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Conductor Ashiq Aziz (R) and stage director Patrick Eakin Young

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Orlando/Lunaire

  • Music by G.F. Handel and Arnold Schoenberg
  • Opera Erratica/ The Classical Music Consort
  • At 128 Sterling Road
  • In Toronto on Sunday

Orlando/Lunaire, the chosen title of 'an underground opera,' is described by its presenters as 'a mashup' of George Frideric Handel's 1719 opera Orlando and Arnold Schoenberg's 1912 settings of 21 poems from Albert Giraud's Pierrot lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot) for Sprechstimme and chamber ensemble. It had, on Sunday, the first of several Toronto performances in an industrial storage shed near Bloor and Lansdowne.

This pastiche of fragments from two masterworks, Handel's baroque opera and Schoenberg's early-20th-century set of commedia-del-arte parodies, is the brainchild - or, perhaps more accurately, the impulsive notion - of two likeable young Toronto groups: Opera Erratica and The Classical Music Consort, or more likely of their leaders. Opera Erratica leader Patrick Eakin Young reconceived, designed and stage-directed the 'mashup' of the two utterly disparate works, and Ashiq Aziz conducted the consort and the two singers - soprano Carla Huhtanen and countertenor Scott Belluz.

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It's difficult to guess what prompted the mashing. We know that Schoenberg desired to possess Handel's Concerto grosso, Op. 6 no. 7, to the extent of recomposing it to suit himself as a Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. But he never demonstrated a wish to annex or second-guess a Handel opera. As for Handel, I'm sure he'd have been galvanized to find his work ruthlessly fragmented and served up cheek by jowl with these elegant specimens of Schoenbergian Sprechstimme. (The term translates as "speech-voice," and it is actually stylized, speech-inflected voice.)

In any case - and inevitably - the drama of Orlando/Lunaire was far-fetched, willful and scrappy, determined rather than inspired. But if you were not too offended by the cherry-picking truncations of many of the Handel excerpts, a lot of the singing and playing was quite lovely.

The consort did get off on the wrong foot with an only semi-tuned overture to the Handel, which recalled the bad old days of Tafelmusik before it grew to its present glory under Jeanne Lamon. But it went on to redeem itself with an increasingly sure grasp of the two alternating and diametrically different styles: Handel's rich baroque contrapuntal harmony and Schoenberg's exquisitely delicate and ironic atonalities.

Of the two singers, soprano Huhtanen handled the two styles with the more authority and grace - touching in the Handel (her aria Verdi, piante was a highlight) and instinctively finding in the Schoenberg the subtle blend of speech and song that makes this music live. Countertenor Belluz, obviously gifted, was impressive in the more lyrical Handel excerpts, but his line and ornamentation fell to pieces in his overheated, melodramatic approach to the coloratura tours-de-force Handel composed for a castrato. Belluz was happier in those bits of Schoenberg where he could juxtapose his persuasive high falsetto and baritone notes pulled suddenly from the bottom drawer of his divided range.

The generally fine music-making did have to rise above some of Young's visual effects; these largely centred on the countertenor. The oversized lampshade hanging behind the forestage scrim served first as a screen for projections of soft-porn images of a voluptuous nude woman, then was taken down twice to serve as a transvestite skirt - complete with high heels - for Belluz, who was also required to strip to the waist and preen narcissistically. None of this is dictated by Schoenberg's score.

On the visual credit side, Heidi Ackerman's costumes for Pierrot and Columbine were stylish and suitable. The surtitles, imaginatively timed and boldly and legibly projected onto the forestage scrim, were a vivid aid; indeed, they were probably the star of the show, making such sense of it as we could hope to enjoy.

But I did come away desiring a complete performance of Orlando and a complete performance of Pierrot lunaire on decently separate occasions. The mashup told me less about Handel and Schoenberg and more about the feverish fancies of Young than I need to know.

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Orlando/Lunaire continues through Aug. 28 (www.opera-erratica.org).

Special to The Globe and Mail

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