Composer: Jean-Baptiste Lully
Libretto: Philippe Quinault, after Aristo’s Orlando Furioso
First performed: Versailles, 8 January 1685
Lully considered Roland his best opera. It certainly contains some of his best music, but the story is insubstantial and over-extended.
The opera is based on an episode in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516), a chivalric romance full of warring Christians and Saracens, orcs, wizards, and trips to the moon. Little of which appears in Quinault’s libretto.
“Montrons les erreurs où l’amour peut engager un coeur qui néglige la gloire,” the sorcerer Demogorgon sings in the Prologue. (“Show the mistakes into which love can lead a heart that neglects glory.”) Love unmans the paladin Roland, nephew of Charlemagne. He loves Angélique, queen of Cathay, who loves Médor, an African king’s officer – so Roland goes mad, until cured by a good fairy.
This plot is too simple and straightforward to sustain a nearly 3-hour opera; Laurencie indeed finds Quinault’s libretto banal and lacking in the vigour needed to adapt Ariosto.
Lully’s score, on the other hand, contains several delights. True, there are the usual stretches of decorous tedium, but the divertissements are really attractive.
The prologue is brilliant, full of verve. Act I has “Triomphez, charmante reyne”, the wonderful scene (bass aria and chorus) where Ziliante presents the bracelet to Angélique. This was the piece that inspired me to go back to Lully; after half an hour of musically meagre recitative, it’s like a bolt out of the blue. A charming duet of Eastern islanders, “Dans nos climats”, follows.
Act II has a lovely little trio for Angélique’s companion Temire and two servants, ruing the pains of love. Act III ends with the largest of Lully’s chaconnes, to celebrate Angélique and Médor’s wedding.
Act IV ends with Roland’s mad scene; the paladin tears branches off trees, smashes rocks, throws down his weapons, and thinks he sees a Fury. By Lully’s standards, the furious string playing is intense. The military final choruses – “Roland, courez aux armes” and “La gloire vous appelle” – are also great.
Nevertheless, the usual caveats apply; Lully’s operas don’t really work either as music or as drama. A CD of highlights might be more attractive than sitting through the entire work.
Listen to: Les Arts Florissants, conducted by Christophe Rousset.
- ROLAND (bass): François Beaumavielle
- ANGÉLIQUE (soprano): Marie Le Rochois
- MÉDOR (haute-contre): Louis Gaulard Dumesny
- TÉMIRE (soprano): Mlle Armand
- ASTOLFE (haute-contre)
- LOGISTILLE (soprano)
- DEMOGORGON (bass)
- Fairies, Islanders, Shepherds and Shepherdesses, Heroes, followers of Glory
The palace of Demogorgon
The magic fountain of love, in the middle of a forest
A sea port
A cave in the middle of a grove
The palace of the wise fairy Logistille