ORLANDO (HWV 31)
Libretto: After Carlo Sigismondo Capece, 1711, from L. Ariosto, Orlando Furioso.
First performance: 27th January 1733, King's Theatre, London
- Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino" (Alto-castrato)
- Anna Maria Strada del Pò (Soprano)
- Francesca Bertolli (Contralto)
- Celeste Gismondi (soprano)
- Antonio Montagnana (Bass)
Countryside at night, with a view of a mountain on which Atlas is seen supporting the heavens on his shoulders.
Zoroastro contemplates the constellations, obscure in meaning to ordinary mortals, but which tell him that Orlando will one day return to deeds of glory. Orlando himself appears, torn between conflicting desires for love and glory. Zoroastro rebukes him for his devotion to love, and with a wave of his wand causes the view of the mountain to change to the Palace of Love, where heroes of antiquity appear asleep at Cupid’s feet. He urges Orlando to abandon Love and follow Mars, the god of war. Orlando is at first shamed by the vision, but then considers that glory can be obtained in pursuit of love: Hercules remained a hero despite his affair with Omphale, as did Pelides ‘when in a damsels soft array he threaten’d Asia’s realms to blast!’ (an oblique reference to Achilles, son of Peleus, who as a boy was disguised as a girl and sent to Scyros to avoid the Trojan war; he was discovered when he pugnaciously brandished a sword offered to him by Odysseus).
A little wood with shepherds’ huts.
The shepherdess Dorinda reflects on the beauties of nature, once delightful, but now filling her with grief, perhaps – she is not sure – because she is in love. Orlando rushes past with a princess he has just rescued (identified later as Isabella); he too – thinks Dorinda – may be affected by love. She really does not know what she feels. Angelica now appears, admitting to herself that despite Orlando’s attentions she has fallen in love with Medoro, whose wounds she healed while he was being looked after by Dorinda. Medoro overhears this confession and enters, declaring his love to Angelica. He feels he is unworthy of her, but she says that he who has gained her heart has the worth of a king. Dorinda returns as Angelica leaves and it becomes clear that it is Medoro whom she loves. He tries to avoid hurting her by maintaining a pretence that Angelica is a relation of his; he will never despise her. Dorinda knows he is not telling the truth, but his words, false as they are, still enchant her.
Zoroastro tells Angelica that he knows of her love for Medoro, and, warning her of the likely revenge of Orlando, says he will keep watch. Orlando appears. Angelica cannot bring herself to tell him what has happened but instead pretends to be jealous and taunts him about the princess Isabella he has just rescued. Zoroastro prevents the untimely approach of Medoro by causing him to be concealed by a fountain as the whole scene is transformed into a delightful garden. Angelica tells Orlando he must prove his faith by never seeing the princess again; he cannot have Angelica’s love while there is suspicion in her heart. Orlando says he will obey her, and that he would fight the most terrible monsters to show the strength of his love.
Medoro finds Angelica and demands to know whom she has been talking to. She tells him it is Orlando, and persuades him (with little difficulty) not to fight such a rival. They arrange to meet again. Their parting embrace is seen by Dorinda, who finally forces Angelica to explain that Medoro is now her betrothed lover. She thanks Dorinda for her prevous kindness and gives her a piece of jewellery. Dorinda says she would sooner have had a gift from her beloved Medoro. Medoro begs her to forgive him, but she says she has been hurt in a way that he will never understand. Angelica and Medoro try to comfort her, but she remains inconsolable.
Dorinda finds the melancholy song of the nightingale appropriate to her sadness. Orlando appears and asks her why she has been suggesting that he is in love with the princess Isabella. Confused, Dorinda says she has been misunderstood: she was speaking of Angelica and her new-found love for Medoro. She shows Orlando the jewel she has been given, claiming it came from Medoro. Orlando immediately recognises it as the bracelet from Zilante that he once gave to Angelica. She has betrayed him, he says: surely she has yielded to one of his great rivals? No, says Dorinda, just the young man named Medoro, whose face she sees in every flower; the sounds of stream and forest seem to tell her that he still waits for her. Orlando gives vent to his anger: he threatens to kill himself so that he can pursue Angelica into Hell itself.
On one side a laurel grove, on the other the opening of a grotto.
Zoroastro rebukes Angelica and Medoro for arousing Orlando’s anger: flight is their only course. He warns them that the minds of mortals wander in darkness when they are led by the blind god of love. The lovers are sad to leave. Medoro decides to carve their names on the laurel trees to declare their love to the world. Angelica resolves to return to Cathay with Medoro. Though she is grateful to Orlando for once having saved her life, she believes he will understand that love cannot be compelled by gratitude or reason.
Orlando enters the grove and sees the names of Angelica and Medoro on the trees. He rushes into the grove in pursuit of Angelica. She, however, appears from the grove on the opposite side and sadly bids farewell to the trees and the streams. Orlando, in a towering rage, emerges from the grotto and chases Angelica into the grove. Medoro appears and follows them. Angelica reappears with Orlando in hot pursuit. Zoroastro’s magic now intervenes: Angelica is engulfed by a large cloud which bears her away in the company of four genii. Orlando finally loses his reason. He believes that shades from the underworld have taken Angelica from him. He will follow them, becoming a shade himself. He crosses the Styx in Charon’s boat and sees the smoking towers of Pluto’s kingdom. Cerberus barks at him and the Furies attack him. The greatest Fury of all takes the form of Medoro, who runs into the arms of Proserpine (Pluto’s queen). She weeps and Orlando’s rage abates as he sees that even in Hell love can arouse tears. He begs the weeping to cease, since his pity has already been obtained; but finally his rage returns – no tears shall prevail against his hard heart. As he runs back ino the grotto it bursts open to reveal Zoroastro on his chariot. The magician gathers Orlando up in his arms and flies off with him.
