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The San Francisco Opera’s production looks relatively traditional, but they are not taking this opera over-seriously. The whole thing looks very ‘opera seria’ – lots of columns and plumed helmets – but the references to eighteenth-century style and stage technology are played lightheartedly. Angelica, Medoro, and Alcina make their entrances in Act I in some very creaky rafts and boats, for example; Ruggiero’s gold-plated flying horse looks a little silly; and later on, as Orlando frees himself from a rocky prison, a chunk of rock snaps out of the way almost like a turnstile when he says (I quote the subtitles) “I have dislodged the rocky barrier!” which – I think it’s both the stage effect and the translation – elicits a laugh from the audience.*
But let no one suppose that the SFO is playing it for camp because they can’t hack the cool effects. When Alcina arrives in her boat, there are two marble figures of young men on the railing, which I honestly assumed were really statues until they started moving. I particularly liked the first one, who ends up posing elegantly on one leg to pour out the river of glitter for the thirsty Ruggiero (it’s at around 2.00):
(The flute solo in this is also very pretty.)
There were some moments in the stage direction that I didn’t realize were funny and/or effective until I had seen the whole thing. For example, when we first encounter Orlando in Act I, the direction has him (Marilyn Horne) sauntering here and there on the stage during his first aria as if it’s not clear what ought to be done with him – but as I saw the rest of the opera, it occurred to me that Orlando does spend a lot of time sort of stalking around on the margins of the various narratives getting mad. I’m not sure if this was the intention of the direction at the beginning of Act I or not, but the “what are we going to do with this guy?” impression I had during those early moments certainly works given the rest of the opera.
In general, this production hits just the right note of light-heartedness. It acknowledges the more ridiculous aspects of the drama, but it also allows for an appropriate amount of depth. One of the things that struck me about this performance was that there is a really effective unity of style among the performers. It’s not that they all sound the same – they certainly don’t – but in terms of emotional range and general approach to the music, this is a set of performances that fit together really smoothly.
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*The supertitles that the audience got during the performance appear to be slightly better than what is on the video. At one point, Alcina says something and the audience laughs – but the punchline isn’t in the subtitles! (I went back and listened for it: the joke is that Astolfo says he can neither leave Alcina nor stay, and Alcina shrugs and tells him he can stay if he shuts up.)