful countermelody ghosting her in the oboe. Orlando is eavesdropping and admits his raving jealousy in a quick aside, before Ruggiero starts his own plaint in which he likens his own beloved to a star, Lowrey’s luminous voice shadowed by a bassoon. (Handel’s later use of this instrument as a signifier of pathos comes directly from Steffani.) Steffani then brings these elements together in a rapture of despair: a quartet made up of two singers, and two woodwinds—the instruments perhaps projecting the lovers’ feelings of hopeful sorrow and sorrowful hope. Never was sadness sweeter than on the baroque stage.