Orlando: The Adventurer, Bath Festival, St Swithin’s Church

ORLANDO is a figure from distant myths and epics, a source of creative inspiration and fascination – never more so than in Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary novel, Orlando: A Biography, which was the key focus for a Bath Festival concert featuring guitarist Sean Shibe and mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovaska.

One of Virginia Woolf’s most popular novels, Orlando was first published in 1928 and is said to have been inspired by the tumultuous family history of the aristocratic poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and close friend. It is described as a history of English literature in satiric form, but for most readers the appeal lies in the colourful settings and the character of Orlando, a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting key figures in English literary history.

The 16th century Italian poet Ariosto wrote Orlando Furioso, an epic poem that draws on themes of war and love and the romantic ideal of chivalry. This in turn has been the basis for operas by Vivaldi and Handel.

Going further back, Orlando makes his first significant appearance as the epitome of the immortal chivalric knight in the 11th century French poem La Chanson de Roland.

Shibe, this year’s Bath Festival artist in residence, and Nikolovaska, a remarkable singer with a multi-octave-spanning vocal range, had plenty of historic material to draw on – and five centuries of music from Dowland to Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson and two newly composed works, Sasha Scott’s 1000 Pieces of You and Dr Cassandra Miller’s It Reminded Me Of The Truth.

With its expectation-raising title, the journey for the audience in the beautiful St Swithin’s Church was really an adventure – familiar Tudor works by Dowland, beautiful lieder by Schubert and startling and powerful contemporary works by the German composer Glanert, the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen and Thomas Ades, whose shocking Habanera closed the first half.

The second half featured more Glanert and Dowland, and culminated in a no-holds barred electric guitar and voice performance of Dylan’s Masters of War and Laurie Anderson’s O Superman – a work that still astonishes, delights and puzzles us, more than 40 years after it was first performed by the New York-based artist.

The versatility of Shibe, moving effortlessly between acoustic and electric guitar, and the vocal acrobatics of Nikolovaska brought this varied and often challenging programme vividly and passionately to life.

It was an enthralling concert which reminded us how important arts festivals are in introducing audiences to new works or contemporary reinterpretations of old familiar pieces. It’s great to see that the Bath Festival can still provoke and delight us with its programming.


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