Opera Meets Film: How Haymarket Opera Creates a Unique Operatic Experience Through its ‘Orlando’ Film

By John Vandevert
(Credit: Anna Cillan)

Following the halt on live performances due to COVID-19, opera houses and companies alike were forced to reform how they brought music to their traditionally in-person audiences. Via digital means, like prerecorded content, subscription-based videos, and online events, the traditional venues of opera were radically altered. But as lockdowns start to end, and restrictions begin to be rolled back across the states, many are having to now think about how to cater to both their online and offline audiences. That’s where Haymarket Opera Company and their filmed adaptation of Handel’s opera “Orlando” comes in.

This widely praised Chicago-based company is dedicated to historically-informed productions of operas and oratorios from the 18th century. They have become one of the torchbearers for this new trend in operatic performance of digitally presenting fully-staged productions in a gradual act-by-act-roll-out series.

Haymarket presented its first of the three-Act run of Handel’s “Orlando” on September 16th. The remaining second and third Acts were released in the following weeks. The beloved opera seria was treated to multiple streams of fresh air, including the phenomenal efforts of the production team including hand-painted backdrops by Zuleyka V. Benitez, period costuming by Haymarket newbie Stephanie Cluggish, and cinematic immersion led by Chase Hopkins and Garry Grasinski.

The film features many stellar moments from both the orchestra and cast alike. Some of my favorite parts were Orlando’s “Fammi Combaterre” with its jubilant floridity sung by star Bejun Mehta, Dorinda’s demurely evocative “Quando spieghi tuoi tormenti” sung by the angelic Erica Schuller, Zorastro’s paternally-saturated “Sorge infausta una procellasung” by the indelible David Govertsen.

Having said that, the production’s wins only extend so far and among the tripartite’s many Gesamtkunstwerk (high and low) notes. I believe there were many flaws due to the video medium.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Haymarket Opera’s experience in film adaptations of Baroque opera is not a new task for them. As of 2021, they have three operatic films under their curatorial belt including “Apollo e Dafne” and “Acis and Galatea.” With Orlando, Haymarket strove to strike an integrated balance between Handel’s rich musical-emotional vocabulary, along with experimentally dabbling in organically unfolding dramaticism, painted backdrops, camera postures, transdimensional lighting, and of course the cherry-on-top of any production, costumes.

On top of this, the company’s dedication to historical accuracy in all of its many operatic faces extended into their choice of orchestration. Thus, the ensemble’s unbroken harmony was bolstered by the presence of both the silvery tinges of the harpsichord and the 14-string theorbo.

As someone who loves both authenticity and daring innovation combined, the way Haymarket went about infusing Orlando with the best that remote performance has to offer, while staying true to the aesthetic tenants of Baroque opera is not to be overlooked. By using nothing other than Benitez’s allegorical backdrops, imaginative lighting, angles, and living projections to complement the humble cast of five, Haymarket succeeded in amplifying the loud subtext of Handel’s music.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t taken back a bit by the lack of set dressing. Due to the meandering camera-work, the viewers were able to see just how barren the stage was the backdrop and stage surrounded by deep wings of darkness, emitting, in turn, a striking feeling of watching kinetic art in motion (take a look at Manet’s “Paveurs de la Rue Mosnier.”)

Haymaker’s notoriety extends well outside film-based projects, so the choice to continue their cinematic ventures after COVID was a deliberate choice and one that many companies are involved in. So establishing themselves in this field could prove to be both an artistically enriching, and potentially lucrative decision if done right.

One of the beauties of film is the emancipation from the sticky reality of singular vantage points. You sit in a seat, watch the opera from one place, usually at a distance, and are continuously negotiating between many distractions.

Throughout the film, the audience got to peer into the humanity of Handel’s pastoral characters and see what they were seeing, although at times that got incredibly distracting (we’ll get there.)  Grasinski’s manipulation of intimacy and objectivity showed that opera’s novelty is sometimes not in what we see, but in what we don’t see. Instead of setting a camera on a tripod and saying “action,” Grasinski and Hopkins made Orlando’s heroic journey from a mere slave of love to a fully-formed character.

Plus, as one who loves all kinds of subtext, being able to see tilts of the head, eye flutters, and mouth clenches was exciting.

In an age where opera has surpassed many of its previous barriers, and experimental methods of epic proportions are being used to coax audiences into seats, stripping back opera to its fundamentals is needed. Haymarket’s “Orlando” won’t leave you gasping for air, cause your palms to sweat, or even leave you in a gawking stupor. But what, at least for me, the film does do is remind me of the humanity between the magic of opera. You feel the human experience and see the unvarnished soul of us all, a very much welcomed reprieve from the operatic contemporary.

