• Beyond the Standard Repertoire: Orlando by Handel

    Historical Background

    For the five winter season between December 1729 and June 1734 Handel, assisted by the impresario J. J. Heidegger, was effectively in sole charge of Italian opera at the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket. In the previous decade opera had been produced by the Royal Academy of Music, a group of noblemen and landed gentry who financed the operation in company with other subscribers; but after the collapse of the Academy in 1728 the directors ceded their managerial rights to Handel and Heidegger for five years. The new arrangement allowed the privilege – rare for a composer at this time – of producing operas to some extent according to his own taste. Thus the series of serious, heroic operas favoured by the Academy was soon broadened by the production in February 1730 of Partenope, a setting of a highly amusing libretto by Stampiglia which had been considered by the Academy in 1726, but rejected apparently on grounds of its “depravity”. Pasticcios and adaptations of operas by leading Italian composers also appeared, and in the spring of 1732 came the major innovation of English oratorio in the shape of a revised version of Esther, shortly followed by a new version of Acis and Galatea as a serenata, mixing music from Handel’s earlier Italian and English settings of the story. Handel had good cast casts for these productions, led from the autumn of 1730 by the great and popular castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernadi), who had also played the major roles in the earlier Academy operas.

    Not all the supporters of opera were happy with the situation, however, and Orlando, the new opera of Handel’s fourth season (1732-33) may have played a part in precipitating a crisis. According to the dates entered in the autograph score, Handel completed Acts One and Two by November 1732 and finished the whole score ten days later. The first performance, with Senesino in the title role, took place at the King’s Theatre on 27 January 1733. In the so-called “Colman Register” – a diary of operatic performances in London – the anonymous author noted on 3 February that the “Cloathes & Scenes” were “all new” and that the opera was “extraordinary fine & magnificent – perform’d several times”. Nevertheless, the first run consisted of only six performances up to 20 February, after which Handel revived Floridante and directed performances of his new oratorio Deborah and of Esther. Four more performances of Orlando followed, between 21 April and 5 May, but the work was not heard again until the twentieth century. Within a month of the final performance Senesino had resigned from Handel’s company (having been told, according to a press report, that the composer “had no farther occasion for his service”) and on 15 June several noblemen, supported by the Prince of Wales, met to form a new opera company (later known as the “Opera of the Nobility”) in open opposition to Handel. The rivalry of the two companies continued for three more seasons and though Handel eventually prevailed, the experience clearly soured his involvement with opera. A move to John Rich’s new theatre at Covent Garden in 1734 inspired him to one more great and glorious operatic season, with the first performances of Ariodante and Alcina, but after that it was only in ode and oratorio that Handel was able to display the full range of his genius.

    It would not be surprising if Orlando itself had contributed to the rift with Senesino. Its many unusual and innovatory features could easily have been puzzling and even upsetting to a singer who had enjoyed twenty-five years of fame on the operatic stage and was thoroughly steeped in the conventions of the opera seria form. In the whole of the opera he had only three full-length da capo arias, none of which appeared in the final act; his only duet with the leading soprano was short and highly irregular in form; and he was absent from the most substantial ensemble number, the trio at the end of Act One. True, he had the stage to himself for nearly ten minutes for the great “Mad Scene” at the end of Act Two, but it gave him little opportunity for vocal embellishment and, here as elsewhere in the opera, he may well have been confused as to whether he was playing a role which was seriously heroic or subtly comic; if the latter, was it the singer or the character that was being mocked?

    This ambiguity of tone, combined with musical magnificence, gives Orlando a special place among Handel’s opera. It stems from the ultimate source of the libretto, the Orlando furioso of Ludovico Aristo (1474-1533), an epic poem describing the adventures of the knight Orlando (or Roland) and the terrible frenzy he brings upon himself through his frustrated love for Angelica, Queen of Cathay – all dazzlingly elaborated with stories of many other characters and much incidental comment on the human condition. Angelica, to the annoyance of all her noble suitors, eventually yields to the young African soldier Medoro (elevated to princely status in the opera). More specifically, the immediate model for Handel’s Orlando was an earlier operatic libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capeci (1652-1728) entitled L’Orlando, overoLa gelosa pazzia (Orlando, or the Madness of Jealousy), set to music (now lost) by Domenico Scarlatti and produced in Rome in 1711.


    Capeci’s original text had to be substantially altered to fit Handel’s company. (We do not know who undertook this task). The roles of Orlando, Angelica and Medoro presented no problems: the title role naturally went to Senesino, Angelica to the soprano Anna Strada del Po (Handel’s leading female singer since 1729 and the only one to remain faithful to him when the rest departed for the Opera of the Nobility) and Medoro to the reliable contralto Francesca Bertolli, who specialized in male roles. The semi-comic character of Dorinda was well suited to the buffa soprano Celeste Gismondi, a newcomer to Handel’s company whose skills may actually have suggested the choice of the libretto. She is almost certainly to be identified with Celeste Resse, an accomplished singer who took many roles in intermezzi at Naples between 1724 and 1732; her part in the opera was significantly expanded from Capeci’s original.

    The most drastic revision to the text were required to provide a fitting part for the only other member of the company, the great bass Antonio Montagnana. Capeci had an important sub-plot involving two royal lovers, and the princess Isabella and the young Scottish prince Zerbino; but it was not the practice of the time for a bass to play a young prince, and so Isabella and Zerbino were virtually eliminated and the striking Magnus-like character of Zoroastro was invented for Montagnana. (Isabella remains a silent presence in the opera, however; she is the mysterious princess rescued by Orlando in Act One).

