by Carlo Lanfossi
Handel and the Second Royal Academy of Music
No other composer’s life is so deeply connected to 18th-century London’s social environment as that of George Frideric Handel (Halle, 1685–London, 1759). In the 1710s, when Handel first arrives, London is a fast-growing city where new theatres open and the importance of Italian opera is the leading debate among the nobility and popular audience members, whether in the public sphere or in private social gatherings. Italian singers and instrumentalists travel to Britain to find a growing market: among them, castratos, primadonnas, and various personalities such as Nicola Haym (Roman cellist, later to be composer, theatre manager, numismatist, Handel’s favorite librettist and possibly Orlando’s reviser). It is in this context that Handel provides his first opera for the English public, Rinaldo (1711), based on Torquato Tasso epic poem Gerusalemme liberata and full of magic, chivalry, religion: in short, most of the elements that will constitute the core of Orlando.
Handel’s activity in London is basically a history of entrepreneurship. Tremendously talented (or at least involved) not only as a composer, but also as a company manager, in 1719 Handel got himself engaged in the so-called Royal Academy of Music, a group of aristocrats who wanted to support opera seria in the form of a joint-stock corporation. After this first experience, a less fortunate Second Royal Academy of Music (1729–34) was established as Handel was becoming joint manager of the King’s Theatre. The opening of the rival Opera of the Nobility in 1733 by a group of nobles opposed to King George II (and supporting Frederick, Prince of Wales), took away most of the singers of Handel’s Academy, smong them, the Italian castrato Francesco Bernardi (also known as Senesino) who had given voice to one of the most extraordinary characters in Handel’s operas, Orlando.
The 1733 premiere of Orlando
Orlando was the last role written by Handel specifically for Senesino. The singer had been part of the first Royal Academy of Music from 1720 to 1728, then again for the second Academy (1730), but soon after the end of the 1732/33 season he left the company—apparently after a much discussed fight with Handel himself—to land at the Opera of the Nobility. Senesino was not only a good singer, but also primarily an extremely talented actor. According to contemporary historian John Hawkins, “he was a graceful actor, and in the pronunciation of recitative had not his fellow in Europe.” The fact that Senesino decided to leave the company after Orlando, might have been influenced by the particular nature of this last opera, its unconventionality both in terms of music and dramaturgy.
Orlando’s premiere at King’s Theatre on 27 January 1733 was not exactly a great success. Despite a pretty good cast (featuring also soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, contralto Francesca Bertolli, the comic Celeste Gismondi, and bass Antonio Montagnana), the production did not run more than ten nights. Why that is the case is hard to say, at least from our modern perspective. It is true that, by the time Handel was beginning his Second Academy, he was in need of new subjects. It seems that Handel was convinced to set Orlando to music by the English dramatist Aaron Hill, who had contributed to the libretto for Rinaldo. In a letter dated 5 December 1732, he encouraged Handel to work on “a species of dramatic Opera […] that, by reconciling reason and dignity, with music and fine machinery, would charm the ear, and hold fast the heart.” Moral and spectacle form the basis of this sort of manifesto, and it is no surprise that Handel and Hill chose a libretto that would mix together magic, chivalry, and moral teachings. They just had to look at the literary background they have already worked on in 1711 for Rinaldo: Renaissance Italian epic poems.
Orlando’s literary background: Capeci and Ariosto
1711 was something of a key year for Orlando. It was not only the time when Hill and Handel first staged Rinaldo, but also the year of publication of a libretto by the Roman Arcadian poet Carlo Sigismondo Capeci, entitled L’Orlando. This libretto was first set to music by Domenico Scarlatti for the private theatre of the exiled Queen of Poland in 1711, and then anonymously adapted for the new Handel production of 1733. The operation of reworking a previous libretto was absolutely normal, and common among baroque opera composers. Handel himself did this for almost every opera he composed. For Orlando, the amount of modifications is consistent and results in one of the shortest librettos ever set to music by Handel. Capeci’s original plot is fundamentally maintained, but a couple of characters are missing and, instead, a magician named Zoroastro is introduced (recent studies have shown how this moral figure might have been influenced by Freemasonry aesthetics popular in 18th-century London). In sum, the libretto had to be less pastoral and amorous, and a little more directed towards “reason” and “fine machinery.” Thus the presence of spectacular scenes (temples coming out of nowhere, destructions, giant eagle flights) mixed with a balance of moral teachings are exactly what Hill requested in his letter. But what was Orlando ultimately about?
Orlando was the first of three Handel operas based on the Italian poem Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (the other two are Ariodante and Alcina, 1735). One of the most important epic poems in the history of Italian literature, Orlando furioso was written by Ariosto between 1516 and 1532. The action takes place at the time of the war between Charlemagne and the Saracen Agramante, King of Africa. The main plot of the poem is focused on Orlando, Charlemagne’s main knight, who is driven to madness by the pagan Angelica (Queen of Cathay) who instead is in love with the rival African prince Medoro. Orlando’s madness, the carving of Angelica’s and Medoro’s names on the tree, the flight to the moon to restore Orlando’s sanity, are just a few of the most fortunate scenes of this poem of 46 cantos. In Orlando furioso, battles, romantic love, fantastical and magical elements, are mixed together with a touch of psychological insight. It is no surprise, then, that this highly visionary material deeply influenced most European literature of the following centuries, but also the Baroque aesthetics, and formed the basis for many 17th- and 18th-century operas (Antonio Vivladi would also write an Orlando furioso in 1727).
Orlando is striking because of its somewhat experimental dramaturgy. Among the three acts of this opera, what really matters is the constant tension between conventions and eccentricity. The conventions are the use of recitative as motor for action and da capo arias as vehicle for passions; the presence of usual topics such as the mad scene or the sleeping scene, that have forged opera as a genre from its very beginning during the 17th century; the triangle love scheme; the deus ex machina. But all of these conventional features are arranged in a way that we find ourselves surprised and amused at every scene. Thus, arias can be transformed into ariosos; the mad scene can feature a 5/8 meter that is absolutely unusual for the time (depicting Orlando’s confused mind); the sleeping scene (“Già l’ebro mio ciglio”, Act III) prescribes the use of two violette marine, an instrument with sympathetic (resonating) strings invented by Pietro Castrucci, the leader of Handel’s orchestra; the love scheme does not resolve in a double couple, but rather leaves two characters (Dorinda and Orlando) in the end following different paths; the deus ex machina Zoroastro does not come at the end to solve the situation, but he’s frequently on stage to govern the plot.
Orlando can be interpreted in various ways: as a Masonic ritual (akin to Mozart’s The Magic Flute) where Zoroastro/Sarastro together with four genii enlighten everyone’s mind with moral persuasion; as an opera playing with categorizations, such as opera seria and opera comica, with the ambiguous presence of the shepherdess Dorinda signaling this ambivalence between a serious plot and a commedia dell’arte-like character; or it can simply be read as one of the most interesting Handel opera, and one of his most experimental achieving. Today, Orlando has been revived in a wide number of productions (such as the 2005 New York City Opera staging), testifying its enthusiastic reception by modern audiences.