Castell Peralada: Orlando Brings Together Woolf and Handel


Peralada’s Festival, one of the most important summer festivals in the Costa Brava (Catalonia), has premiered a new production for Handel’s Orlando, a risky bet for a title outside the mainstream operatic repertoire. This was a winning bet both for the musical quality of the interpretation as well as for the theatrical interest of the new production.

The young Sevillian stage director Rafael R. Villalobos was charged with this project. He brought together on stage the celebrated 1928 novel by Virginia Woolf, ‘Orlando: A Biography’, and the Handel characters – who in turn come, through various intermediary variations, from the epic chivalrous poem by Ludovico Ariosto published in 1532, the Orlando furioso.

Orlando, Castell Peralada (c) Toti Ferrer

In Peralada’s new ‘genderless’ production, the opera’s original love triangle between Dorinda, Angelica and Medoro (a male role, always performed by a woman), turns into the love triangle between Virginia Woolf, her lover the writer Vita Sackville-West, and the lover of the latter, Violet Trefusis a writer herself. Orlando, the hero giving the piece its title, therefore loses his prominence as a character and turns into a personification of sorts of the complex and often contradictory relations between the three women.

Ideas are one thing, but an entirely different one is the embodiment of these on stage, which is the ultimate truth and the indisputable judge in theatre. Thankfully, the staging of Villalobos’ project worked at all levels and the daring idea triumphed on stage.

First of all, the excellent acting direction meant that there was continuous movement and fluidity on stage and that the repetitions in the text – abundant in Baroque opera generally and in Handel in particular – weren’t visually cumbersome as there was no scenic repetition.

The scenography was a success too. A sloping triangular platform – perhaps a visual evocation of the love triangle taking place on stage – delimitated the space where the action took place. The only recognisable referent in this platform was Woolf’s desk where she wrote ‘Orlando: A Biography’. Over this, an also triangular and inclined mirror ceiling reflected ‘another view point’ towards the audience about what was happening on stage. The physical view change quickly became a conceptual one, as it showed that all those relationships could be seen and interpreted in more than one way. A good lighting design completed the success of the production and so did the fitting costumes, which were flamboyant and androgynous for Orlando and conventional for the rest of the characters.

Orlando, Castell Peralada (c) Toti Ferrer

The performance, cut by about 50 minutes compared to its full duration when including all areas and repetitions, achieved a high musical level. Countertenor Xavier Sabata excelled as Orlando and overcame all the enormous vocal difficulties of the role that Handel created in 1730 for the famous castrato Senesino. Moreover, Sabata, who is also a great actor, gave an ideal dramatic force to the character.

Marie Lys was also brilliant and perfectly in style as Dorinda (Virginia), soprano Sabina Puértolas also performed and sang well the role of Angelica (Violet) and mezzosoprano Eve-Maud Hubeaux also didn’t have any issues as Medoro (Vita). Baritone José Antonio López, who mostly sang from behind the scenes, also managed without difficulty the role of Zoroastro.

Dani Espasa conducted the ensemble Vespres d’Arnadí, which delivered very well. It is important to highlight that, given that the performance was outdoors in the large dimensions of the auditorium of the Peralada’s Festival, it was necessary to amplify singers and instrumentalists. The sound design was given to Roc Mateu and his work was excellent at providing a soft and refined sound which didn’t betray the ‘baroqueness’ of the piece and delicately balanced voices and instruments.

Two transgressions – shortening and amplifying the piece – which might not have been accepted in a conventional theatre, in Peralada contributed to making this Orlando a success. 

Xavier Pujol
Peralada, 30th July 2021

Orlando by Georg Friedrich Händel. Xavier Sabata, countertenor. Marie Lys, soprano, Sabina Puértolas, soprano. José Antonio López, baritone. Eve-Maud Hubeaux, mezzosoprano.  Vespres d'Arnadí, orchestra. Dani Espasa, conductor. Rafael R. Villalobos, stage director and costumes. Emmanuele Sinisi, scenography design. Albert Faura, lighting design. Roc Mateu, sound design. Production by Festival Castell de Peralada. Auditori del Castell.

Photo credit: Toti Ferrer

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