San Francisco Opera staged Handel’s “Orlando” for only the second time in its history after a 34-year absence Sunday afternoon, but Harry Fehr’s winning production, along with the excellent vocal quintet that graced it, will undoubtedly amplify appreciation and demand for the rarely performed Baroque gem.
Fehr’s Scottish Opera production moves the setting from the Middle Ages to World War II, specifically, to a London hospital, where Orlando, a Royal Air Force officer, is undergoing psychological profiling and treatment in the hopes of returning him to the war front.
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was superb as Orlando, who is torn between his duty to serve his country and love for a woman, and her multi-hued voice richly expressed the anguished ambivalence that steadily morphs into psychosis once Orlando finds out that his heartthrob loves another man.
Against the world-gone-crazy backdrop of projections of the London Blitz on a sleek set, and surrounded by supernumeraries portraying doctors and nurses, Cooke dazzlingly swung between anger and confusion in the Act 2 Mad Scene.
Soprano Heidi Stober was exquisite as Angelica, Orlando’s romantic obsession, with gorgeous coloratura technique and a plush sound, particularly in back-to-back tour de force arias in Act 2. Stober, like all five principals, was making her role debut, but her statuesque presence and vocal prowess made her ideal as the visiting American beauty who captivates two British servicemen.
Though not as magnetic to men as Angelica, the occasionally comic nurse Dorinda has entrancing arias in her arsenal, and Austrian soprano Christina Gansch was impressive in the role while making her American debut. Dorinda attends to and has a crush on the wounded soldier Medoro, who is as besotted with Angelica as she is with him, and Gansch expounds upon her unrequited love with charm and a sumptuous, radiant voice.
Countertenor and Adler Fellow Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen looked and sounded like a natural for the part of Medoro while making his SFO debut. Nussbaum Cohen’s youthful attractiveness was paired with a velvety, effortless voice, which was as beguiling in arias as it was the complementary center of Angelica and Dorinda’s attention in their sublime trio at the end of Act 1.
As the military doctor Zoroastro, who is Orlando’s psychoanalyst and seeks to impress upon him the need to return to battle, sturdy bass-baritone Christian Van Horn’s voice was as commanding as his tall presence and sagacity, which, in the Act 3 culmination evocative of “Frankenstein,” with bolts of electricity, magically finds a way to cure Orlando of his mental illness.
Making his SFO debut, conductor Christopher Moulds led the orchestra from the harpsichord with facility and verve.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 15, June 18, June 21 and June 27
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com