I’ve seen a lot of very silly operas in my time, but Handel’s Orlando really does take the biscuit. Based loosely on Canto 23 of Ariosto’s Renaissance romance, Orlando Furioso, it tells the story of Charlemagne’s great paladin, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for the pulchritudinous princess Angelica. Let’s be glad that I’m not judging it solely on the libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, which features paper-thin characterisation and the most egregious deus ex machina ending I’ve seen so far. I’m also judging it on Handel’s music, which includes some rather delicious arias, and on the performance of La Nuova Musica and their cast, which was extremely strong. Best of all, this concert performance featured a vivacious performance by Laurence Zazzo in the title role and a general tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledged the silliness of the story to the full. It didn’t stop the opera from being complete nonsense, but it did make it fun to watch.
Just in case anyone else shares my philistinism and has not ploughed through Orlando Furioso, I’ll give a brief summary. Orlando is one of Charlemagne’s greatest knights (he’s otherwise known as Roland of the medieval Song of Roland), but he has been fatally undermined by love. He’s infatuated with Angelica, the gorgeous princess of Cathay, but – to borrow a modern phrase – she’s just not that into him. In fact, she’s fallen in love with the beautiful Moorish prince Medoro, whom she has just nursed back to health. In the poem, this takes place in a shepherd’s hut, but Capece clearly couldn’t resist adding more romantic tension, and the shepherd here becomes a shepherdess, the naive Dorinda, the kind of girl who sings arias about ‘the innocent goats and deer’. To make matters worse, Dorinda develops a crush on Medoro.
As in most operas, at least part of the confusion could have been avoided if everyone had just sat down and had a mature conversation about things, but it seems that Angelica and Medoro have been keeping Dorinda in the dark about their mutual passion. Exactly how this is possible when they’re all living together in a single hut, and the two lovers have been roaming all over the forest carving their names into trees, is never explained. When Dorinda discovers the truth, her despair is made even worse by Angelica’s and Medoro’s rather patronising attempts to assure her that she’ll find someone else one day.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned (whatever they say about Orlando) and so, when Dorinda encounters the knight shortly afterwards, she tells him that his beloved has married another man. Orlando does not take it well. He tumbles into the depths of insanity and enjoys a ten-minute mad-scene, after which peace can only be restored by the wizard Zoroastro, who conveniently has a heaven-sent potion that makes everything better. Everyone suddenly decides that they’re totally fine with Angelica and Medoro being married and Dorinda resigns herself to a life of shepherding singledom, while Orlando readies himself to ride off in pursuit of further knightly glory.
You see? It’s a very silly story, and after three hours of romantic angst, it feels cheap to have everything smoothed out by a magic potion in the last fifteen lines. But Baroque opera is not known for its rationality. Fortunately there’s some very good music to distract you from the inanity of the plot, and it was all briskly and cleanly handled by La Nuova Musica under the baton of David Bates.
The rather starry cast of singers included several I’d seen before, including Lucy Crowe as a elegant and rather serious Angelica. I’ve always thought her voice very light and pure before but here, compared directly to Rowan Pierce’s playful soubrette-soprano, I noticed that Crowe’s voice is a little deeper and more colourful, with more vibrato than I remembered in her Purcell. She is a consummate professional and nowhere was this clearer than in her third aria, Cosi giusta e questa speme, which ended with some beautifully tremulous and very high notes and earned the loudest applause of the night.
It isn’t easy singing alongside someone like Crowe (or Zazzo, for that matter), but I thought Pierce’s Dorinda was very good, with all the wide-eyed innocence that the role needed. Her voice was very slightly hard-edged on occasion, but she sang with crisply-balanced coloratura in her jolly O care parolette and I thought her voice blended beautifully with Crowe’s and Lowrey’s in their trio Consolati o bella. This is now the second time I’ve seen Lowrey live, after his turn as a priest in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and his Medoro proved him a very controlled, appealing singer (interestingly, Handel wrote the role for a female contralto). I’m not sure how Lowrey would do in a more flamboyant role, but he’s got a lovely voice for this kind of romantic part. Unluckily for him, he only really had one chance to shine, with the beautiful aria Verdi allori, which he sang with great grace and style – though H felt that the tempo was a bit on the fast side. (Then again, both of us are used to Max Cencic’s slow version from his sublime Handel CD.)
As a character, Zoroastro is only really there to offer occasional wise advice (‘Angelica! Run away!’), and to mastermind the implausible final reconciliation, but he has some surprisingly good arias and William Berger made the most of them. I don’t think I’ve seen him before, but his deep baritone and rich vocal colour made a strong impression, particularly in his third-act aria Sorge infausta una procella (but then, I do like a good storm aria). His role would have been even more impressive if we could’ve seen Orlando staged, because the original opera seems to have been a veritable smorgasbord of special effects (perhaps trying to detract attention from the plot). Zoroastro’s spells conjure winged chariots and airborne eagles, dark grottos and mountains changing into temples. It must have looked absolutely fabulous.
Funnily enough, the original Orlando signalled the end of the professional relationship between Handel and his leading man, the castrato Senesino. Handel was already playing with the conventions of opera seria, as he would do with even more dramatic effect in his Xerxes five years later, and Senesino may have felt offended by the comic approach to the leading role. At any rate, in June 1733 he and Handel parted ways. However, while Orlando may not have enough da capo arias to satisfy Senesino, he does have much of the best music, his madness enabling him to have lots of swaggering or belligerent arias. Predictably, Zazzo stole the show.
Fammi combattere was a particular favourite of mine, as Zazzo got exuberantly into the spirit (‘I’ll fight monsters and dragons to win your trust – this will show you how much I love you!’), shadow-boxing on stage; while Cielo! Se tu il consenti was a headstrong tumble of notes, so fast that I actually wondered when he had time to breathe. The first act’s Non fu gia, men forte Alcide was rather overshadowed by these, but Zazzo had already set the tone there by hamming it up slightly and producing a run of fairly insane coloratura in the B-section. Of course, he was already an established favourite of mine, but here his powerful voice and dramatic flair meant that the piece burst into life whenever he came on stage, essentially semi-staging his role.
The opera was sung in Italian, but a tongue-in-cheek English translation was handed out to us, to compensate for the lack of surtitles. Written by David Bates himself, it showed a healthy irreverence towards the flowery Italian of the original, but though it made me giggle, there were points where I thought Bates had pushed it just that little bit too far (‘OMG’, ‘Go on, bugger off!’, ‘He’s young, handsome and ripped’). Having said that, at least it spiced up the pastoral moping around. I’m going to have to have another go at Ariosto, if only to see whether Orlando Furioso is as baffling as the plots based upon it. The only problem is that I’ve got the slightly dated 1974 Guido Waldman translation, which can get a bit heavy. I don’t suppose anyone knows of a more sprightly recent translation?
I’m happy to have seen another instalment of the adventures of Charlemagne’s paladins, to sit alongside Alcina – and I’ll have to try Rinaldo at some point. While Orlando‘s plot doesn’t do much to impress (as H said, there’s probably a reason it hasn’t been put on very often), the performance was a blend of good humour and great music – not to mention a rare chance to see a seriously impressive cast in a more intimate venue than a opera house. St John’s Smith Square will be hosting more Baroque opera later in the year, so I hope to be able to report back on some of that too.