Legacy Of An Epic: Vivaldi's 'Orlando Furioso'

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Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the crazed title character in 'Orlando Furioso.'

hide captionMarie-Nicole Lemieux as the crazed title character in 'Orlando Furioso.'

Alvaro Yañez/Champs-Elysées Theatre

If Antonio Vivaldi had composed Orlando Furioso a couple of centuries earlier than he had, a poet named Ariosto might have gone looking for the nearest copyright lawyer to claim his own share of the action.

The Hit Single

In the first act, Orlando (contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux) introduces himself, and his budding madness, with the virtuoso aria "Nel profondo" — "Into the depths."

There was a time when bestselling writers were among the hottest celebrities on the scene. But when the stories those writers created started turning up in more high-tech forms of entertainment, things began to change.

The B Side

By the middle of Act Three, Orlando is crazier then ever. When he directly accuses Angelica (soprano Verónica Cangemi) of causing his misery, she responds with the dark and lyrical aria "Poveri affetti miei," saying, "My wretched affections are blameless."

For example, when you think of Gone with the Wind, are you thinking of a book, or a movie? Probably a movie. The 1939 classic starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh was one of the biggest Hollywood hits of all time, eventually overshadowing the Margaret Mitchell bestseller on which it was based — both in the entertainment industry's limelight and on the bottom line. The film rights to the book did bring a price of $50,000. That was a record at the time, but it's pocket change in light of the movie's earnings since then.

Still, there was a time when authors were even less fortunate when it came to adaptations of their work. Consider what the 16th-century writer Ludovico Ariosto might have hauled in had a new, cutting-edge art form been invented just a few decades earlier.

In 1516, Ariosto came up with an epic poem called Orlando Furioso, filled with passion, violence, mystery and magic. It was an immediate hit and it made Ariosto famous — at least for a while. But the poet died in 1533, so he wasn't around to benefit some 60 years later, when a group of inventive writers and musicians in Italy joined forces to create the genre we call opera. The new form of theater gave Ariosto's story a new lease on life that it still enjoys today — while the original poem and its creator have faded into literary history.

Ariosto's epic began inspiring operas in the 1620s, and dozens of composers have since climbed onto the Orlando bandwagon. Handel wrote three operas derived from Ariosto's masterpiece, starting with Orlando in 1733. In the next century, Rossini and Haydn also wrote Orlando-based operas.

Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso premiered in 1727 in Venice. A literal translation of the title might be "Crazy Orlando," and that pretty much fits the bill. While the poem presents a number of different stories and episodes, the opera deals with the epic's main plot line — the tale of the knight Orlando, who falls in love with the wrong woman and promptly loses his marbles. Vivaldi set the story to some of his finest music, in a score filled with dazzling arias and showcasing some of the most expressive recitatives found in any Baroque opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Vivaldi's opera from the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris featuring a top-notch cast. Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings the title role, with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore as Alcina and soprano Verónica Cangemi as Angelica.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Orlando Furioso'

A scene from the Theatre Champs-Elysées' production of 'Orlando Furioso.'

hide captionA scene from the Theatre Champs-Elysées' production of 'Orlando Furioso.'

Alvaro Yañez/courtesy of Theatre Champs-Elysées

Vivaldi based his opera on an epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto, written early in the 1500s. Operatic versions of the story began appearing about a hundred years later.

The epic is set during the conflict between Charlemagne's paladin warriors and the invading Saracen army — but Ariosto is concerned more with romance than with history. Of the poem's numerous plot lines and episodes, the most famous is the story of Orlando, a knight who struggles with his love for Angelica, a woman who loves someone else.

Vivaldi completed Orlando Furioso in the fall of 1727, for a premiere in Venice. It's in three acts, all set on a magical island controlled by the sorceress Alcina. Her power derives from an enchanted urn containing the ashes of Merlin, which Alcina has stolen. Orlando, a warrior knight, has been ordered to get the ashes back.

ACT ONE introduces all the main characters. Angelica has come to the island looking for her lover Medoro — and trying to avoid the passionate advances of Orlando. She goes to Alcina, who promises to help.

The knight Astolfo was sent to the island by Orlando to help find Merlin's ashes. But Astolfo has gone over to the other side: he was bewitched, and then seduced, by Alcina. So when Orlando shows up, Astolfo is no help at all.

Medoro also appears on the island, near death after a shipwreck. Alcina revives him and brings Medoro and Angelica together. Orlando is jealous, but before he can lose his cool, Alcina calms him down with her magic. Angelica pitches in by pretending that she's in love with Orlando, making Medoro jealous in the process.

We also meet a female warrior named Bradamante. She's on the lookout for her own lover, the pagan knight Ruggiero. Bradamante has brought a magic ring to ward off Alcina's many enchantments.

Eventually, Ruggiero does arrive on the island. He's been lured by Alcina, who quickly seduces him with a love potion. Bradamante and Ruggiero are soon reunited, and this worries Alcina. But Ruggiero doesn't even recognize Bradamante, and Alcina is grimly determined to complete her latest, romantic conquest.

As ACT TWO begins, Bradamante is still trying to reconnect with Ruggiero. First, she gets help from the Orlando's friend Astolfo. He was bewitched by Alcina, but the sorceress enrages him to the point that he takes Bradamante's side. Then Bradamante uses the magic ring she brought along to break the spell that Alcina had cast on Ruggiero. But reigniting their romance won't be easy. Ruggiero is overjoyed to be free of the spell, but Bradamante is still upset by his betrayal, and she's not quite ready to take him back.

Who's Who

Marie-Nicole Lemieux ....... Orlando
Verónica Cangemi ........... Anglelica
Jennifer Larmore ................. Alcina
Kristina Hammarström.... Bradamante
Romina Basso ................... Medoro
Philippe Jaroussky ........... Ruggiero
Christian Senn ................... Astolfo

Ensemble Mattheus
Champs-Elysées Theatre Chorus
Jean-Christophe Spinosi, conductor

Orlando is still after Angelica, but with Alcina's help, she sends him on a wild goose chase. Angelica persuades him to climb an enchanted cliff, searching for a magical elixir, and Orlando is trapped in a cavern.

Meanwhile, Bradamante and Ruggiero finally kiss and make up, and with Orlando missing, Angelica and Medoro are free to hold a lavish wedding celebration. Afterward, they carve their marriage vows on the bark of a tree. Alcina protects both the couples, but she's also jealous of their happiness.

After the lovers retire, Orlando finds his way out of the cave. When he sees the carvings on the tree, he knows he has lost Angelica, and he begins to go mad.

At the start of ACT THREE, Ruggiero, Bradamante and Astolfo all think that Orlando must be dead, and they don't think he deserved it. So they set off looking for Alcina in order to get even.

They find her near a giant wall that protects a great temple. Inside the temple is the source of Alcina's power — the urn containing Merlin's remains. When Alcina tries a few incantations on the visitors, Bradamante's ring overcomes the spells, but Alcina manages to breach the wall and reach the temple gates.

At that point, Orlando turns up again, and now he's crazier than ever. The others, including Alcina, are distracted by Orlando's disturbing reappearance, and they ponder the destructive power of jealousy.

Meanwhile, Orlando makes his way into the temple and finds an ornate statue of Merlin. In his madness, he mistakes the figure for the woman he lost: Angelica. Orlando grabs hold of the statue and moves it. At that, all of Alcina's powers are broken, and the temple collapses.

Alcina promptly flees, swearing revenge. In the commotion, Orlando regains his senses. He makes his peace with Angelica, and blesses her marriage to Medoro. As the opera ends, everyone praises the power of faithful love.

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