As part of its 2017 programme, the Festival della Valle D’Itria presented a staging of Vivaldi’s opera “Orlando Furioso.” Embracing the performance traditions of the baroque period and resisting the temptation to make the work “relevant,” its director, Fabio Ceresa and his production team produced a splendid reading of the work, full of color, spectacle, and beauty. The musical direction, under the control of Diego Fasolis, was equally brilliant and elicited stunning performances from a wonderful cast, headed by Sonia Prina as Orlando and the orchestra I Barocchisti. The production has now transferred to Venice’s Teatro Malibran for an all-too-short run of performances and provides us with an interesting opportunity to reassess the production for an indoor staging with a different orchestra and a small number of cast changes.
Baroque is Baroque
The production takes a traditional approach to staging the work. There has been no attempt to update it or to give it anything other than a context consistent with Braccioli, the librettist, and Vivaldi’s original vision. In fact, every effort has been made to engage with the traditions of the baroque theatre. Visual splendor and spectacle were, therefore, high on the agenda. The costume designer, Giuseppe Palella, created a dazzling array of costumes in bright colors with sparkling sequins, consistent with 18th-century fashion. The scenery, designed by Massimo Checchetto, was simple, but effective and easily manageable, comprising of a large moon in the center of the stage, that revolved to reveal a shell-like interior that when bathed in golden light positively shone. Other scenery in the form of bridge-like structures were rolled in and off from the sides of the stage. Spectacular figures were introduced in the form of Arontes, a cleverly constructed giant held high on poles that fell to the floor in separate pieces when killed by Orlando, and in the form of a giant eagle that carried Bradamante onto the stage, before having its heart ripped out by Alcina.
The director Fabio Ceresa, opted for an understated approach. With the exception of Orlando in the mad scene, actions were controlled and never exaggerated, which had the effect of magnifying Orlando’s behavior. Moreover, the whole staging was beautifully styled, creating some stunning mise-en-scene. Supernumeraries added to the effect with their exotic attire and their polished choreographed movements.
Not Quite What It Once Was
At the Festival delle Valle D’Itria, it all worked so well. The overall effect was absolutely stunning. In the Teatro Malibran, however, the effect was not so emphatic. The stage at Teatro Malibran is much smaller than the stage at the Palazzo Ducale which is also in the open. Whereas in the Palazzo Ducale the scenery was well-balanced, airy and with plenty of space, in the Malibran it was compressed and untidy by comparison and created a claustrophobic feeling. Certain scenes just did not have the same level of brilliance. The lack of space had further knock-on effects; scene changes added to the cluttered stage, choreographed movements were clearly hampered, and the spectacular mise-en-scene was simply impossible to replicate. The eagle, for example, often disappearing into the wings or behind scenery.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that the staging was not successful: it was! But it is inevitable that a comparison is made, and unfortunately, the staging at Malibran comes off second best.
Back At Her Best
Musically, however, whereas the Festival Valle delle D’Itria had a truly marvelous cast it is arguable that this production at the Malibran was the better of the two.
Sonia Prina was again cast in the title role of Orlando and produced an intense and psychologically penetrating portrayal of the paladin. After having just escaped from a cave, Orlando discovers that Medoro has married Angelica, upon whom he has pinned all his desires. This is all simply too much for the frigid knight, who now descends into mental turmoil, precipitating a mad scene of epic proportions, followed by a scene in which he rages at Angelica and then fights the giant, Arontes. Physically and vocally, Prina gave it her all. The scenes require a substantial degree of versatility with the ability to produce a strongly drawn portrayal of a person who has lost their reason. Prina, while symbolically climbing the moon, unleashed a vocal pyrotechnic display of high quality, her voice leaping upwards then downwards as she jumped from one unconnected idea to the next, the voice darkening and lightening, rising and falling and eventually exploding in the cavatina “Io ti getto elmo, ed usbergo.” It was a truly intense and emotional portrayal, underpinned by her wonderful technique and stamina. However, as in her performances in Valle D’Itria, she did take time to get fully into her stride; generally singing within herself in the first act, her aria “Nel profundo” was dispatched in a perfunctory manner, and lacked the depth she was to bring to the role in the second and third acts – no doubt, a decision she made in order to preserve her energy for the demanding latter stages of the opera. Overall, however, this was a formidable performance from a first-class singing actress.
Another Top Notch Artist
The role of Alcina, as in Valle D’Itria, was played by mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo. The role is a wonderful part for any singer wishing to show off her coloratura, and Cirillo took full advantage of the opportunity. From her opening aria, “Alza in quegl’occhi,” in which she muses on the power of love in Orlando’s eyes, Cirillo displayed a secure and imaginative coloratura, with a pleasing vocal timbre. The more reflective arias, such as “Che dolce più…,” highlighted her ability to bring emotional depth to the role, backed by some fine phrasing and thoughtful embellishments. Moreover, she certainly looked the part; her sumptuously colored costumes and jet black hair giving her the appearance of beauty concealing a terrible evil. Certainly, anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path was guaranteed an unhappy fate. One of her more gruesome acts, however, must have been to draw a sword and plunge it into the giant eagle and rip out its heart. It was a vividly gruesome act.
