In conversation with Liberata Collective: Handel’s Orlando at the Buxton International Opera Festival

“In opera, the most profound music, the most well-chosen words, will not contribute to the drama if the action is not coherent … every detail of the visual aspects of the performance must be well-judged and varied – alive and developing even through the numerous repetitions.  This will keep the performance within style, while endowing it with beauty and nature.”  So said Dionysios Kyropoulos, Professor of Historical Stagecraft at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama when I spoke to him last year about his use of the acting style of Handel’s time in order to appreciate the cultural contexts in which Baroque opera was created and received, and thereby inform interpretations of these works for present-day audiences.  

Liberata Collective evidently agree with Dionysios.  Co-founded by sopranos Susanna MacRae and Olivia Doutney, the company, in collaboration with Ensemble Hesperi and music director Adrian Butterfield, will present a chamber-sized touring production of Handel’s opera Orlando at both the Buxton International Opera Festival and the Lichfield Festival this summer, employing historical Baroque Gesture, a practice that they believe that ‘brings a tremendous focus and intensity to a singer’s performance and, in turn, draws in the focus of the audience’.

In conversation with Olivia and Susanna, I asked them how Liberata Collective was ‘born’?  “We’ve worked together before on several projects, and co-directed a one-off, small-scale production a few years ago,” Olivia explains, “and we share a passion for historical acting method – we’re blown away by the ‘intensity’ and unique focus that can be achieved.  Sometimes when an audience is watching a baroque opera, there’s not much to ‘cling onto’ – the libretto can be complex and repetitive, and it’s easy to lose where you are in the plot.  But, Baroque Gesture provides clarity, for audiences and performers alike.  We’ve wanted to do Orlando in this way for a while now, and so we approached some festivals and brought the cast, Ensemble Hesperi and musical director Adrian Butterfield together.”

Susanna MacRae (Dorinda)

I wonder what inspired their interest in Baroque Gesture?  “I performed in one production using Baroque Gesture, a few years ago,” says Susanna, “with Ricardo Barros [a Baroque dancer, choreographer, harpsichordist, musical and stage director] at Benslow Opera.  We worked on Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes for a week – it was such an amazing experience.  Jolyon [Loy], who will sing the role of Zoroastro in Orlando, participated in that too.  I loved experiencing the way that these historical gestures brought such clarity and focus to the text.  And, it was terrific that it sold well, too.  Audiences seem genuinely interested in this style of performance.”

“Yes,” interjects Olivia, “we live in such a visual world, but ‘visual’ doesn’t need to mean extravagant special effects.  Baroque gestures really draw the eye, and audiences can see how the singers are involved not just vocally but also bodily in the performance.”

There’s no ‘director’ on the bill for Liberata Collective’s Orlando and I ask Olivia and Susanna if there’s a sense of anyone ‘taking charge’ in rehearsals, and how the team works together to create their conception of the opera?  “Well, we’re called a ‘collective’, and that’s because we wanted to create opera in a way that all the singers feel equally involved in the professional company and in the development of the production,” Susanna replies.  “All of our experiences of productions as opera singers have been led by stage directors, and that can be great, but we wanted to bring Orlando back to Handel’s own day, when there would have been no director and singers, knowledgeable in the practice, would choreograph their own scenes and arias, with input from the composer and librettist.”  

Olivia Doutney (Angelica)

Among the cast, Olivia, Susanna and Jolyon have the most experience of using Baroque gesture, and they are able to share and build knowledge through the company as the team explores works together.  “In a literal sense, Susanna and I are ‘directing’ in that we have created the overall blocking of the gestures based on our research of texts such as John Bulwer’s Chirologia.  So, it’s natural in rehearsals that we sometimes take the lead, but the process is quite open and collaborative.”

Orlando will be staged: what will it ‘look’ like?  “There are dreams and then there is budget reality!” laughs Susanna.  “But, we want it to look authentic – not over the top, so that the focus is on the gesture.  Lighting is particularly important, too.  It mustn’t be modern, overly bright.  The shadows bring out the beauty of the gestures and facial expressions.”

“It’s the same with regard to the costumes,” adds Olivia.  “The acting reflects the bodily temperament, telling the audience who is who, what’s happening, and where the plot is going, so the costumes must complement this.”

I ask why they chose Orlando for the company’s debut production?  “As singers, we wanted an opera that has roles for two sopranos of different vocal types,” Olivia explains.  “And, for our first production we needed a work of a scale that we could manage and make very good.  So, Orlando was very enabling in that it has five solo roles and no chorus.”  Olivia will sing the role of Angelica, the pagan princess with whom Orlando, a soldier in Charlemagne’s army, is infatuated, while Susanna will take the role of the shepherdess Dorinda who shelters Angelica in her hut.  “It’s also an interesting story to tell,” Olivia continues.  “It’s quite old-fashioned but also relevant today.  Orlando goes mad because his beloved Angelica has chosen someone else.  Even though Orlando saved her life, this doesn’t give him the ‘right’ to her hand or love, and she defends her right to her decision.” 

“It’s also an opera that, while not completely unknown, isn’t staged very often,” adds Susanna.

“And, of all Handel’s operas, Orlando has some amazingly experimental moments,” Olivia continues.  Such as?  “Well, in Orlando’s mad scene at the end of Act 2, Handel departs from the usual da capo structure – where the A-B-A form might reflect a change emotions from sadness to anger and back again, for example.  Instead, he constantly changes the time signature and employs surprisingly dissonant harmony; and there’s no resolution of the A-B-A structure.”

Christian Joel (Orlando)

Were such experiments linked to the singer who took the role in the first production?  “Senesino sang the role in the original production, so Orlando was performed by an alto-castrato,” Olivia explains.  “He was highly praised for his use of gesture and he had a big chesty sound.  So, the part is quite low for a countertenor.  In our production, the title role will be sung by Christian Joel.”  I’d notice that he is billed as ‘tenor/countertenor’!  “Christian has a high tenor voice, so he has a lot of power in the upper part of the tenor voice which would be the middle area of Senesino’s range.  But, Christian is from Trinidad and he has done a lot of gospel singing, so he has very easy access to the falsetto or head voice too.”

“It’s quite a heroic sound,” comments Susanna, “and it’s a bit of an experiment!  But, in any case, it’s difficult to know exactly what a castrato would have sounded like.”

“Christian has the power to match the other soloists,” adds Olivia.  “And, it’s important, too, to remember that we are not an early music ensemble – you will be hearing opera singers! Gesture is a gloriously theatrical practice that we believe can work across all periods of opera.”

Looking forward to the company’s forthcoming performances in Buxton, Susanna and Olivia are delighted that two (10th and 14th July) of the three performances in the Pavilion Arts Centre are sold out, with just a small number of tickets remaining for the performance on Friday 21st July.  The company will also travel to Lichfield to present one performance on 11th July, at the Hub in St Mary’s Church, as part of the Lichfield Festival.  “It’s quite a different venue,” comments Susanna.  “It’s important that the production is adaptable, especially as we plan to tour it in Wales in 2024.” 

Lucky Welsh audiences!

Liberata Collective perform Handel’s Orlando at the Buxton Festival and Lichfield Festival in July.

Claire Seymour