A cornucopia of delights await audiences at Handel’s spectacular opera by New York company, Glimmerglass.
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Orlando at Glimmerglass Festival. Image by Bob Moyers.

You might not typically associate deadlines, office politics and routine with the splendour and opulence of the Baroque. But for Handel’s Orlando, professional honour is served up as the antidote to passionate love.

‘So I guess in modern terms it’s whether you become a banker or a poet,’ explains Australian arts impresario and Hobart Baroque Artistic Director, Leo Schofield. ‘Orlando has an aria called Fammi combatere. It means essentially “like a soldier or a lover.” It’s a choice between going to war to pursue an heroic deed or abandoning yourself to the luxuries of life and love and music.’

Now in its second year, Hobart Baroque enables festival goers to embrace the eighteenth-century aesthetic experience from 28 March to 5 April. This year’s sophisticated program features 24-year-old colortura soprano, Julia Lehzneva, who Schofield crowns ‘the hottest soprano in the world’; countertenor Xavier Sabata, whose Bad Guys CD was rated five out of five stars by the Guardian; and, of course, the festival centrepiece – Handel’s Orlando, from provocative New York State opera company, Glimmerglass.

Following rave reviews at Glimmerglass Festival and the Lincoln Centre, Orlando’s Director, Chas Rader-Shieber, is excited to bring the production to Hobart. Rader-Shieber is one of the new players in the classical music scene responsible for re-envisaging the opera through a modern sensibility.

‘It’s simply a matter of telling a good story with a clear point of view,’ he says, somewhat modestly. ‘I’m interested in Orlando the flawed human, rather than the grand iconic hero. I think that desire of mine is at the heart of this production.’

Dr Erin Helyard is Music Director of Hobart Baroque, as well as conductor of Orlando and one half of the Duelling Harpsichords, a Festival act which pits two harpsichordists against each other in quick succession. Helyard and Rader-Shieber have also collaborated in Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, a company designed to present opera in a different way.

Helyard compares their work to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. ‘She does exactly what Chas does – and what I hope I do myself: find contemporary meaning in works of the past; good theatre of necessity mediates different historical realities.’

Helyard will conduct Orlando in the authentic manner Handel practised in the opera’s first season in London in 1733 – from the keyboards.

‘The modern method conducting with hand gestures and so forth – that actually originated in the 19th century.’ Helyard says. ‘I conduct in an authentic manner from the 18th century that tries to emulate Handel’s gestures that naturally come from performing on keyboards. It’s very much like the keyboardist in a rock band who keeps the band together with harmony and rhythm.’

This latest adaptation of Orlando boasts one key difference from its 18th-century forerunner: all the cast will be in possession of their genitals. In the original production, Handel’s lead male singer was the celebrated Italian contralto castrato, Senesino. His pre-pubescent castration was performed specifically so he would retain the high-pitch vocal range that Baroque opera necessitated.

‘Randall Scotting has all of his genitalia intact,’ confirms Helyard of the voice behind the eponymous Orlando. ‘It’s quite a low part, Orlando, and Randall has a specific countertenor voice that works really well. His normal voice would be a baritone. In Orlando, he performs what we call “second intonation”.’

The Baroque revival began in the 1960s when scholars started unearthing hidden gems in the canon and 18th-century melodies entered the collective consciousness. ‘”A Whiter Shade of Pale” incorporates a Bach tune,’ Schofield reminds me.

One of Handel’s last operas before moving to oratorios, Orlando is also among the composer’s most experimental. ‘The interesting thing about Orlando is that it ends with a really beautiful trio which is quite rare in Handel’s operas. There are a number of duets as well as the formal arias but it moves more into the dramatic sphere, like we see in later operas of Mozart,’ Schofield says.

But perhaps the unsung heroes of the performance are Hobart and its Theatre Royal. Chas Rader-Shieber describes the Theatre Royal as ‘a remarkable jewel’, noting its affinity with the Baroque, which literally comes from the word for ‘misshapen pearl.’  

‘What really clinched it for me as far as the Baroque was the theatre here in Hobart,’ Schofield reveals. ‘It seats under 800 people or 700. And it has three tiers. It’s the type of theatre that would be deemed historic anywhere in the world and we’re bloody lucky to have one surviving in Australia.’

In true Baroque style, architecture has a message for the audience and the Theatre Royal has both old and new things to say. ‘We’ve cut down the set and made some adjustments here and there and there’ll be directorial changes,’ Schofield says. ‘What you’ll see is something that really in a sense has been tailor-made for Theatre Royal and for Hobart Baroque.’

Hobart Baroque 2014 is Leo Schofield’s 11th outing as a Festival Director. And if the buildings of Hobart have anything to do with it, it won’t be his last. ‘When we started the baroque festival we had a list of at least 20 beautiful buildings where we could do performances. We didn’t get them all up but the long-term plan is do as many as we can.’

Along with its sibling festival, MONA FOMA, Hobart Baroque mobilises the island’s unique features to produce a truly international festival and the only one of its kind for Australian audiences.

‘This is the only place they can hear all this stuff.’ Schofield states. ‘And they can hear it and spend the day looking at old buildings, travelling to Port Arthur, climbing Mount Wellington, drinking Tasmanian wines. There’s endless opportunities for people to explore the place.’

I ask Mr Schofield if he will be reviewing the food at the Festival’s Ottoman Feast, an event which brings together Melbourne early music ensemble, Latitude 37, a trip down Hobart’s Derwent River and wines and exotic Turkish treats concocted by MONA’s renown chefs.

He laughs conspiratorially. ‘I don’t need to,’ he says. ‘But I am putting together a list of restaurants that I think are very good and where people who are blowing into Hobart for the festival can have a good time.’

Theatre Royal, Hobart
Friday 28 March, Sunday 30 March, Wednesday April 2, Friday April 4
For more information visit Hobart Baroque