About this work

Orlando is one of Handel's magic operas. Based on Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, its poetry and visual spectacle appealed to Handel's imagination. This opera includes Handel's first attempt to depict human madness in music, which he was to do again in his oratorio Saul. The part of Zoroastre is sumptuous, solemn, grand, and imposing. This noble magician seeks to protect Orlando and the rest of the characters from the consequences of their actions. His music, written for the fabulous bass voice of Antonio Montagnana, holds the opera together, and imbues it with mystery and life. As the opera progresses, passions of the heart tear Orlando to pieces, and as his emotional state becomes wilder and frenzied, the magic of Zoroastre saves him from complete insanity. In order to create this impression of emotional instability, the music becomes rhythmically complex and contains the first instance of the use of quintuple time. It is contained in a rondo-like structure at the end of Act II, during which Orlando raves.

Woven throughout the passions of Orlando's music is the pastoral music of the shepherdess Dorinda, the love music of Angelica and Medoro, and the magical and spectacular music for the special effects. Orlando has often been compared with Mozart's Magic Flute and not unfavorably. It is also thought that the madness of Orlando influenced the creation of the character of Orfeo by Gluck. The music shows the influence of Henry Purcell, and harks back to the time before the Academy when Handel composed the magic operas Rinaldo and Teseo.

The musical forms used in the opera are developed to suit the dramatic and emotional situations. Rigid adherence to da capo forms and the exit convention is dispensed with entirely. Ariosos, modified da capo forms, interrupted arias, elaborately orchestrated recitatives, together with dramatic scenic construction and visual spectacle, help this opera completely transcend the restrictions of opera seria style. There is a marked increase in the use of vocal ensembles as well; there are three duets, and a concerted trio. The duets have completely original forms adapted to the demands of the text and the emotions of the characters. At the climax of Act III, Orlando grabs Angelica physically and throws her bodily into the cave. They alternate singing, and the phrases of each become shorter and shorter. The contrast between the insane Orlando and the despairing Angelica is heightened by a contrast in their accompaniments. She is accompanied only by the basses playing pianissimo, while he has the full complement of the continuo section plus bassoons at a fortissimo dynamic level. The resolution of the drama is built around one of Handel's finest sleep scenes, written for the hero Orlando, and is finished with a concerted vocal ensemble.

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Curated by Chanda VanderHart, Pianist and Musicologist