A grove of palm trees.
Medoro explains to Dorinda that Angelica has sent him to her for refuge. She is annoyed that he has not come to see her on his own account. He explains that his heart is no longer his to offer. Dorinda is glad that he is no longer deceiving her. Orlando appears and declares his love for Dorinda. She is at first flattered by such nobel attention, but as Orlando becomes more ardent and addresses her as the goddess Venus, it becomes obvious that he is still raving. Suddenly Dorinda becomes identified in his mind with Angelica’s brother Argali, murdered by Ferrau, another of Orlando’s rivals. He squares up for unarmed combat with Farrau, throwing away his helmet and sword, and leaves.
Dorinda tells Angelica of Orlando’s madness. Angelica expresses her pity for him and hopes that he will be able to overcome it. Dorinda delivers her final thoughts on love: it’s a wind that sets the brain spinning, bringing as much pain as joy.
Zoroastro appears with his genii and orders them to change the scene to ‘a horrid cavern’. He promises to restore Orlando to his former glory. Just as a tempest yields to clear skies, so the faults of those who err will retreat as they are recognised.
Dorinda, in tears, tells Angelica that Orlando has destroyed her house, and buried Medoro in the ruins. Orlando himself appears, addressing Angelica as the sorceress Falerina and threatening to kill her; but she defies him, grief-stricken by the news of Medoro’s death. Orlando throws her into the cavern, but as he does so it changes into a beautiful temple of Mars. Orlando claims he has rid the world of all its terrible monsters. A drowsiness comes over him, and believing he has drunk the waters of the river Lethe, he lies down to sleep. Zoroastro appears, declaring the time has come to restore Orlando’s senses. He sends for the eagle of Jupiter which, guided by the genii, flies down with a golden vessel in its beak. This contains a liquid which Zoroastro sprinkles over Orlando’s face. He awakes, his senses restored. Dorinda tells him he has murdered Medoro in his frenzy. Full of remorse, he decides to kill himself, but Angelica stops him, bidding him to live on. Medoro was in fact saved by Zoroastro, who now implores Orlando to accept the betrothal of Angelica and Medoro. A statue of Mars, with fire burning on an altar, rises as Orlando proclaims victory over himself and hands Angelica to Medoro. He wishes them joy, Angelica and Medoro promise to be true to each other, and Dorinda, inviting them all back to her cottage, says she will forget her sorrows. All join in praise of love and glory.
(c) Anthony Hicks, by kind permission of The Decca Record Company Limited
Orlando was the only new opera written by Handel for the 1732-1733 season. His relationship with his star castrato Senesino had never been a happy one, though it seems that both men admired each others artistic abilities. But the role of Orlando, with its small number of conventional da capo arias and the extraordinary mad scene at the end of Act II, seems to have finally driven them apart. The situation was not made any easier by Handel’s introduction of English oratorios – a new work, Deborah was premiered in March 1733, and a revival of Esther followed in April. Senesino was not comfortable singing in the English language, and the roles assigned to him did not give him many opportunities to show off his considerable vocal skills.
As early as January 1733 some of Handel’s rivals were plotting to break his dominance of the Italian opera in London. John West, the Earl of Delawarr, wrote to Charles, Duke of Clarence: ‘There is a spirit got up against the Dominion of Mr. Handel, a subscription carry’d on, and Directors chosen, who have contracted with Senesino, and have sent for Cuzzoni, and Farinelli…’. The situation was made worse by Handel’s attempts to increase the ticket price for performances of Deborah to one guinea, even for those who had previously paid for a season subscription. Lady Irwin reported to Lord Carlisle on 31st March: ‘Hendel thought, encouraged by the Princess Royal, it had merit enough to deserve a guinea, and the first time it was performed at that price…there was but a 120 people in the House. The subscribers being refused unless they would pay a guinea, they, insisting upon the right of their silver tickets, forced into the House, and carried their point.’ All this increased hostility toward Handel’s company, and led his audience to start looking elsewhere for their entertainment.
Orlando itself, however, was an artistic success, though it failed to draw large audiences. One visitor to a performance at the King’s Theatre reported: ‘I never in all my life heard a better piece of musick nor better perform’d – the famous Castrato, Senesino made the principal Actor the rest were all Italians who sung with very good grace and action, however, the Audience was very thin so that I believe they get not enough to pay the Instruments of the Orchestra … ‘ Based on an episode in Ariosto’s great poem, Handel and his unknown librettist added a magical element with the introduction of the magician Zoroastro. Throughout the work the composer disrupts the conventions of opera seria, especially in his writing for the role of Orlando himself. As the leading character loses touch with reality his music departs further and further from the da capo format, culminating in the Act II finale in which broken fragments of recitative and arioso depict his growing madness. The closing rondo becomes increasingly manic, portraying his eventual collapse and rescue by Zoroastro. The London opera stage had not seen or heard anything like this before, and clearly the drama of the moment was emphasised by Handel’s masterly writing.
After an initial run of six performances, and the lenten season of oratorios, Orlando returned to the stage for a further four performances. Plans for additional performances were cancelled because of the ‘indisposition’ of one of the singers. This may have been the point at which Senesino finally left Handel’s company, or was dismissed by the composer. The opera was never revived in Handel’s lifetime.
The Royal Family faithfully attended most of the performances of Orlando, which lead to one unfortunate incident. On 10th February 1733, Fog’s Weekly Journal reported: ‘On Saturday Night last, as her Majesty was coming from the Opera House in the Hay-Market, the Fore Chairman had the Misfortune to slip, going down the step by Ozinda’s Coffee-house near St. James’s House, by which Accident the Chair fell, and broke the Glasses; but her Majesty happily got no Harm.’