During his lifetime Vivaldi was a prolific composer of operas, responsible for setting at least 45 libretti, linked to at least 67 stage works, although Vivaldi claimed it to be 94. Yet, today his operatic output has been largely forgotten, being at best, of marginal interest to the opera-going public, restricted to recordings, rare concerts, and even rarer staged performances.
During the latter part of the 20th century, Vivaldi’s contemporary, Handel, saw a resurgence of interest in his operas; Vivaldi, however, experienced no such renaissance. Both worked squarely within the narrowly prescribed limitations of opera seria which dominated opera during the baroque era, and which makes it difficult for audiences to access their operas today. Yet, while many successful efforts were made to adapt Handel operas to modern sensibilities through imaginative and innovative stagings and orchestrations, the same did not happen to Vivaldi as his works remain relatively unexplored by conductors, directors and singers, and largely unknown to the public. “Orlando Furioso,” although one of Vivaldi’s better-known operas, can hardly be described as mainstream, and thus, this performance by the Festival della Valle d’Itria provides a marvelous opportunity for the artists to stamp their mark on the work, and for opera-goers to enjoy a real rarity.
The Opera & Its Challenges
Based upon Ariosto’s renowned poem of the same name, the opera concerns the trials and tribulations of Alcina, a witch who rules over a magical island, and Orlando, an upright and brave paladin, who finds himself there. The island is used to ensnare victims into Alcina’s evil web, in which there are many delights on offer, where everything is possible, yet nothing is real. Ultimately, any happiness is short-lived and to no one’s benefit, apart from to Alcina herself. Five other characters have also washed upon her shores: Astolfo, in love with, and now spurned by Alcina, and two pairs of lovers, Angelica and Medoro, and Bradamante and Ruggiero. All of them now become playthings in Alcina’s games. Over the course of the drama we watch as Orlando is driven to a state of madness by his obsessive, but unreturned, love for Angelica, and how Alcina is destroyed as she loses her magic powers. Along the way we also meet all sorts of wonderful creatures and experience many magical tricks. All of which is typical of 17th/18th century baroque opera.
Notwithstanding the fact “Orlando Furioso” appears to be a fairly exciting story, baroque opera can be very difficult for modern audiences to access. It has a very rigid structure, is highly stylized and tends to tackle themes that are no longer fashionable. Its structure, in particular, can be very problematic: recitatives are used to move the drama forward and are followed by an aria, in which the narrative stops, and the singer portrays a single emotional state. This is then followed by a further recitative and so on, until the end of the oper. Duets and other ensemble pieces are rare, and choruses are also used sparingly, either to close an act or to finish the opera itself. Many arias contain ravishing music, and delight the audience, but they remain static affairs with no action, whilst the recitatives can be long-lasting and tedious to the modern listener. It, therefore, takes a very skilled director and conductor to adapt baroque operas to meet the needs and expectations of 21st century audiences.
Strong Musical Forces
Fortunately, for this festival presentation, the conductor, Diego Fasolis, and the production team under the direction of Fabio Ceresa proved more than capable, combining to produce an absolutely fabulous reading of the work, in which the structural problems passed by, largely unnoticed.
They were aided in their task, in no small part, by the composer, Antonio Vivaldi himself. Although not changing the fundamental form of baroque opera, he pushed at its boundaries and in so doing allowed a greater fluidity to enter the work, perfectly illustrated by Orlando’s mad scene at the end of Act 2, in which he uses unaccompanied recitative, a cavatina and accompanied recitative, rather than a da capo aria which should have been the standard form at this point. He incorporates choruses and a duet into the middle of Act 2 in order to improve the dramatic impact. Moreover, he introduced a greater variety of orchestral textures and rhythms than were normally to be found at the time, as illustrated by Ruggiero’s aria “Sol da te, mio dolce amore,” and Angelica’s aria “Un raggio di speme,” respectively.
