Adapting an extended literary work for the stage remains a challenge today
and was no less so in the baroque era. Ariosto’s enormously long poem
Orlando Furioso was extremely popular and inevitably his highly
coloured characters found their way onto the operatic stage.
first encounter with Orlando was in 1713 when he mounted Ristori’s
Orlando Furioso and his own Orlando Finto Pazzo in Venice;
the Ristori was a success, his opera less so. In 1727 Vivaldi returned to the
subject, this time setting the same libretto that Ristori had used. Not long
afterwards, in the 1730’s, Handel would use the same episodes to created
two of his greatest operas, Alcina and Orlando.
But whereas Handel created two operas, Vivaldi crammed both plots into a
single breathless romp. Handel’s operas are works of great depth and
sophistication, whereas Vivaldi’s aim seemed to be to entertain; the
drama runs at high speed, the arias are short and lively, the plot mixes magic
and humour with occasional shades of drama.
Having given us Handel’s Alcina in December, the
Barbican’s Great Performers season on Saturday 26th March brought us
Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Malthus in Vivaldi’s Orlando
Furioso. The performance originated at the Theatre des Champs Elysee, but
as is the way of these things illness forced some cast changes so that Daniela
Pini and Franziska Gottwald joined the cast at short notice. This meant that
Pini and Gottwald sang from the score whereas the remainder of the cast were
off the book.
By combining Alcina and Orlando, Vivaldi ended up with a large number of
characters, 7 in all, even though Alcina’s sister is mentioned but never
appears and the character of Dorinda (present in Handel’s
Orlando) is entirely absent. Vivaldi asks a lot of his singers, his
arias though generally short in length are very much in the style of his
instrumental concerti. Each singer was presented with an opening aria which
used a series of variations on the theme of bravura up-tempo
virtuosity; each toe-tapping in its way, with brilliant string accompaniment,
but fatally lacking in extremes of variety or emotion. It was only when we were
two thirds of the way through act 1 that the tempo changed and Philippe
Jaroussky’s Ruggiero entered with an aria of haunting lyrical beauty.
Act 1 involved a great deal of introduction and explanation. It was in Act 2
that the real drama started, when Victoria Cangemi’s beautifully lyrical,
if scheming, Angelica united with Daniela Pini’s nicely hesitant Medoro.
Having been pursued by Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Orlando, Angelica has led
Orlando on and tricked him. Needless to say Orlando goes mad.
Vivaldi’s way the drama here was less sure than Handel’s. When
Angelica pretended to respond to Orlando’s attentions Vivaldi gave her an
aria of great lyrical beauty, finely sung by Victoria Cangemi; but entirely
lacking in an iota of irony or a feeling that Angelica doesn’t actually
mean what she says. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a one woman tour de force
as the hero Orlando, a series of bravura arias tremendously sung led
to Orlando’s mad scene which closed act 2.
Parallel to this Alcina, played with charm and amused detachment by
Franziska Gottwald, was busy captivating Jaroussky’s lyrical and slightly
wimp-ish Ruggiero, in turn pursued with amazonic charm by Kristina
Hammarstrom’s Bradamante (Ruggiero’s beloved, disguised as a
The libretto left the singers little time to create a three dimensional
character, they were only able to provide a sketch, usually accompanied by some
brilliant singing. Gottwald was notable for the way she suggested
Alcina’s charm and the loneliness behind, a woman able to get any man she
wanted but unable to form a real relationship. It was her aria towards the end
of act, movingly sung by Gottwald, where we first got some real depth of
In act 3, the two plots collided as Orlando in his madness destroyed the
temple holding the key to Alcina’s power; (a strange confusion of
operatic plots rather as if Lucia di Lammermoor suddenly appeared and killed
Macbeth). Spinosi encouraged Lemieux to move from bravura to over the
top in Orlando’s act 3 mad scenes, the style veering towards the 19th
century mad scene and even, fatally, G&S’s Mad Margaret. This was an
occasion when less might have been more.
Throughout proceedings Gottwald’s Alcina kept her poise and left us in
an aura of sadness rather than heart rending grief. Interestingly Angelica was
taken to task for the way she had toyed with Orlando’s affections and led
him on; a moralising not often found in baroque opera.
The rather protracted tidying up of loose ends in act 3 made me rather
admire the way Handel and his librettists often took the blue pencil to final
acts and speeded things up; that certainly needed doing here.
Christian Senn was the only lower voice, another knight charmed by Alcina;
he seemed at times the only voice of reason.
Though Vivaldi did use trumpets, horns and oboes in the orchestra, he did so
extremely sparingly so that the predominant orchestral colour was the strings.
Spinosi and his ensemble, quite a large group numbering 28 strings, did full
justice to Vivaldi’s brilliant orchestra accompaniments and
The opera was presented in what has become the standard for this style of
concert performance, with singers at the side of the stage, making generally
correct entrances and exits, all the women playing men were helpfully in
trousers. It certainly helped the drama that most of them were singing off the
book. But more importantly we had singing of such a high order that when
Vivaldi did use the music to create drama, we felt the benefit of it. In terms
of sheer vocal quality this was an evening hardly to be faulted and the
enthusiasm of both singers and ensemble seemed infectious.
Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso is a long opera; we had over 3
hours of music with a single 20 minute interval in the middle of act 2. As the
evening started at 6.30 and finished at 10.10pm, I could not help thinking that
Vivaldi’s act structure could have been respected and the piece performed
with 2 intervals.
Vivaldi’s opera succeeds on its own terms, that is it entertains; in
fact it does so royally. We might wish for Handel’s greater depth, but
Vivaldi’s romp is fun especially when presented with such skill as it was