Olga Neuwirth – Orlando

by 5:4

There’s something rather depressing about the fact that, despite nearly a century separating the publication of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando in 1928, and the première of Olga Neuwirth‘s opera Orlando in 2019, the topic of gender identity and fluidity continues to be regarded as such a hot, controversial topic in contemporary society. Progress in terms of understanding, empathy and treatment seems to be disturbingly slow (in some countries more than others, of course) and this fact – or, rather, the resulting combination of urgent impatience and outrage – is made to resonate loudly in Neuwirth’s opera. As such, where Woolf was avant-garde, forward-looking and fantastical, Neuwirth is avant-garde, now-looking and literal. This encapsulates the opera at its best and its worst.

In some respects, Orlando can be regarded as three-quarters of an opera. The first 15 of its 19 scenes adhere to the bare bones of the narrative from Woolf’s novel, reworked in a libretto by Neuwirth and playwright Catherine Filloux. Something that’s made pretty clear at the outset is an emphasis on text rather than music. The Prologue and first scene both feature extensive portions of spoken text from the Narrator, and throughout Orlando there’s a distinct sense that it’s the words that are of paramount importance. Considering the extent to which the opera increasingly seeks to transmit its message, this makes sense, though the price of this is that the work as a whole contains far less arresting, and certainly less memorable, music than one is used to hearing from Neuwirth.

That being said, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey is extraordinary in the title role, particularly in the way she delivers the first few scenes as the male Orlando, finding deep lyricism in her lowest register. It’s one of a number of gender-voice disparities in the opera, another being the Guardian Angel, whose voice soars effortlessly, unexpectedly emanating from the hefty figure of countertenor Eric Jurenas. Again, through these earlier scenes, as Orlando interacts with Elizabeth I, bonds and breaks up with Sasha, before absconding to a distant land, there’s a palpable sense of the soloists as foreground to the orchestra’s very literal background. Furthermore, the orchestral material at this point sometimes sounds sufficiently detached and independent that the impression of a fundamental connection with the singers is hard to make. Nonetheless, Neuwirth also manages to make the music as fluid as Orlando’s gender identity, driven by the impetus of the story rather than driving the story with the music.

The orchestra subsequently takes on a more substantial role. Scene 6 is especially involving, beginning with tumult and unrest before transforming into a curious mixture of twinkling gentleness and far-off fanfares as the characters of Purity, Chastity and Modesty surround the sleeping Orlando, like a delightful low-key mash-up of Rhinemaidens, Fates and Weird Sisters. Neuwirth extends the music beyond the pit by concluding with an on-stage brass sextet, austere yet grand, acting like sentinels at the critical point of Orlando’s transitioning. The immediate aftermath of this is made a beautiful blossoming, Kate Lindsey initially testing out her new voice (“am I a woman?”), soon becoming more bird-like in both manner and register.

Olga Neuwirth

As she pursues poetry, and the timeline starts to be pushed forward more briskly, the music again recedes behind the emphasis on words, always shaped by it, never in any doubt that it’s the message and not the music that Neuwirth wants the audience primarily to retain. In 1719, Orlando in conversation with scornful male poets, it’s the lack of equality and dismissal and rejection of women’s abilities that takes precedence; in 1896, Neuwirth integrating snippets of children’s songs, Orlando decries child abuse, a sequence that causes the orchestra to become hugely, and entirely appropriately, riled up. The opera continues beyond the narrative of Woolf’s novel, progressing through both World Wars – Neuwirth’s music plunging from huge intensity into a disconcerting mix of dark tremors and high shimmer – along the way introducing a tender relationship with Shelmerdine, crowned by a beautiful duet where the two challenge and accept each other’s transgender nature.

So far, so good, and while the role of the orchestra has generally been careful, even deferential, rather than dominant, over time this comes to feel increasingly suitable and, in every sense, supportive. Yet through the remaining scenes Orlando comes unstuck. Part of the problem is the extension beyond Woolf’s text, which makes sense from the perspective of message, but causes the language increasingly to lack the poetry, subtlety, complexity and beauty that have typified the libretto until now. Everything feels oversimplified, though this is a clear product of Neuwirth’s decision to make the narrative move away from a world of allegorical fantasy into direct tropes and literality. Thus a later scene angrily depicting the evils of the Trump-era USA – not so much pillorying it as simply echoing back its own vitriolic malevolence verbatim – is reduced to a curt collection of empty, predictable soundbites. (The contrast with the orchestra here becomes stark, turning the tables on the relationship from earlier.)

Yet the problem is also stylistic. Scene 16, where Orlando’s non-binary child is introduced, though clearly meaning well is hard to take in the way it leaves behind opera and ends akin to a rather bland rally for gender fluidity, the stage looking less like it’s filled by a large group of legitimate extras than as if there had been an invasion by a bunch of enthusiastic listeners and supporters. Musically, this is by far the opera’s weakest scene, disappointing and trite, in no way living up to the power from before, all slogans and sentiments, a world away from Woolf’s prose. It’s unfortunately exacerbated by Justin Vivian Bond in the role of the Child, seeming as if he’s just stepped outside from his role overseeing the orgy in Shortbus, his vocal delivery here poor, dull and irritating.

Traces of Orlando‘s earlier heft return towards the end. In the penultimate scene, Orlando is given a hugely melismatic solo that’s as riveting to behold as it is astonishingly performed by Kate Lindsey, extended subsequently into a lovely duet with the Angel. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the ever-increasing directness is a mixed blessing. The opera’s conclusion comes across as preachy and earnest, at times almost sounding like an anthem written by Greta Thunberg. As a consequence, the work’s message sounds more and more desperate; perhaps not unreasonably (and the work’s final scene indicates both hope and despair) but it greatly reduces the music’s power to convince and elicit empathy, feeling overlong and ultimately becoming rather exhausting. It’s unfortunate that the work’s climax not only focuses on preaching, but on evidently preaching to the already-converted.

Perhaps it would make some sense to interpret Orlando‘s stylistic inconsistencies as fluidity, in which case maybe there’s a case to be made for the opera seeking to embody something of the essence of its protagonist. Either way, even in its problematic, less convincing passages, Neuwirth’s determination remains dauntless, relentless, and that in itself is consistently impressive throughout. Overall, Orlando is a powerhouse of an opera presenting a fascinating, fantastical depiction of its subject’s gender flux, rendered in the most extravagant, wondrously flamboyant costumes courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Its music, and its drama, may at times prove unconvincing – but its message never does.

The world première performance of Orlando has recently been released by C major, available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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