2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the Vienna State Opera, the centenary of the in loco world premiere of Richard Strauss’s The Shadowless Woman, and ends with the Orlando world premiere based on the novel by Virginia Woolf .
The prestigious Wiener Staatsoper boasts of having given a musical commission for the first time to a woman, Olga Neuwirth, who invites Kate Lindsey to travel through the centuries in the title role.
Orlando (English libretto by Olga Neuwirth and Catherine Filloux) recounts in 19 paintings the life through the centuries of Orlando, first male protagonist, then female (e). The opera inspired by the eponymous novel by Virginia Woolf (1928) goes beyond its model by extending Orlando’s life from 1598 to the present day, introducing the appearance of her non-binary child and thus the reorientation towards the next generation. Several anachronisms question the idea of history as an irreversible progression towards continuous improvement: any progress can be undone, as evidenced by the pixelated (but discernible) portrait of the current President of the United States, or the populist choirs shouting “Us first”, Us meaning both “we” and the US (United States) of America.
Polly Graham’s acting direction (staging) accentuates the strangeness that Orlando experiences in society, reinforced by the projections and videos (new and historical) of Will Duke, the lighting of Ulrich Schneider and the sets by Roy Spahn, such as the contributions of Julien Aléonard (sound) and Jenny Ogilvie (movements), as well as of Markus Noisternig, Gilbert Nouno and Clément Cornuau (electronic live and sound design). The eyes feast on the costumes of Rei Kawakubo, founder of the brand Like boys, going beyond simple historicism with its creative inventions. Free to transgress the boundaries of styles, genres and shatter the codes of fashion, the Japanese stylist magnifying the details offers a “cutaway view” of the underlying social structures in period costumes.
The score also spans the centuries, ranging from a baroque style (somewhat hidden in the avant-garde dissonances) to variations of pop and rock music of the 1960s (soul), 1970 (funk), 1980 (rap), etc. Musical allusions (often ironic) also abound in the score: the year 1914 is accompanied by The Rite of Spring of Stravinsky and the cancan by Offenbach, while the revelation of sexual abuse during the Victorian Age is punctuated by a jovial 1961 Christian hymn (with new lyrics) followed by the melody of My Christmas Tree. During the commemoration of the Shoah (with the projection of names of victims) echoes the Handelian tune There was never a shadow. Closer to us, Orlando sings in front of contemporary populists Hello beautiful, the old song of revolt of the Italian partisans.
Difficult for the spectators to get acquainted with the 32 characters (and the 27 singer-actors who interpret them), despite the individualization of their vocal writing and the fact that Neuwirth sets most of the lines to music (unlike his “video”). opera ‘ Lost Highway based on David Lynch’s film). Major events are brief and often rather relegated to the Narrator, played by Anna Clementi with excellent diction and a knack for differentiating between the various types of texts in her speech. Eric Jurenas plays the Guardian Angel with a clear and projected counterenor that he leads with virtuosity in vocalizations and vocal arpeggios. Leigh Melrose individualizes the two roles of Shelmerdine (war photographer) and Mr. Greene (poet), the first portrait taking advantage of its baritone timbre carried lightly in the high register, the second being the full incarnation – by its voice and mimicry – of an impatient drunkard, stammering and hiccupping in falsetto (in tune with his music). The three allegorical appearances – Modesty, Chastity and Purity – are camped by Margaret Plummer (who uses her crystal clear timbre), Agneta Eichenholz (who also lends her high register and her well-defined diction to the young Russian woman Sasha, captivating the character. -title as much as the spectators by the control of her rounded and assured highs) and Constance Hauman: endowed with a warm and emotionally charged timbre, also impressive by her vocal incarnation of Queen Elizabeth (from the start camped with a tone old woman), honoring a bumpy vocal writing that makes one think of Cold Air (by Henry Purcell) made famous by the cult counterenor Klaus Nomi, thus prefiguring the Great Frost (the Big Freeze) of the following table. The transgender artist Justin Vivian Bond asserts himself fully with his warm bass in the role of the (non-binary) Child of Orlando and uses a scenic intuition and a particular timbre, tinged with nasality and vibrato characteristics that testify to the artist’s experience On and Off-Broadway.
If in the opera Sadness according to Angela Carter the change of sex was accompanied by an exchange of roles among the singers, the role of Orlando is here entrusted to a single interpreter: Kate Lindsey (who spoke to us about this role in her interview), famous in transvestite roles from baroque to operas by Richard Strauss and female protagonists (especially with Rossini and Mozart). Equipped with a very structured and dense, clear and often noble timbre, with a natural playing and diction, the American mezzo seems to be as much at ease in the extreme bass of its first intervention as in the rhythmic singing which touches on rap, as well in the slowness and emotional and vocal nudity as in the rapidity and agitation, or in the colors and affects that suggest the baroque influence in his vocal writing. The spectators rightly reward his performance with thunderous applause.
This is also the case for Matthias Pintscher, who is making his debut at the Wiener Staatsoper. The German conductor manages to synchronize not only the singers and the pit – in growth – with the videos and the sound effects of the staging, but also the different desks, or rather the different orchestras, including the five rock musicians on a rolling stage, a dozen wind instruments (on stage), and three large additional percussion sections, as well as the many constellations of choristers (prepared by Thomas Lang, Stefano Ragusini and Svetlomir Zlatkov), which in turn achieve the barely audible sweetness, the percussive chaos or the polyphonic texture desired by Olga Neuwirth. The composer likes to push the choristers to the limits of their vocal means, even beyond: even here reveals her quest for transgression, emblematic for Orlando, both the character and the work.