    These changes had a profound effect on the tone of the opera, placing emphasis on Dorinda, almost (but not quite) transformed into a tragic figure, and altering the whole context of Orlando’s madness, no longer the direct effect of his jealous obsession, but a curative frenzy designed and imposed by Zoroastro to clear the hero’s mind. Above all, the new version of the libretto provided a framework for music of far more variety and formal flexibility than could be accomplished in a conventionally organized opera seria; this, surely, was its great attraction for Handel.



    Angelica, Queen of Cathay, beloved of Medoro

    Medoro, African prince, beloved of Angelica

    Dorinda, shepherdess

    Zoroastro, magician

    Some Recordings of Merit

    James Bowman (Orlando), Arleen Augér (Angelica), Catherine Robbin (Medoro), Emma Kirkby (Dorinda), David Thomas (Zoroastro), Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood (on period instruments). 3 CDs, Decca L'Oiseau-Lyre (1991)

    Patricia Bardon (Orlando), Rosa Mannion (Dorinda), Hilary Summers (Medoro), Rosemary Joshua (Angelica), Harry van der Kamp (Zoroastro), Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (on period instrumenst). 3 CDs, Erato, Warner Classics re-issue budget price (1996 etc.)

    Marijana Mijanovic (Orlando), Martina Janková (Angelica), Katharina Peetz (Medoro), Christina Clark (Dorinda), Konstantin Wolff (Zoroastro), Orchestra “La Scintilla” of The Zurich Opera, William Christie (on period instruments). DVD, Blu-ray Arthaus Musik. Live Recording from The Zurich Opera House 2007. This production is the reference version for the purpose of this thread.

    Act One

    Zoroastro contemplates the constellations, obscure in meaning to ordinary mortals, but which tell him that Orlando will one day return to 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 mountains 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.

    The shepherdess Dorinda reflects on the beauties of nature, once delightful, but now filling her 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 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 Medoro is now her betrothed lover. She thanks Dorinda for her previous 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.

    Act Two

    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-hound love for Medoro. She shows Orlando the jewel she has been given, claiming it came from Medoro. Orlando immediately recognizes it as the bracelet from Ziliante 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.

    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 the 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 grotto 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 Furies attack him. The greatest Fury of all takes the form of Medoro, who runs into the arms of Prosperine (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 into the grotto it bursts open to reveal Zoroastro on his chariot. The magician gathers Orlando up in his arms and flies off with him.

    Act Three

    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 noble 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 Argalia, murdered by Ferrau, another of Orlando’s rivals. He squares up for unarmed combat with Ferrau, 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 recognized.

    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 caverns, 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 overcomes 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 statute of Mars, with fire burning on the 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.

    Orlando, (1733 HWV31) opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).

    Orlando - Marijana Mijanovic
    Angelica - Martina Janková
    Medoro - Katharina Peetz
    Dorinda - Christina Clark
    Zoroastro - Konstantin Wolff

    Orchestra “La Scintilla” of The Zurich Opera, William Christie (on period instruments). Live Recording from The Zurich Opera House 2007.

    Link to playlist (14 clips).


    #1 out of 14

    Full Score

    Orlando, full score as published by Friedrich Chrysander (Händel-Gesellschaft Leipzig, 1881).



    Arias Performed by Other Singers & Period Instrument Orchestras

    If you prefer to listen to some fine arias of Orlando, then please enjoy these clips:-

    Bejun Mehta

    Olga Pasichnyk

    Max Emanuel Cencic

    A Performance Libretto

    Here is a libretto from a 2008 performance of Orlando, which I have no knowledge of so I cannot verify its completness. It might nonetheless be useful for the purpose of this thread as it also contains English translation.


    This article was originally published in forum thread: Beyond the Standard Repetoire: Orlando by Handel (for week beginning 15 January 2012) started by HarpsichordConcerto View original post
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Jephtha's Avatar
      Jephtha -
      Thank you, HC, for this excellent overview of Orlando. I saw a marvelous production of this in St. Louis in the early 1980's. The conductor was Nicholas McGegan, and the orchestra was Tafelmusik. Orlando was Drew Minter, Angelica was Christine Armistead and Dorinda was Sally Bradshaw; the names of the other singers have vanished from my memory. What was wonderful about this production was that the sets were painted flats, as at Drottningholm, and the singers used eighteenth-century acting techniques, so that one pose was used to express the emotion of the 'A' section of an aria, then a different pose expressed the emotion of the 'B' section. The production also used authentic eighteenth-century 'special effects'. Zoroastro's transformation of the scene into a garden in Act I was ingenious and quite startling, with the fountain appearing suddenly from a trap door in the stage floor amid smoke and thunder. And the swift appearance of the magician in a flying chariot and his flight with Orlando were so surprising and delightful that the audience burst into spontaneous applause! I had not heard the opera before this production, and I can still recall the frisson I felt upon first hearing the sublime trio for two sopranos and alto that closes the first act. Also blazoned on my memory is Orlando's slumber aria in Act III, in which Drew Minter slowly fell asleep far downstage to the delicate accompaniment of the two viole marine. What a truly magnificent opera this is, and it's a pity that it is often overlooked in the fuss made over Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo, Alcina et al.

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