Alvaro Yañez/courtesy of Theatre Champs-Elysées
A scene from the Theatre Champs-Elysées' production of 'Orlando Furioso.'
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.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux ....... Orlando
Verónica Cangemi ........... Anglelica
Jennifer Larmore ................. Alcina
Kristina Hammarström.... Bradamante
Romina Basso ................... Medoro
Philippe Jaroussky ........... Ruggiero
Christian Senn ................... Astolfo
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.