An Insightful & Colorful Production
The production was cleverly constructed, incorporating some of the stylistic and performing traditions of the time, at least as we understand them to have existed, instead of fighting against them in order impose a fully reconstructed 21st-century interpretation. The use of spectacle, for example, was very important in baroque opera, the audience demanded new and innovative machines and stage effects, and in this spirit we were presented with two impressive constructions: firstly, the giant eagle that flys to the island with Ruggiero as a passenger was cleverly created, it was an imposing bird whose presence dominated the stage, Ruggiero riding on its back, and secondly, the figure of Arontes guarding Alcina’s power was created by having stage hands with pieces of his body on poles that when brought together, created a huge intimidating figure that was able to swing his mace at Orlando in a stylized well-choreographed fight sequence. Costumes in the baroque theatre, although fashionable and stylish tended to bear no relationship whatsoever to the opera being performed, and here again we were presented with some fantastically colorful and eye catching designs, beautifully styled, in red, purple and gold or blue, white and gold, from various periods and cultures, which aided in the creation of some fabulous mise-en-scene.
The set, designed by Massimo Cecchetto was simple but powerfully effective. A bridge-like structure covered the front of the stage, sliding into the wings to reveal a large stone-like globe which Orlando uses in Act 2 to climb out of the cave in which he was trapped. At first, this structure did not appear particularly impressive. However, at the beginning of Act 1 the globe was rotated, revealing a golden shell-like structure and a throne in its center, on which Alcina was sitting, dressed in a large flowing gold and purple dress surrounded by cushions and servants, dressed in red and gold, the entire scene bathed in a golden light. As Angelica is brought before Alcina, dressed in blue and white, the servants, came forward to protect Alcina moving in graceful, coordinated harmony. The effect was stunning.
Ceresa underpinned the narrative with some interesting themes, although they tended to be subsumed into the overall drama, rather than made intrusively obvious. Foremost among them was the idea of the need for balance in people’s behavior and passions. The protagonists were defined by their relative character failings/passion in relation to another person. For example, Alcina was driven by sensual desires alongside Orlando’s frigidity or Astolfo’s slave-like love for Alcina and her complete indifference. All the characters have lessons to learn, and it is only by moving towards the characteristics of the other person that a balance can be achieved. If this feels to be too esoteric, it was easy to ignore as it was done with a light touch. However, its dramatic consequences were well played out. Medoro, for example, whose defining characteristics were fidelity and jealousy learned his lesson on his wedding night by being inveigled to take part in an orgy. This was not, however, presented in a tasteless manner, as it was acted out in slow motion as a background scene to the main drama. Moreover, it was also clear that this was not to be seen as reality, but as a metaphor. After all, this is an island where everything is an illusion.
A Sparkling Performance in the Pit
The musical side of the production was equally successful. Under the control of Diego Fasolis, singers and orchestra produced a scintillating sound, free of the languors that one usually associates with baroque opera. Conducting the I Barocchisti from the keyboard, Fasolis produced a performance that positively sparkled, with a rhythmic vitality that brought a real energy to the proceedings. The decision to cut a substantial amount of the recitatives, leaving only enough in place to ensure coherence or, where necessary, to promote the dramatic effect, as in the case of Orlando’s mad scene, was a good decision as it allowed the pace of the opera to be maintained.
Given that the performance did not end until almost 1 a.m., it was also a very welcome decision.
Springing to Life
Leading the cast was the contralto, Sonia Prina, as Orlando. Singing well, but generally, within herself in the first act, she sprung thrillingly to life in Act 2, a demanding act and one which she must dominate, as it defines the opera. It was a task she readily accepted, and one in which she largely succeeded. Orlando’s anger having been truly raised by having to escape from a cave, discovers that Angelica has married Medoro, and had been deceiving him all along. This is all too much for the frigid knight, who had focused all his desires on her, causing him to descend into mental turmoil. Prina rose to the challenge, presenting a nuanced psychological and physical performance of a person who has entered the abyss, her voice leaping upwards then dropping downwards as she darted from one unconnected idea to the next. Here her voice darkened and lightened, rose and fell, and her madness finally exploded in the cavatina “Io ti getto elmo, ed usbergo.” But the madness did not end here. In Act 3, Orlando reappears, still raging uncontrollably at Angelica, and enters the temple to fight Arontes, its guardian, and once again Prina unleashed the vocal fireworks of her rage. Only after having killed Arontes does his temper start to subside. It was a truly intense and emotional portrayal.
