Orlando furioso – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Grazio Braccioli after Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso [sung in Italian with Italian surtitles]
Orlando – Sonia Prina
Angelica – Michela Antenucci
Alcina – Lucia Cirillo
Bradamante – Loriana Castellano
Medoro – Laura Polverelli
Ruggiero – Kangmin Justin Kim
Astolfo – Luca Tittoto
Chorus & Orchestra of La Fenice
Fabio Ceresa – Director
Massimo Checchetto – Sets
Giuseppe Palella – Costumes
Fabio Barettin – Lighting
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 1 October, 2023
Venue: Teatro Malibran, Campiello del Teatro, Cannaregio, Venice
Orlando furioso (1727) was Vivaldi’s third setting of the famous story from Ariosto’s epic: composed when he was attempting to re-establish his operatic career in his native Venice after a period away, he produced one of his richest, most varied scores. In fact, he had hoped for a commission from the most prestigious house, the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo (the forerunner of the theatre now on the site where the present production is given). But that never happened, and so the opera was premiered at the Teatro San Angelo (no longer in existence).
Fabio Ceresa rightly recognises that Ariosto’s narrative is particularly suitable for the spectacle of Baroque opera (to be precise, two narratives, since this opera conflates the story of Orlando’s infatuation with Angelica, with that of Alcina’s amorous bewitching of Ruggiero, which each became the subject of separate operas by Handel slightly later).
But Ceresa pares the work down by cutting various arias (from around three hours of music to two and a half) to make it more accessible, though that means depriving afficionados of the fertile sequence of contrasting numbers, even if it does clarify the drama.
The set is also comparatively simple, by not revolving between different scenes. But the production doesn’t stint on visual display, however, especially in the essentially Baroque costumes, and it is a clever idea to merge the realm of Alcina’s enchanted island (where all the action takes place) with the moon to which, in Ariosto’s poem, the paladin’s wits are lost during his amorous escapades with Angelica. The ball of the moon rotates after the Sinfonia to reveal Alcina’s throne, and the barren lunar landscape also constitutes the curvaceous turret before it and the side volutes or scrolls at the front of the stage. Seeing as the production is mounted in Venice, these latter must surely be intended to recall the huge scrolls around the dome of the famous Salute church on the Grand Canal, and therefore a telling inspiration in this opera about madness in view of that church’s dedication to ‘Our Lady of Health’.
Fantasy and frenzy continue to pervade the production for instance as Ruggiero’s flying horse, the hippogriff, is brought on, but as a surreally huge pantomime creature (complete with eagle’s head); and Orlando’s deranged dance with Alcina is accompanied by a few interpolated strains of the famous theme La Follia (used by Vivaldi himself in his Violin Sonata Op.1/12)
Sonia Prina’s distinctively colourful, brittle vocal quality aptly conveys the principal character’s nervous excitability. But she also remains impressively intact as a musical personality, both in the great aria di tempesta ‘Sorge l’irato nembo’, and in the intense sequence of numbers towards the end of Act Two which chart Orlando’s descent into mental instability (almost as remarkably as the equivalent section of Handel’s Orlando) while at the same time climbing the moon in rage.
Michela Antenucci’s Angelica embodies equal force of character, though also achieving a gentler seductiveness in her lilting Act Two aria, as she plays Orlando off against her true lover, Medoro, sung here sympathetically by Laura Polverelli. Lucia Cirillo is oddly reserved and calm in her delivery as Alcina – not bad in itself as she demonstrates particular musical conviction, but the performance lacks necessary flair and flamboyance for the role of the enchantress, not least in her huffy final aria ‘Anderò, chiamerò dal profundo’. Ruggiero is a happy-go-lucky knight in Kangmin Justin Kim’s cheerful, mellifluous rendering, complemented by the evenness and steadiness of Loriana Castellano’s Bradamante. Luca Tittoto accomplishes conspicuous heft in the one low-register role, Astolfo – the English knight who finds himself smitten by Alcina: despite some swooping between his higher notes, he acquits himself with particular agility in the furious energy of ‘Benché nasconda’.
In one of Vivaldi’s most musically abundant operas, Diego Fasolis conducts a robust interpretation which tends to emphasise the score’s turn towards the simpler galant style of Neapolitan opera emerging at that time with its insistently rhythmic bass lines, and the lower instruments come through prominently here. Additional instruments apart from the basic core of strings provide an attractive variety of timbres, underlining in almost the fashion of Romantic music the shifting emotional situations of the drama, rather than simply offering diverting sonorities. Fasolis doesn’t speed through the numbers but there is clear purpose in their emphatic succession, while giving each their expressive due, as also in the handful of choruses (rare in Baroque opera). This performance reveals Vivaldi as competent and imaginative a composer of opera seria as any of his contemporaries.