Dramma per musico in 3 acts
Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
Libretto: Grazio Braccioli, after Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso
First performed: Teatro Sant’Angelo, Venice, autumn 1727
Vivaldi, like his wicked sorceress Alcina, enchants the senses, then lures us into a queasily erotic nightmare of the sort we associate more with Richard Strauss than opera seria.
The story is based on two episodes in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, an epic poem that sings of “knights and ladies, of love and arms, of courtly chivalry, of courageous deeds”.
Aristo’s poem (and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, which features many of the same characters) inspired operas by Lully, Handel, and Haydn, among others.
Vivaldi alone composed two different operas based on the Orlando story: Orlando finto pazzo, only his second known opera, in 1714, a flop; and the 1727 work. It was apparently written in a hurry, according to Reinhard Strohm, with the dramatic contralto Lucia Lancetti in the title role. Strohm believes it was only a modest success, while Claudio Scimone thinks it was a hit; certainly enough of one for Vivaldi to reuse arias in Atenaide in Florence two years later. Today, it’s seen as one of the composer’s best works – partly thanks to Scimone’s 1978 Verona production starring Marilyn Horne, which rekindled interest in Vivaldi’s operas.
On her enchanted island, Alcina makes love to her victims, then (like Circe) turns them into trees, beasts, or liquid springs.
She seems the most beautiful woman in the world, outshining the rest as the sun does the stars; her brow is like ivory, her mouth is imbued with cinnabar, her teeth a double row of choicest pearls.
“Snow-white was her neck, milky her breast; the neck was round, the breast broad and full. A pair of apples, not yet ripe, fashioned in ivory, rose and fell like the sea-swell at times when a gentle breeze stirs the ocean.” (trans. Guido Waldman, OUP)
This is all illusion; Alcina is really a toothless, four-foot-high creature who’s lived longer than anyone in the world, “so hideous that her equal for sheer ugliness and decrepitude could be found nowhere on earth”. (Forget Elizabeth Arden; trafficking with the powers of hell is obviously the best way to keep yourself looking good. And I’ve just had an idea for an Elizabeth Arden / Báthory parody.)
The paladin Ruggiero and his hippogriff (offspring of a griffon and a mare) fall under her sway; the warrior woman Bradamante comes to rescue them. Orlando (=Roland), nephew of Charlemagne, comes to the island to fetch the urn containing Merlin’s ashes, from which the enchantress gains her power. He’s immune to her charms – but goes mad when Angelica, the Cathayan princess he loves, marries Medoro.
For its period, Orlando is surprisingly intense. Baroque opera tends to be either remote and cold (Lully), or a costumed concert of florid arias (Handel). Orlando Furioso – certainly in Fabio Ceresa’s spectacular 2017 Martina Franca / 2018 Teatro Malibran production – is geared towards psychology and sensuality. It may well be the first really powerful opera. (Monteverdi’s Poppea is coolly cynical; the audience respond intellectually more than emotionally.)
Those on the island succumb to Alcina’s charms, forget their original loves, and sink into swooning hedonism, becoming the witch’s creatures. The end of the second act is like a vision of hell; it’s Tannhäuser a century early. (The death of the hippogriff is rather disturbing.) The third act is a slight anti-climax, although the Cesera production cuts some scenes.
The most famous piece in the opera is Ruggiero’s “Sol da te, mio dolce amore”, a langorously erotic aria sung by the knight to Alcina, forgetting his faithful Bradamante; it has an exquisite flute obbligato. Most of the arias, though, are beautiful displays of virtuoso singing. In Act I, note Alcina’s “Alza in quegl’ occhi”, Bradamante’s “Ascenderò il mio sdegno”, Orlando’s “Nel profondo”, Medoro’s jealous “Rompo i ceppi, e in lacci io torno”. The highlights of Act II are Medoro’s “Qual candido fiore”, Angelina’s seductive “Chiara al pari di lucida stella”, and Orlando’s “Nel profondo cieco mondo”.
Watch: Sonia Prina (Orlando), Michela Antenucci (Angelica), Lucia Cirillo (Alcina), Loriana Castellano (Bradamante), Konstantin Derri (Medoro), Luigi Schifano (Ruggiero), and Riccardo Novaro (Astolfo), with I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Faslis, directed by Fabio Ceresa. Dynamic 37803, 2018.
Listen: Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Jennifer Larmore, Veronica Cangemi, Philippe Jaroussky, Lorenzo Regazzo, Ann Hallenberg, Blandine Staskiewicz, with Choeur Les Eléments & Ensemble Matheus conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi. Naive Vivaldi Edition, OP30393, 2o05.
CHARACTERS & CREATORS
- ORLANDO, in love with Angelica (contralto): Lucia Lancetti
- ANGELICA, lover then wife of Medoro (soprano): Benedetta Serosina
- ALCINA, sorceress in love with Ruggiero (contralto): Anna Girò
- BRADAMANTE, engaged to Ruggiero (contralto): Maria Catterina Negri
- MEDORO, lover then husband of Angelica (contraltista castrato): Casimiro Pignotti
- RUGGIERO, engaged to Bradamante (contraltista castrato): Giovanni Andrea Tassi
- ASTOLFO, in love with Alcina (bass): Gaetano Pinetti