Let’s Talk Environment

The film was presented in what could be called a realistic performance style; meaning the singers were on stage while the orchestra lie in front of them. The overarching feeling of the entire experience was an intrepid feeling of constancy. Not solely of a musical nature, but in a clear, multidimensional narrative way.

Under Zorastro’s prudence and the orchestra’s steady sonorities, the charades of our protagonist and his lovers proceed.

Admittedly, that sounds a bit absurd, but what I’m hinting at is that “Orlando” is the type of Baroque jewel that requires a thorough understanding of the subject matter in order to properly imbue everything with meaning. In “Orlando,” nothing is a mere decoration or frivolity. Every youthful bout of vocalic ardor, Italianate embellishment, and spirited undulation of the orchestra serves as a personification of the title character’s thorny relationship with the concept of love.

So due to the music’s transparent expressivity, to overcompensate with excessive set pieces and effects would be a risky venture and antithetical to the very premise of the opera itself. But to have none would be just as counterintuitive to the fantastical nature of the story. Yes, the singers and orchestral support are, by default, relegated to carry the heavy, transportational burden. But if your aesthetic surroundings are dry, then not only are your singers forced to imagine themselves in these fantastic places but your audience as well. And through video, you want your audience working less, not more.

So like a sore thumb, the reality of digital distance was allowed to flourish in the absence of an environment. Despite the painted backgrounds and expert musicality, the lack of physical scenery left me unsatisfied. That’s not to say it was a bad thing, but it’s a curious point. Within the realm of Baroque repertoire, minimalism seems to be a percolating trend. Take for example the seminal 2014 production of “Xerxes” by the London National Theatre, whose colonial remake of Handel’s imaginative view of the passions of Xerxes Ist (complemented with a giant Lamassu topiary) sits fiercely at the opposite side of the spectrum when compared to the Royal Swedish Opera’s 2009 production. There, minimalism was used to resemble an early 1950s train station at points, complete with marble walls and a translucent backdrop, while at others the translucent walls became the subconscious illuminator of arches and Gestapo.

Among the variations both very small to very large, Haymarket took what could be called a “decadently simple” approach, where ornate costuming and backgrounds served as environmental suppliers, and the music then was left to do the rest.

An interesting approach no doubt. But with the medium that they chose, both vocalic and expressional compensation started to creep in, and this very much cut down on the effectiveness of the choice to go simple. I’m reminded of the immortal anecdote, “Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.” On one hand, you have to marvel at the fact that Haymarket’s unpretentious approach to presenting Baroque opera worked so well through the screen. But on the other hand, the ramifications of a no-audience/video-based production were hard to look away from. You quite literally had nowhere else to turn.

Showing Nuance on Film

One of the reasons why “Orlando” exemplifies Haymarket’s budding status as a paragon of operatic film productions is their stellar camera work, assiduously following the singer’s in a naturally unfolding cadence.

It’s quite a strange feeling to become beholden to the living camera as your only window into a production. Normally my eyes would be flitting from one corner of the stage to the other, taking in everything I could feast my eyes and ears on at one time. So to be involuntarily trapped by the corners of what the camera can pick up makes the video medium a less savory option than just waiting to attend in person. But in person, you are never guaranteed a good, even acceptable seat.

That’s the exact thing that Haymarket’s operatic film offers a partial solution for, a remedy to the indiscriminate amounts of ways watching a live opera could go wrong. By providing the audience with the same audio-visual experience, your faculties of thought and personal interpretation are conceivably freed up to engage more fully with the artistry before you. Instead of having to trace the singers to and fro, straining your neck to see, and attempting to ignore the coughing spectators from interrupting your evolving thoughts, all that needs to be done is to tune in and relax.

This is a true asset for Haymarket’s “Orlando.” In the more intimate moments of the opera, particularly in the Act two revelation “Verdi allori” and especially Act three in “Vorrei poterti amar,” this medium allows the viewer to wholly empathize with the vocalist. Here, Emily Fons’ velvet-dipped voice filled the picture with warmth.

And yet, despite taking a pleasurable seat in my own room, watching the opera in comfortable clothes, I am left with another overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction. The truth is that with filmed operas, everything is pretty much known and handed to you. You see everything and all that’s left is to sit.

But I think of a more poignant difficulty, one that Haymarket may have been unconsciously contending with. This was the need for subtlety, nuance, and expressional shading amidst the busy work and courtly allure of Handel’s ethos. Throughout the three-hour opera every singer, with particular praise given to the tenor par excellence Bejun Mehta, assimilated themselves into their characters with great effect, taking on the minute and grosser gestures of their social station. But the thought-inspired movements and reciprocated gesticulations, while expressive (particularly in the Act two mad scene) often fail to elicit the reaction they’re trying to achieve. The missing element, which is found in many, if not all, of the interactions and on-screen tastes of Dorinda, Zoroastro, and Medoro, are those three pillars of quality operatic theatre. Subtlety, nuance, and expressional shading.

