To paraphrase the fine gentlemen from The Awl, a lot of tartar builds up around opera’s conventions and repertoire, and regular efforts need to be made to scrape it away. Orlando/Lunaire, the product of a collaboration between the Classical Music Consort and Opera Erratica, represents just such an attempt. Even the location was unusual for an opera – far, far away from the Four Seasons Centre, in an industrial shed, in a neighborhood on the tantalizing edge of gentrification. The audience consisted both of tweedy academics and mustachioed hipsters.
The central concept is not unlike a wine-and-cheese pairing – but rather than epoisses with Burgundy, Schoenberg’s masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire is paired with Handel’s Orlando. Segments from Lunaire alternate with arias from Orlando, with soprano Carla Huhtanen and countertenor Scott Belluz trading singing duties with one another. The writeup promised nuanced emotion, video projections, and gender ambiguity. Sounds fascinating on paper.
There was a lot to enjoy in the execution – first and foremost the vocal performances, which were full of beauty and sensitivity. Huhtanen brought a vaudevillian sure-footed theatricality to her numbers, while Belluz remained enticingly aloof. I also enjoyed the “surtitles”, a mishmash of words projected on the screen. Sometimes they projected the text in its original language and sometimes a translation; sometimes the words formed coherent fragments and sometimes they were scattered all over the screen; sometimes they corresponded to the words being sung, and sometimes not. I’m a fan of theatrical productions that do interesting things with text-as-art, and this fit the bill.
However, I was unsure what it was meant to add up to in the end. The “mashup” element never extended beyond simple alternation, making little effort to combine the two styles into something new. The various characters played by Huhtanen and Belluz were never clearly distinguishable from each other, and the two singers rarely engaged in any kind of dramatic interaction. While I’m sure the pieces were chosen in order to create interesting pairings (there’s that wine/cheese word again) and follow some kind of emotional arc, most of this was entirely over my head – I was never sure about the reasoning for the placement of the Handel arias inside the framework of Pierrot Lunaire. The dramatic action was almost entirely static save for a few very abstract symbolic gestures. And, while the gender ambiguity of both singers was admirably conveyed through makeup and nightmarish yet sexy baroque-inflected costumes, I was supremely irritated by the frequent presence of a 10-foot-tall, headless, naked female torso projected onto the screen during several of Belluz’s arias. This torso was (as if anyone could expect otherwise) slim, smooth-skinned, large-breasted, passive, and attractively-lit – the opposite of provocative, just in case we needed to be reminded what desire consists of. Boneriffic.
Here are some other opinions:
Eye Weekly: “Their oeuvre is a mystical mash-up of contrasting eras, languages and musical genres, and — surprisingly — it works.”
NOW Magazine: “the evening is a marvel of nuanced emotion, unexpected visuals and splendid music-making.”
Toronto Star: “At its opening performance on Sunday evening, the experimental staging was not perfect, but sheer imagination and two fantastic singers turned it into a memorable, intellectually provocative two hours.”
Globe and Mail: “But I did come away desiring a complete performance of Orlando and a complete performance of Pierrot lunaire on decently separate occasions. The mashup told me less about Handel and Schoenberg and more about the feverish fancies of Young than I need to know.”