- Dramma eroicomico in 3 acts
- Composer: Joseph Haydn
- Libretto: Nunziano Porta, after Badini’s Le pazzie d’Orlando (1771), inspired by Ariosto’s Orlando furioso
- First performed: Eszterháza, 6 December 1782
Father of the symphony, creator of the string quartet… opera composer? In fact, he wrote more than a dozen for his masters at Eszterháza – but they are little known and seldom performed. You might almost say they’re Haydn.
There’s a tendency to call them ‘composer’s operas’: musically rich, but dramatically meagre. That’s been the general view since the 19th century; for instance, Clément: “Cramped by the demands of the stage, the greatest of symphonists was only estimable in dramatic music.”
Kaminski, for instance, considers them fascinating but frustrating; quoting Marc Vignal, he writes that the operas contain extraordinary beauties, but that Haydn lacked stage sense; he was more interested in the interior than the exterior world, in souls than in situations, in the expression of a moment than the evolution of a constellation. Then, too, critics say that Mozart’s operas overshadow them; Haydn himself was awed by his young colleague’s mature operas, refusing a commission for Prague, and praising the Salzburger.
Most of Haydn’s early operas are buffa pieces about fishwives and apothecaries, performed for Eszterháza’s two opera houses (a theatre housing 400 people, and a marionette theatre). Haydn’s opera troupe performed more than 150 times a year, both other people’s operas and his own.
The best-known of these is the minor but agreeable Mondo della luna, about a cunning astronomer who fools his girlfriend’s father into thinking they’re on the moon. It opens with a wonderful chorus.
Orlando paladino was Haydn’s most successful opera – and it’s utterly delightful. As one would expect, the music is clear, tuneful, witty, robust, and always inventive; its mixture of romantic, chivalrous elements and farce anticipates Don Giovanni, as well as Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran.
The plot is a semi-parody of Ariosto’s epic poem, a work already adapted for opera by Lully, Vivaldi, and Handel, among others. A suffering, noble pair – Angelica (soprano), the beautiful princess of Cathay, and her lover Medoro (tenor) – share the stage with the madly jealous French paladin Orlando (tenor), his cowardly squire Pasquale (tenor), who would rather find an inn, eat and drink than worry about honour; the ferocious Rodomonte (bass), King of Algiers, who lives only for fighting; a flirtatious shepherdess, Eurilla (soprano); and the enchantress Alcina (soprano), who may be the most powerful person in the world. (Fortunately, she’s good.)
Haydn composed the work for an intended (but cancelled) visit of the Russian crown prince, the Grand-Duke Paul, and his wife to Eszterháza. It was performed 30 times there, and then staged in Germany and Eastern Europe: Prague (1791); Vienna, Budapest, and Mannheim (1792); Frankfurt and Köln (1793); Berlin and Hanover (1798); and St Petersburg (1812).
Nikolaus Harnoncourt considers it one of the best operas of the 18th century: “an out-and-out parody that at the same time holds a pitiless mirror before the audience’s own nose… Haydn’s brilliant interpretation takes to its logical extreme the fusion of pathos and irony, sincere feelings with parody, puffed-up heroics with cowardice, insanity with tranquillizers and normal reactions with exaggerated outbursts… He finds the right tone for every character, up to the boundary of caricature and beyond. And at the same time he moves our hearts with genuine emotion.”
The first act is set in and around the castle where Angelica and Medoro are hiding from her rejected suitor Orlando, who has gone insane. The introduction is a lively trio for Rodomonte (who wants to defend the pair), Eurilla, and her father; its rocking accompaniment would be enough to tell us this is Haydn. The best pieces in the act include the enchantress Alcina’s dramatic aria “Ad un guardo”, where she reveals she has power over the elements, the underworld, and fate itself; Medoro’s “Parto. Ma, oh dio, non posso”, his tender farewell to Angelica, as he prepares to escape from the approaching Orlando; Pasquale’s brilliant patter song “Ho viaggiato in Francia, in Spagna”; Angelica’s “Non partir, mia bella face”, begging Medoro not to leave, a tragic aria with a fine coloratura display; and Orlando’s mad scene “D’Angelica il nome!”, where the sight of her and Medoro’s names carved into trees drives him berserk. The long, three-part finale is wonderful. It begins with a trio as Orlando searches for the two lovers; the third section (adagio) contains a beautiful duet for Angelica and Medoro which opens into a quartet, then a syllabic ensemble. Orlando arrives, sword in hand, but is prevented by Alcina, who traps him in an iron cage. The act ends in a glorious septet.
At the start of Act II, Orlando and Rodomonte prepare to fight a duel, but Orlando leaves when he learns that Angelica and Medoro are escaping. As Medoro goes to hide in Alcina’s cave, he gives Eurilla a message for his lover in the suave, almost Donizettian “Dille che un infelice”. Angelica, searching for Medoro, believes he is dead, and is about to throw herself into the sea when Alcina’s magic reunites the lovers; Orlando attacks them, but the sorceress summons monsters to frighten him away. Pasquale steals the act. He has a splendidly extrovert cavatina, “Vittoria, vittoria!” parodying opera seria’s martial bravura arias; a really delightful, rather risqué duet with Eurilla, “Quel tuo visetto amabile”, where he is so overcome by her charms that he can only respond with vowels; and the showpiece “Ecco spiano”, where he displays his musical prowess (trills, arpeggio, staccato, syncopations, furioso, andantino, gruppettino, runs, &c), including imitating a castrato in falsetto.
The finale looks forward to the end of Don Giovanni. Orlando confronts Alcina in her grotto, ordering her to come out, and then insulting her: ‘The avenging furies of Avernus!’ (Pasquale: ‘Says my lord.’) ‘Hateful to human kind!’ (Pasquale: ‘To my eyes you are Venus, no less.’) We can hear Don Giovanni defying the statue, while Leporello hides under the table. Irritated, the sorceress turns him into stone; then the four goodies arrive – just as Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, Zerlina and Masetto appear. Alcina restores the paladin to his human form, but being petrified hasn’t improved his mood; she traps Orlando in a cave. The act ends with an exhilarating, almost Rossinian twittering stretta as the characters celebrate the apparent demise of the wicked knight. It almost seems as though the opera could end there…
Act III is shorter and not quite at the same level of the first two acts. We are in the Underworld; Alcina orders Charon to pour the waters of Lethe on Orlando to make him forget his love for Angelina. Savages kidnap Angelica in a forest, and kill Medoro. Orlando – now cured – and Rodomonte rescue the princess, half-mad with grief. Alcina comes once again to the rescue, bringing Medoro back to life. The opera ends with a jolly vaudeville finale, “Son confuse e stupefatto”.
LISTEN TO: Patricia Petibon (Angelica), Christian Gerhaher (Rodomonte), Michael Schade (Orlando), Elisabeth von Magnus (Alcina), Werner Güra (Medoro), Malin Hartelius (Eurilla), and Markus Schäfer (Pasquale), with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Concentus Musicus Wien, Graz, 2005. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.
WATCH: Marlis Petersen (Angelica), Pietro Spagnoli (Rodomonte), Tom Randle (Orlando), Magnus Staveland (Medoro), Sunhae Im (Eurilla), Victor Torres (Pasquale), and Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Alcina), with René Jacobs conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, and directed by Nigel Lowery and Amir Hosseinpour, Berlin, 2009. https://www.medici.tv/en/operas/haydn-orlando-paladino-berliner-staatsoper/
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- “Nikolaus Harnoncourt about Orlando Paladino”; Sabine M. Gruber, “Orlando Paladino: The real and true story”, in Orlando Paladino, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 2006
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003