Why stop there? Given carte blanche to break down boundaries, Neuwirth went all-out. Her director, Polly Graham, and libretto collaborator, Catherine Filloux, are women — as is Rei Kawakubo, the couture titan of Commes des Garçons, who designed the costumes. Among the stars is the queer cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond, trading Joe’s Pub in Manhattan for one of Europe’s grandest stages.
Neuwirth’s inspiration is Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” a fictional, often funny biography that blurs both genre and gender. While the novel ends on the day of its publication, in 1928, Neuwirth sails on into the present, telling the centuries-long life story of a poet — a man of Elizabethan England who later becomes a woman overnight and never seems to age — in three hours.
Such broad scope may be too much for one opera. So while there’s much to celebrate about “Orlando” as a milestone, there’s also much to lament: an apparent lack of self-editing, an inelegant integration of music and text, and an agitprop bluntness that turns the final scenes into a cringe-worthy litany of liberal causes.
It is, though, a triumph of orchestral writing. Conducted by Matthias Pintscher with a mastery of Neuwirth’s organized chaos, the score is a wry and sweeping musical analogue to Woolf’s novel, a journey through time with references so fleeting you can rarely locate them with complete confidence. One suggestion of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” comes and goes like a whiplash.
In a program note and interviews, Neuwirth has described aiming for a kind of androgyny in sound. She dissolves the line between what’s acoustic and digital, what’s onstage and off. Unsettlingly, the second violins are tuned ever so slightly lower than the firsts. A choir singing from a loft above the auditorium chandelier creates a cognitive dissonance, with another performing simultaneously onstage.
As with Neuwirth’s previous operas — including an adaptation of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” — the score calls for a substantial library of samples; the live electronics and sound design are by Neuwirth, Markus Noisternig, Gilbert Nouno and Clément Cornuau. A punching bag that appears onstage in the first scene is outfitted with microphones and incorporated into the music as the young Orlando beats it with a bat.
But for all her ingenuity, Neuwirth treats the vocal writing like an afterthought. It has some wit — soprano Constance Hauman, as Queen Elizabeth and two other characters, sometimes performs in a parody of operatic voice — but many in the cast aren’t given enough to make a strong impression. Kate Lindsey, an intense mezzo-soprano, sings Orlando as a young man at an uncomfortably low register, then higher after her transformation into a woman; in a show about androgyny, this feels like a misfire.
When we first see Lindsey, Orlando is in shorts and joined onstage by the Narrator, a spoken role performed by Italian singer Anna Clementi, who serves as a double of Orlando, writing his story in real time as the biography’s text is projected on a back curtain and moving columnar panels. (The hyper-realistic videos are by Will Duke.)
The opera hews closely to the novel during Act 1. The young man becomes a favorite of Queen Elizabeth; experiences heartbreak during the Great Frost of 1608; and writes poetry, hoping to share it with a celebrity in the field, Nicholas Greene (baritone Leigh Melrose, with vocal swings reminiscent of Mr. Eddy in Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway”). Presiding over all this is the Guardian Angel: Eric Jurenas, whose smooth and full-bodied countertenor was a highlight.
Orlando becomes an ambassador abroad, where one day he wakes up as a woman — in a rose-and-mint dress with a mane-like collar of flowers — and the effectively second-class life that comes with that new gender. By the end of Act 1, in a departure from the novel and the beginning of the opera’s more glaring politics, she speaks of sexual abuses against children in Victorian-era Britain and vows to rewrite history for women.
It’s a hefty promise for Act 2, and Neuwirth never quite delivers on it. We meet Shelmerdine, Orlando’s husband-to-be (Melrose again), who shares her mid-length wavy hair and angular features — and, eventually, her child, played by Bond. Then the plot speeds through the 20th century in a prolonged montage of a world in which swords have been replaced by atomic bombs, and boundaries of identity have been torn down like the Berlin Wall.
The action comes to a standstill once, during World War II, when Orlando stands alone on the empty stage as the names of victims of the Holocaust are projected on curtains; the score samples a 1928 recording of the slow movement from Bach’s double violin concerto, played by Arnold Rosé and his daughter Alma, who both died at the Birkenau concentration camp in 1944. A slowly building alarm creeps into the rending music, then the stage is cleared with a sonic blast — one so powerful it shakes the seats of the theater. As the dust settles, so to speak, the onstage screens show the bombed-out Vienna State Opera in the aftermath of the war.
There’s no time to grieve, though: Time keeps sprinting toward the present, past the brightly modish 1960s and the late ’80s, when a publisher tells Orlando that “genre-bending” would be disastrous for her career as a writer. Sprinkled throughout are quotations from the lyrics of pop songs like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and the trippy “Coming,” which closes Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of “Orlando.”
When Orlando’s son enters (visibly struggling through a part that doesn’t play to Bond’s gifts), the opera’s politics become increasingly caustic, even sophomoric. Bond denounces the patriarchy; Orlando is alarmed by the rise of nationalism, as President Donald Trump’s likeness and voice are distorted until nearly unrecognizable; and a chorus of children warns “Our planet is in danger!”
These moments, which lose sight of Orlando’s story and contain all the subtlety of protest signs, grow tiresome as the hours go on. Then the plot arrives at the day of the performance. In Woolf’s novel, the present is a “terrifying revelation.” But on Sunday, it was just a sign that the opera was ending — at last.
Through Dec. 20 at the Vienna State Opera; wiener-staatsoper.at. Streaming at staatsoperlive.com for three days, starting Dec. 18.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .