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Orlando Furioso by Gustave Doré [Source: Wikipedia]
27 Mar 2011

Orlando Furioso, London

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.

Antonio Vivaldi: Orlando Furioso (concert performance)

Marie-Nicole Lemieux: Orlando; Veronica Cangemi: Angelica; Franziska Gottwald: Alcina; Philippe Jaroussky: Ruggiero; Daniela Pini: Medoro; Christian Senn: Astolfo; Kristina Hammarström: Bradamante. Ensemble Matheus. Jean-Christophe Spinosi, conductor.

Above: Orlando Furioso by Gustave Doré [Source: Wikipedia]


Vivaldi’s 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 man).

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 feeling.

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 tuttis.

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 here.

Robert Hugill

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