In January 2023, the Frankfurt Opera mounted a new production of Orlando (HWV 31) by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759).
Orlando is one of three Händel operas based on episodes from Ludovico Ariosto’s verse epic Orlando furioso, the other two being Ariodante and Alcina.
Ariosto’s long poem was first published in 1516, and Händel’s opera did not come out until 1733, over two centuries later. By that time, there had already been dozens of operas based on various episodes of Orlando furioso, and later composers continued to use themes and characters from the poem until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Although Ariosto was not particularly concerned about historical details, he did specify that the imaginary happenings in his poem were meant to be taking place in the eighth century during Charlemagne’s wars against the encroaching Saracens (aka Muslims), probably in the 770s or 780s. Orlando in this poem is not only a knight and war hero and one of the twelve paladins in Charlemagne’s court, he is also Charlemagne’s nephew.
For a long time, I was under the illusion that the imaginary events from Ariosto’s poem were supposed to have happened during the First Crusade, from 1096 to 1099. This is because I confused Ariosto’s poem with a similar (but later) poem called La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), which also features glorious Christian (European) knights battling infidels and sorceresses in faraway countries.
Of the dozens or hundreds of characters in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, only three have made it into Händel’s opera Orlando.
The first is Orlando himself, originally sung 1733 in London by the star castrato Senesino; sung in Frankfurt 2023 by the mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde.
The second is Angelica, a Chinese or Indian princess with whom Orlando is hopelessly infatuated, sung in Frankfurt by Kateryna Kasper.
And the third is Medoro, a Saracen warrior who is engaged to Angelica, sung in Frankfurt by the American counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey.
The other two characters are Dorinda, a shepherdess, sung in Frankfurt by Monika Buczkowska; and Zoroastro, a magician sung by the bass-baritone Božidar Smiljanić. These two did not appear in Ariosto’s epic poem, but were added by later authors.
As in the poem, Orlando’s insanity in the opera is caused by Angelica’s failure to reciprocate his love; as a war hero and paladin he is apparently accustomed to getting whatever he wants, and cannot accept losing Angelica to Medoro.
In both the poem and the opera, Orlando eventually recovers his sanity, but in different ways. In the opera, Zoroastro uses his magic powers to convince Orlando that he has murdered Medoro and Angelica, creating a shock that brings him back to his senses.
In Ariosto’s poem, it is much more complicated. In Canto XXXIV (= 34), Orlando’s cousin Astolfo journeys to the moon in Elija’s flaming chariot to a place where everything that has been lost on earth has been miraculously transported and stored. His guide, the evangelist Saint John, shows him a huge collection of bottles and flasks, tightly sealed to prevent the contents from evaporating, containing the sanity of all the people who have lost theirs on Earth. The very largest bottle is neatly labeled ‘Orlando’s Sense,’ but all the others are also labeled, and Astolfo is astounded to see that some people he knows on Earth who seem quite sensible have in fact lost a lot of their Sense. He finds his own bottle and gets permission to open and sniff it, making him wise for many years to come.
Astolfo takes Orlando’s bottle with him back to Earth, and finally, five Cantos later — in Canto XXXIX, lines 55-63 — he gets several other knights to help him subdue the raving Orlando, tie him down and gag him so he cannot move and only his nostrils are left free. Then he opens the bottle and holds it under Orlando’s nose, forcing him to breathe in his ‘Sense’ — and his insanity is instantly cured.
My photos and text in this post are from 2023.
See more posts on the composer Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759).