A Wickedly Compelling Sorceress
As Alcina, the mezzo soprano, Lucia Cirillo, acted and sang the role convincingly. Always dressed in the most sumptuous and colorful costumes she paraded regally around the stage, looking every bit the wicked sorceress, complete with red streaks in her jet black hair. Anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path was guaranteed an unhappy fate. One of her more gruesome acts, however, must have been when she drew a sword and plunged it into the giant eagle and ripped out its heart. Having more arias than the other characters, Cirillo had plenty of opportunities to display her considerable talents. Her first aria “Aliza in quegl’occhi,” in which she sings about the fears and hopes on first seeing Orlando set the standard for the evening, saw Cirillo deliver a solid vocal display, dancing up and down the scale in an elaborate demonstration of ornamentation, with a good coloratura.
Angelica, having arrived on the island in an attempt to escape the amorous attentions of Orlando, was played by the Italian soprano Michela Antenucci. Unfortunately, Orlando is hot pursuit and she spends most of the opera avoiding his unwanted attentions or else trying to win over the jealous Medoro. In Act 2 she sings of her love for Medoro and her fears that the passion may eventually fade in the aria “Chiara al pari di lucida stella,” one of the work’s most beautiful numbers. It allowed Antenucci to showcase her ability. She caressed each word with exquisite beauty, bringing poignancy and heartfelt warmth to the piece, gracefully ornamenting the lines. In the rhythmically more aggressive aria in Act 1, “Un raggio di speme,” however, we heard a different talent, as she used it to display her vocal agility, racing up and down the scales with a far greater degree of ornamentation. Both arias were delivered with great skill, indicative of her evening’s performance, notwithstanding the occasional misplaced high profile note.
Other Noteworthy Turns
Following his spectacular stage entrance, Ruggiero, played by counter-tenor Luigi Schifano, is immediately trapped by Alcina’s sorcery and falls in love with her. He then delivers one of the most beautiful and noteworthy arias of the night “Sol da te, mio dolce amore,” in which he sings about his love for Alcina, accompanied by transverse flute, an example of Vivaldi’s bold orchestration. The flutist, Stefano Bet, standing to perform, blended delightfully with Schifano, whose long, delicately ornamented vocal lines complemented the sound of the flute wonderfully, creating a special moment, which was loudly appreciated by the audience.
Bradamante was played by the mezzo Loriana Castellano, who made a very good impression. She spent most of the evening disguised as a man – even managing to attract the attentions of Alcina at one point – in an attempt to ensnare or test Ruggiero. She possesses a strong and flexible voice, which she employed skillfully. Astolfo who has come to the island to rekindle his relationship with Alcina was played by the bass, Riccardo Novaro. He also made a pleasing impression, performing his arias in fine style.
Medoro, washed up on Alcina’s shores, after having been shipwrecked, was played by the Ukrainian counter-tenor, Konstantin Derri. His possesses a refined and agile voice, which he used to phrase the vocal line with a great deal of skill and delicacy, and produced a very pleasing sound. Unfortunately, his voice seemed fairly small in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale, which is not a large performing space, and at one point even failed to rise above the small orchestral force of the baroque orchestra.
It is unlikely that this production has done enough to re-establish Vivaldi’s reputation as an opera composer, but that probably says more about the time in which we live than the quality of his operas. As a piece of theatre, this was first class, a joy to experience. Those unfortunate enough not to have been able to catch a performance of “Orlando Furioso” in Martina Franca will, however, have a further opportunity to see this production at Venice’s La Fenice, where it is scheduled for five performances during the 2017/18 season at the Teatro Malibran.