At the end of the first tableau of Act two, after having become aware of Angelica (Queen of Cathay) and her duplicity through Dorinda’s exhibition of a bracelet originally given to Angelica, Orlando breaks into the vigorous Allegro “Cielo! se tu il consenti” to express his pain and wish for the relief of death by a steel blade. While Mehta’s stellar timbre, technical mastery, and immaculate fioritura, undoubtedly qualifies him as the Farinelli of our time, his acting here was frightful. Making eye contact with the camera, ripping open his blouse, falling to his knees. Yes, he was just betrayed and has ample reason to be zealously perturbed, but it’s the dramatic pacing and limited vocabulary which haunted him.

“Limited vocabulary” may seem like tedious noticing, but when audiences are at home, novelty must be maintained.

Elegance and a Mad Scene

Speaking of acting, a good amount of praise must be given to Sarah Edgar and Lindsey Lyddan for their adept use of dimensionality and lighting in order to offset the barrenness of what they had to work with.

Casting a fairytale-like aura over the production’s characters, the practically diegetic movements and lighting gave the film a meta quality. At times throughout each of the three Acts, I was overcome with feelings of a Commedia dell’Arte or pantomimist aesthetic quality which, must to the production’s benefit, worked to humanize the cast of Orlando, rendering them relatable constructs.

So palpable was this Shakespearian dramaturgy that in the finale of Act one “Consolati o bella,” were waves of emotional realizations and sonorous floridity, an authentic nod to 18th-century stage practice emerged. One, if it must be said, is tending to be lost as Handelian repertoire is increasingly being subjected to the decadence of every kind.

Adding to the tactfully theatrical aura were carefully decided lighting and illusionary projections. In Act one and three, an ephemeral ripple of shimmer to highlight at first Zorastro’s conjured images of the great warriors of antiquity (in hopes of inspiring Orlando to follow Mars instead of Cupid,)  and secondly to wake Orlando and restore his sanity.

While beautifully placed, I found the subtle, almost meta-textual lighting more enthralling. The golden spotlight highlighted Dorinda’s excited state during “Ho un certo rossore” in Act two, the melancholic, blue-green hues of “Quando spieghi tuoi tormenti,and especially the benevolent hues of violet which coax our erratic but well-intentioned hero to a deep slumber.

But a considerable amount of thaumaturgical and dramaturgical momentum began falling away with the end of Act two when, according to the plot and musical score, the eclectic anxieties of our hero are to burst from the seams and let loose. Unfortunately, despite the implied tenebrific tenor of the moment, what Mehta exuded was very much antithetical to this.

For starters the wind machine effect, while harrowing in theory, lacked the theatrical backing necessary to sell its magical properties. With such robust musical underpinnings, Mehta’s half-lethargic yet half-polysemic acting painted his initial descent into madness as flaccid and underwhelming. But once Mehta began vocally capitulating to sorrow in the mad scene’s first vignette, ambiguity was eschewed for dramatic clarity, pointing to an ostensible lack of embodied character knowledge but a fully graspable musical equivalent.

This unfortunate idiosyncrasy couldn’t quite escape Mehta here, as I found myself routinely closing my eyes to truly experience that ineffable beauty he exudes with his countertenor ebulliences here and throughout the opera. Much of the dilemma lies in two key issues, at least from my perspective. One is Mehta’s breaking of the fourth wall leading to the discouragement of observational eavesdropping, with the other being an over-emphasis on anxiety-induced capriciousness in the quest for operatic gravitas.

When Orlando first begins his descent into Hades, the dramatic line is broken when he looks at the camera. After coddling himself, he then glares into the camera once more at the “smoldering threshold of Pluto (Hades)” and bears witness to Cerberus. Instead of panic, Orlando reacts with a tepid shock. After some stilted melodicism, Orlando sees a vision of Persephone, and adeptly looks right off-center, a much better choice, in my opinion.

But here is where the mad scene begins to take shape! The demurred sincerity, agonizingly dulcet even, of Mehta’s “Vaghe pupille,” in my mind cementing his evolving legacy as a truly pithy interpreter of the Baroque sublime, speaks volumes about Orlando, more than any of his more boisterous gesturing could do.

While Mehta gazes again into the camera after succumbing to Dionysian rage, the raging torrents of orchestral harpies not far behind, I was left thinking “What could have been?” Imagine if Mehta’s “Baroque sublime” had been everywhere?

