Woolf At The Door Of An Overstuffed House In ‘Orlando’

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Kate Lindsey sings the title role in the world premiere of ‘Orlando,’ an opera by Olga Neuwirth that is the first work by a woman composer to be performed by the Vienna State Opera. (Photos: Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera)

VIENNA – In the fourteenth tableau of Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando, which premiered at the Vienna State Opera on Dec. 8, an elderly critic upbraids the title character, now a lesbian punk in 1980s London, for bringing together too many “heterogeneous elements” in her writing. The statement, a self-conscious reference to the Austrian composer’s integration of everything from rock music to high modernism, is also an apt commentary on what turns out to be an overstuffed evening.

Orlando (Kate Lindsey) as a young man.

In the “fictive musical biography” based on the eponymous novel by Virginia Woolf about a nobleman who transforms into a woman and poet, Neuwirth and co-librettist Catherine Filloux are not content to comment on gender politics but confront the audience with social travesties from the Holocaust to the erosion of democracy in the 21st century.

The 51-year-old Neuwirth is one of her generation’s most respected composers, bringing to her scores not just a staggering command of musical history but also film, literature, and visual art. The first half of Orlando, with its juxtaposition of dialogue (the narrator Anna Clementi, a replacement for Fiona Shaw), video projections, raw instrumentation, and ambient electronica, nearly emerges as a new genre on the cusp of opera and performance art. Accompanied by harpsichord, the immortal title character (the mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey) travels from the Elisabethan Age into the 20th century like the personification of opera itself, while the orchestra now teems with filmic effects, now comments with dark irony, now swirls manically to the image of a giant spinning dreidel between scenes.

Neuwirth delivers one of her most powerful punches with the tenth scene, exploring child molestation – the subject of a commission by the State Opera that was subsequently withdrawn in 2006 on the basis of what was declared an unsuitable libretto by Elfriede Jelinek. A children’s chorus dressed in striped pajamas fills the stage, with a tonal idiom quoting English folk songs and Christmas carols. Also not without impact is a recording of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto as performed by the exiled Austrian musician Arnold Rosé and his daughter, Alma, while Orlando stands speechless behind the names of Holocaust victims that appear on a scrim.

Orlando (Kate Lindsey) and the poet Greene (Leigh Melrose). Costume design by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

Much in the tradition of the 20th-century Italian composer Luigi Nono, Neuwirth exploits the operatic stage as a space where the audience must pause and reflect on human tragedy. But as the plot shifts suddenly to Vietnam (“Wars have all the letters of the alphabet!” declares Orlando), to the gay rights movement, to the current age of hyper-capitalism and dehumanization, the effect grows wearing. Especially as Neuwirth’s orchestra brings forth nothing in the way of new musical ideas but rather allows the opera to speak primarily through the cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond (here cast as Orlando’s transgender son), historic video, an onstage rock band, and other elements that blatantly seek to provoke the bourgeois audience.

Cabaret singer Justin Vivian Bond plays Orlando’s transgender son.

The State Opera has lavished time and resources on the production, however, so that only a few boos broke through the mostly respectful applause for Neuwirth and Filloux at the end of the evening. Costumes by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons combining historical allusions to the Elizabethan Age  with modern sculptural elements are an ideal complement to Neuwirth’s aesthetic. Video projections by Will Duke are precisely timed to the music as per the composer’s detailed instructions in the score, live electronic is expertly executed by Markus Noisternig.

The conductor Matthias Pintscher, in his house debut, draws precise rhythms and subdued microtones from the State Opera Orchestra, effortlessly coordinating a total of four choruses and three percussion stations. Polly Graham, who presides over direction, fleshes out the characters with at times cartoonish humor, particularly the poet Greene (Leigh Melrose) and the three doctors (Wolfram Igor Derntl, Hans Peter Kammerer, Ayk Martirossian) who observe Orlando’s metamorphosis into a woman. The countertenor Eric Jurenas, as the Guardian Angel, and soprano Constance Hauman (Queen/Purity/Friend of Orlando’s Child) give stand-out vocal performances.

But there is such a dearth of operatic writing in the second half of the stage work, and such an overflow of political protest, that one wishes the score to come to a close well before the conclusion of its approximately two-and-a-half hours’ length. Neuwirth’s ability to weave together disparate elements is one of her greatest talents, and Orlando – with its feminist cause and meta-dramatic depth – is an ideal subject matter for her long-awaited State Opera debut. If only she had hewed more closely to the subtlety of Woolf’s prose in the execution.

Orlando continues at Vienna State Opera through Dec. 20. For tickets and information, go here. It is available to stream for three days, starting on Dec. 18.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.