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This is where the undercutting of Zoroastro as the voice of reason comes in. As noted, this guy looks a little sinister. And not only does he look sinister, but he’s got help. Zoroastro is the head doctor and Dorinda is a nurse; there are several other doctors and nurses, silent parts, who follow him around and attend to his every word, often jotting down notes. Orlando appears to be some kind of ‘interesting case’ or experiment as far as Zoroastro is concerned. He’s always lurking, often with notepad in hand. In Act I, when Angelica is provoking Orlando’s jealousy to buy herself and Medoro some time, it seems that Zoroastro has set up the encounter on purpose and is stage-managing it as it unfolds. He even chloroforms and drags away the unfortunate Medoro, who is about to burst in and interrupt at the wrong moment.
Angelica and Medoro, then, seem to be there perhaps in the capacity of fellow patients but primarily as props in the little psychological experiment Zoroastro is performing on Orlando. And it’s even creepier than that. In the first part of Act I, as Orlando gets agitated thinking of love, Zoroastro gives him a shot in the neck to calm him down, and turns on a film of what appears to be footage of war, which Orlando – and all the assembled silent doctors and nurses – stare at. It’s on the verge of Clockwork Orange. After Orlando falls asleep in Act III, he has an operation – he is hidden behind a screen, a bright light comes on, Zoroastro puts on his latex gloves (the nurse drops one, but picks it up and hands it to him and the show goes on – this is either an accident or deliberate, but either way: not sanitary!) and after the operation is complete Orlando emerges not in the nightshirt in which he fell asleep, or in his green soldier uniform as before, but in a magnificent offer’s outfit, with fringed epaulettes and lots of medals. The opera ends with Orlando standing on a pillar marked “Orlando, hero,” from which he begins to climb down as the lights go out.
Reason, in other words, is perhaps not to be trusted. The production’s setting evokes World War I, where the ‘reason’ of the men in charge and all the associated rhetoric of war and glory ended up killing an awful lot of people. And there’s an interesting little touch in Act III where Orlando, agitated and about ready to leap from his hospital bed, is recalling scenes of past glory – originally, his references to fantastical characters, and some later references to conquering witchcraft and monsters, would have been ‘real’ as far as Orlando is concerned, but the production’s setting tweaks this: his recollections of war sound like madness. Possibly it’s war, not love, that is causing Orlando’s problems.
The fact that the staging is not sinister in any obvious way helps here – it gives the “Orlando’s being experimented on” aspect of it a little bit of useful ambiguity, and it has the additional effect of not making Zoroastro seem “evil,” which I think would be the wrong idea. Zoroastro genuinely thinks he is doing the right thing and that his little experiment is a good and useful idea. Also, I thought having the silent doctors with notepads was clever in more ways than one. They’re always lurking and peering through half-open doors. Their sycophancy works as a little critique of Zoroastro, but one might also see them as standing in for the audience of the opera – after all, we’re doing the same thing, sitting there, watching all the characters’ inner torment, trying to figure out everyone’s motives, right? (And some of us even have notebooks . . .)
This ‘not quite sinister, but not quite not sinister’ aspect of the staging fit with a quality of the overture that I hadn’t noticed before – the first section of it has these little moments of uneasiness that get resolved but keep coming back, and in the third section, as (on stage) two nurses take Orlando’s gun and bag when he arrives, you get this really quiet, intense precision from the strings: the mood of the overture, both the music itself and as William Christie is conducting it, fits perfectly with the vibe of the production.
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