When Handel Goes Right

It was in Act three, however, when the title of the “sole streaming holdout” began to make sense. Like many of Haymarket’s most tectonic exchanges and sumptuous musical soliloquies present themselves. Further, by this point the imaginative backdrops and period garments had become so intrinsic to the fabric of the “Orlando” universe that I found myself falling in love with the music much more than the previous two Acts, simultaneously ignoring the starkness of the stage entirely due to the singer’s matured convictions. A real dramaturgical engine had warmed up and was now operating at full capacity. Among the nine vignettes of Act three, narrated by the unshakeable trenchant grace of the orchestra, a keen sense of Handelian regalness, not only musically but expressively, perhaps having exhausted the excess for the quintessential core, emanated from every interaction. Haymarket’s incorruptible mission of presenting the 18th-century opera through a masterful blend of contemporary and historical practice was immediately evident. No bells and whistles, just pure artistry.

While the apex of the final act was centered around Orlando’s second feverish outburst, “Gia l’ebro mia ciglio,” it’s worth pointing out some superb moments in the other eight vignettes. Especially, quite emphatically, the divinely-blended, Hellenic finale, introduced by the immaculate line “Chi celebrar potrà mai le tue lodi!” where Dorinda and Angelica’s cherubic overtones and appoggiatura float in the guileless ether.

In the first vignette, after Dorinda’s sublime recitative, Emily Fons (Medoro) embarks on one of her best performances of the entire opera, “Vorrei poterti amar,” a full-throated beseechment and masterclass in nuance. While Fon’s alto timbre is phenomenally suited for pants roles, it is her artistic vocabulary and penetrative gazes which demand great laurels.

Following a tense recitative between Dorinda and Orlando, capped with Orlando’s call-to-action “Già lo stringo, già l’abbraccio,” reduced in sobriety by reiterative gestures and troubled focus, then Angelica and Dorinda, punctuated by Angelica’s troubled “Mi fa pietà, ed ingrata,” two more brilliant displays of the two faces of Handelian pantomime emerge.

I’m speaking of course of Dorinda’s buoyantly satirical “Amor è qual vento” and Zoroastro’s intrepid “Sorge infausta una procella.” In these two arias, Handel presents the diversity of love’s visage in two very different yet overlapping ways. In the former through a jesting atmosphere rife with bucolic coloratura and inventive fioritura decoration, while in the latter a paternal benevolence radiates, proving that even the most profound bass is capable of artful dexterity and multi-register suppleness. However, at the heart of these two arias is the shrewd embodiment of character-based, instigative drive. A tenant that, when achieved, can be sensed through any medium. A creative bosom of limitless potential then could open up for Haymarket if they opt-in to navigating the competitive waters of digital opera with this famed idiosyncrasy in mind.

Just like their inventive lighting and visual effects, Haymarket additionally plays with somatic intimacy as well, most notably when Zorastro uses his mastery over weather itself (conjuring divine thunder, expressed through tympanic rolls) to heal Orlando of his mania. This presents a peculiar effect for the earphone vs. non-earphone listener, as, through earphones, Zorastro’s celestial invocation is given a physical presence, while through a laptop the experience is heavily stinted. Whether planned or unconsciously created, this orchestral detail adds a dash of realism to the operatic universe being created on-screen that perhaps is even more real than traditional stage variations of this scene (I’m thinking of the recent, 2021 production by La Scintilla). Likewise, the sedate, fugal transition from the beach scene to the halls of Mars, symbolizing Orlando’s purification, with the flying motif of the eagle carrying Zorastro’s anecdote, bests all criticisms.

And finally, the Act three finale is sensational in its own right. Not only because of the jubilation orchestra whose sagacious handling of baroque repertoire impresses onto the operatic universe an unshakeable continuity of tone and timbre. Or even the jovial exuberances of betrothment, awakenings, humility, and communal revelries, spearheaded by Orlando’s conquest of juvenile lust “Trionfa oggi ‘l mio cor.” But because it combines everything from exquisite vocal performance and gestural authenticity to stylized movements and immersive cinematography, perhaps under the banner of a digital modality. Under Mars’ omniscient gaze and in joyous and sonorous fire all their own, curtailed only by the harrowing knowledge of what has happened at the hands of temptation, the cast once more convenes to celebrate their newfound discovery of “equal praise given to the merits of love and valor.”

Like a Baroque painting’s capture of the ethereal and the human (particularly the “Room of Mars” by Pietro da Cortona and “Orlando Furioso” by Ludovico Ariosto), our constructs of humanness pose. I have now learned how to love, hoorah!


Opera Meets Film