Home Entertainment Classical Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen primed to handle choice role in S.F. Opera’s ‘Orlando’...

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen primed to handle choice role in S.F. Opera’s ‘Orlando’ – The Mercury News

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DARIO ACOSTA/PHOTO Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is delighted to be singing the role of Medoro in San Francisco Opera’s production of Handel’s “Orlando.”

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen arrives for our interview looking exuberant.

“I love Handel,” says the countertenor, who is making his San Francisco Opera mainstage debut as Medoro in the company’s summer production of the composer’s “Orlando.” He’s just finished a lengthy rehearsal, but he seems to have enough energy to go back and take it from the top.

Cohen, 25, is a young artist in the company’s Adler Fellowship program, but he’s already made a big impression in the Bay Area. The New York transplant has scored successes in appearances with San Francisco Ballet, American Bach Soloists and, most recently, in a brilliant solo turn as King David in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s performances of Handel’s “Saul.”

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Yet with Medoro, which he calls a dream role, he’s taking a leap into a major production of one of Handel’s greatest operas.

He’s clearly ready.

Based on “Orlando furioso,” the epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto, Handel’s 1733 opera portrays larger-than-life emotions — passion, jealousy, madness — manifested by its four principal characters, with the fifth character, magician Zoroastro, pulling the strings.

San Francisco Opera hasn’t presented “Orlando” since 1985, and this production, directed by Harry Fehr and conducted by Christopher Moulds, sets the opera in a World War II military hospital in London during the Blitz. Orlando and Medoro are both recovering from war wounds; Angelica, Orlando’s former lover, has become involved with Medoro, and Dorinda is attracted to him as well, driving Orlando to fits of rage.

For Cohen, the heightened emotion of Handel’s operas is a thrilling challenge. Fehr’s staging is true to the original, he said, while modernizing it “in such a thoughtful way. It really works beautifully.”

“I think people have this idea about Baroque music, that it’s this weird thing you put in a box,” he says. “But in many ways, these characters, these emotions, are the ones that ring the most true for modern audiences.”

Cohen joins a cast — each singing his or her role for the first time — that features mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Orlando, along with sopranos Heidi Stober (Angelica) and Christina Gansch (Dorinda). Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is Zoroastro.

Cohen, who was originally cast as the cover (understudy) for countertenor David Daniels, whom the company released following allegations of sexual misconduct, says that Medoro’s music “fits my voice so perfectly. It’s right in my comfort zone.”

Cooke gets the title character’s famous mad scene, but Cohen loves Medoro’s Act II showpiece aria, “Verdi allori.” “It’s maybe the best aria in the whole show,” he says. “The picture Handel paints of him is this genuine lover, and that’s seen in all of the arias I get to sing. They’re just fundamentally beautiful.”

Cohen’s in love with opera, but he came to it relatively late. A graduate of Princeton University, he studied history and public policy. His dad’s a lawyer, his mom a journalist, and they made sure he sang in choirs as a boy, including studies and performances at New York’s Laguardia High School of the Arts. As part of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, he sang backup for Elton John at Madison Square Garden. But he never intended to pursue music as a career.

Then he won a free ticket to a performance of “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera. Watching Puccini’s opera was eye-opening. “I was just blown away,” he recalls. “I sat there and said, ‘I want to try and do that.’”

He progressed quickly, scoring a win at the Met Council Auditions. From there, he joined San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program. Surrounded by other aspiring singers and a top-notch faculty, he took on one countertenor role after another.

Cohen’s already being called a great Handelian — singing with Philharmonia Baroque, he says, was a phenomenal experience — but he’s also exploring contemporary repertoire. He appears on Kenneth Fuchs’s “Poems of Life,” released last year on the Naxos label. And one of his favorite operas is Jonathan Dove’s “Flight.” It has a prominent countertenor role, and although Cohen’s never appeared in a complete performance of the opera, he often sings its Refugee aria, “Dawn! Still Darkness,” in concerts and auditions.

“There’s something really special about contemporary composers writing for the countertenor voice,” he says.

Next month, following “Orlando,” he’ll sing in Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition; this fall, it’s on to Houston to reprise the role of King David in Houston Grand Opera’s fully staged production of “Saul.” But he’ll be in San Francisco a lot, completing his final year as an Adler Fellow.

In fact, Cohen now considers the city home. An avid hiker, he spends his free time exploring the city’s neighborhoods and natural surroundings. “I love it here, and my girlfriend is moving out to San Francisco,” he said. “My parents want to get me back to New York, but I think I’m staying.”

Contact Georgia Rowe at growe@pacbell.net.

‘ORLANDO’

By George Friderich Handel, presented by San Francisco Opera

When: June 9-27

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.

Tickets: $26-$398, 415-864-3330, sfopera.com