Orlando - Semperoper Dresden, 3 March 2013
Since Fabio Luisi abandoned ship three years ago, Dresden Semperoper has been without a music director. (Christian Thielemann is chief conductor of the Staatskapelle orchestra, a position technically without opera or management responsibilities). And for more than a year there’s been no artistic director either; when the late Ulrike Hessler’s illness became serious, her place as Intendant was ‘temporarily’ filled by the commercial director, a position he still holds.
This artistic management void must go some way toward explaining the colossal balls-up that is Dresden’s new production of Handel’s Orlando. Its only redeeming quality is the touching commitment of the performers.
In these circumstances, perhaps it was just as well most of the singers had more experience in Wagner than Handel. With the exception of Barbara Senator, whose agile mezzo skipped convincingly through the role of Dorinda, the casting was simply bizarre. In the title role, where you’d expect to find a David Daniels type, Dresden gave us Bayreuth’s Erda, Christa Mayer. The great Wagnerian bass Georg Zeppenfeld can turn his molasses tones to almost anything, but Zoroastro’s speedy runs tested his limits. Ensemble members Carolina Ullrich and Gala El Hadidi would probably sound better in just about anything else.
I have no idea what Andreas Kriegenburg’s production was meant to convey. Suffice to say it wasn’t what Handel prescribed: “the imperious Manner in which Love insinuates its Impressions into the Hearts of Persons of all Ranks; and likewise how a wise Man should be ever ready with his best Endeavours to re-conduct into the Right Way, those who have been misguided from it by the Illusion of their Passions”.
A sparely-furnished box-shaped room against a background of trees was the set. In theory, this should have at least improved the acoustics. In practice, Kriegenburg filled it with dancers fannying around in their underwear, who had the same sound-absorbing effect as curtains - one thing a music director would (I trust) have stamped out at an early stage. Occasionally the dancers disappeared to put a few scraps of clothing on, improving the singers’ audibility no end and even threatening the odd moment of genuine emotional connection.
The show I saw was the sixth in the run, and word had clearly got around locally. The Semperoper, which relies on a smaller subsidy percentage than any other German opera house and usually enjoys capacity audiences, was more than half empty. This it cannot afford. Dresden has a beautiful opera house, a talented ensemble and one of the best opera orchestras in the world. But without the artistic leadership to guide and manage these resources, it might as well have nothing.
Photos: Matthias Creutziger