Delighting the Ears
In the role of Angelica was Francesca Aspromonte, and a fine impression she made indeed. Possessing a wonderfully well-balanced voice and exhibiting a refined and secure technique, she created an impressive reading. Her opening aria, “Un raggio di speme,” in which she sings of her hopes and fears displayed a sparkling coloratura, packed with subtle embellishments, while the aria “ Chiara al pari di lucida stella” allowed her to demonstrate the detailed subtlety she can bring to her singing, in which she employed a beautiful array of shades to enhance her phrasing. Moreover, her vocal control is so well-founded that she was able to spin out long graceful lines without any loss of quality. If one was to be churlish then it was possible to identify a slight hardening of the voice at the edges in her upper range, but, otherwise, this was a performance to delight the ears.
One of the many high points of the “Orlando Furioso” is Ruggiero’s aria “Sol da te, mio dolce amore,” accompanied by an obbligato for traverse flute. It is a sublime aria which, if done well, captures the emotional intensity of a lover’s longing, and in this rendition by the countertenor, Carlo Vistoli as Ruggiero, it did not fail. Vistoli delicately caressed each word, burnishing each phrase with a melancholic intensity. He then followed this up with a further two arias which were equally well-delivered, “Che bel morirti in sen” and “Come l’onda,” the latter portraying an agitated emotional state, which allowed Vistoli to showcase his ample vocal skills. His voice is strong across the range with a wonderful flexibility which he employs with considerable subtlety and expressivity. Moreover, it is a voice with inherent beauty.
Other Major Successes
The role of Bradamante was played by the contralto, Loreana Castellano, who also essayed the part in Valle D’Itria, and confirmed the very good impression she made in the role. Her most satisfying aria was probably “Asconderò il mio sdegno.” Her voice is strong and flexible, which she employed skillfully, displaying agility and a fine palette of colors.
The countertenor Raffaello Pè, essaying the role of Medoro for the first time, did not disappoint. Looking every part the passionate lover with his long flowing locks, Pè’s singing was nothing if not ardent. His voice is strong, especially in its upper register, and is able to sustain high notes without any loss of power or quality, although he sometimes a lacked a degree of subtlety.
The bass Riccardo Novaro reprised the role of Astolfo. In some ways, this is an unfortunate role to have to perform, as the role never captures the emotional interest of the audience in the way the other roles manage to do. Yet, Novaro had enough gravitas and presence to bring the part alive and put in a solid performance. Although lacking the vocal flexibility that may have had the possibility to take his arias to a higher level he, nevertheless, sang with quality, his phrasing was always thoughtful and varied.
Time to Re-Evaluate the Baroque Repertoire
In the original performance at the Festival delle Valle D’Itria, Diego Fasolis conducted the I Barocchisti Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble, and delivered a scintillating musical experience of the highest quality. In this production, however, he conducted the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, accompanied by a continuo on period instruments. Prior to the performance this was certainly a concern, given the substantial difference that would undoubtedly exist in the sound, and during the overture, nothing happened to dispel these concerns; the orchestra sounded heavy, even leaden, and dense compared to the lighter sound of the I Barocchisiti. Yet, Fasolis soon had everything back under control, the rhythmic vitality he imposed on the orchestra quickly established a vibrancy and, with the balance created through the perfectly integrated sound of the continuo, managed to produce the suitable lighter sound for this type of work. Although maybe not to the standard of I Barocchisti, it was nevertheless a convincing and beautiful reading of the work. Moreover, Fasolis excellent control of the musical forces ensured that the singers were given the necessary support and space to perform to the very highest level.
In the programme notes Fasolis laments the fact it is Handel who dominates the baroque repertoire in the theatres that work with baroque music, stating that “It is time things changed and we gave Vivaldi the place he deserves.” Based upon this production of “Orlando Furioso” it is something against which it is difficult to argue, for this is a gripping work, both dramatically and musically, and certainly equal to the works of Handel. The mad scene is as innovative as it is a psychologically persuasive portrait of Orlando’s madness. Vivaldi used a variety of forms, mixing dry and accompanied recitative with arias and occasional ensemble pieces in way that kept the audience engaged with the drama, although admittedly there were numerous cuts to shorten the work that would otherwise have lasted four hours, However, that probably says more about the tastes of a modern audience than the work itself.
Overall, this was production of “Orlando Furioso” was a sheer delight and impossible not to enjoy, and should not be missed, if at all possible.