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Marilyn Horne As Hero : S.f. Opera Discovers Handel's 'Orlando'

September 17, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — For a long, long time, American audiences labored under the happy delusion that George Frideric Handel--a.k.a. Georg Friedrich Haendel--was a German composer who somehow got himself Anglicized so he could write a "Hallelujah" chorus and some Water Music.

Now, in time for Handel's 300th birthday celebrations, we have begun to know better. We realize, at last, that Handel was a German composer who somehow got himself Anglicized so he could write ornate Italian operas.

They are arduous, showy, symmetrical, sentimental, go-for-Baroque operas. They ask the impossible of singers, and they ask a lot of audiences. They are lovely, stylized, quaint, exciting, interesting, touching and predictable. And they go on forever.

In the bad old days, Handel operas enjoyed occasional, patently temporary, revivals in versions adapted--some would say corrupted--for modern tastes. The endurance contests invariably were shortened. Repetitions were omitted. Vocal parts were simplified and capriciously modified. Orchestrations were boldly romanticized.

Musicians thumbed their noses at musicologists. History be damned, they said. We perform old music this way because we like it this way and because we feel it this way. Basta .

Today, sacred purism has achieved its much delayed triumph. Handel has come home to the opera house, his way, here and abroad. He has earned belated reverence not just at the San Francisco Opera but even at the usually reactionary Metropolitan.

A new generation of singers--singers ready, willing and often able to trace the daunting course of lofty, arduous and florid lines--has arrived. Harpsichords continually grace our sunken pits. Embellishment has become a way of life. The antique flourish and the dainty diatribe have returned to fashion and, perhaps, to glory.

Opera houses happily harbor the matronly mezzo-soprano in plumed drag and, on occasion, the courtly countertenor who looks like a hero yet sounds like a heroine. Ultrapurists still may be pining for the return of the castrato, but otherwise all's well in the world of the elegant doodle and wheedle.

All was emphatically well, if you happen to like this sort of thing, Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House. After neglecting "Orlando" for 252 dastardly years, the big house in Bagdad by the Bay finally discovered Handel's appropriation of the Ariosto epic. (The local Pocket Opera had made a similar discovery two years ago but, as the name of the organization suggests, that couldn't be regarded as a major-league effort.)

The obvious raison d'etre for the fancy San Francisco production is a very popular lady named Marilyn Horne. At this phase of her career, her voice isn't quite dewy fresh or seamlessly smooth. The top tones don't flow quite as easily as they used to. Her chubby, distinctly feminine physique requires a certain suspension of disbelief when she pretends to be a macho warrior. But it hardly matters.

She still commands the fastest, loudest, darkest, thickest and flashiest throat in Western Civilization. Although subtlety and restraint are not her abiding fortes, she knows how to seize a challenge.

She grabs it con brio . In the process of gobbling up her Handel, she even drops a hint or two of possible self-mockery. She drives the fans delirious.

The drive to delirium on this occasion involved an orgy of arias that somehow evolved around this pretext of a plot: Miss Horne as Mr. Orlando is torn between the need for military and amorous victories. She/he loves the gracious lyric soprano Valerie Masterson as Angelica, who, in turn, loves the countertenor Jeffrey Gall, who plays and chirps the noble Medora. But he/she loves the bucolic soubrette Ruth Ann Swenson as Dorinda, who ends up having to console herself with her sheep.

That's not all, folks. Horne goes mad, descends to Hades, hallucinates. The inevitable happy end is assured only by Kevin Langan as Zoroastro, a basso-coloraturo deus ex machina who is made to bear a suspicious resemblance to old George Frideric himself. It warms the cockles.

The quaint and cutesy comings, goings and gurglings threaten to cloy before the evening has run its determined 3 3/4-hour course. Even a Baroque iconoclast, however, can admire the poise and the eloquence of the best moments in the score, not to mention the bravura performances and the witty, stylish production.

Horne triumphs even when she is silly and raspy. Gall's countertenor sounds as if it comes from a different expressive realm, but he performs most sensitively. Masterson is a vision of loveliness, though her blanched tones tighten a bit at the top. Swenson simpers with abiding sweetness and purity. Langan exudes paternal bonhomie as well as nonchalant virtuosity.

Sir Charles Mackerras conducts like a man in his enlightened element, which he most certainly is.

The lavish-looking physical production, created in cooperation with the Chicago Lyric Opera, reflects a clever, gently satirical ode to Baroque conventions.

John Copley moves the actors on and off, up and down, with fleet whimsy and deft strokes of character definition. Michael Stennett dresses the actors in fanciful mock 18th-Century finery. John Pascoe adorns the action with shimmering clouds, stately columns, glowing gauzes, formidable equestrian statues and pastoral panoramas, and throws in a few nifty stage-machine tricks for good measure.

It is all terrific, really terrific, if you can stay awake.

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