Georg Friedrich Händel
Unknown librettist, based on a text by Carlo Sigismondo Capece after Ludovico Ariosto
Munich First Performance on 19th May 2006 at the Nationaltheater
David Alden, Experiments in the Laboratory. Thoughts on Händel’s Orlando
Orlando is – as far as its musical side is concerned – definitely one of Händel’s most bucolic Arcadian works, with many impressions of nature and a light erotic touch. But the libretto to which this music is set is basically very bitter and sad. We may find the usual loving couples with their problems and misapprehensions, and there are certainly some comedy aspects, but towards the end the plot keeps getting darker and darker, and to me the usual Händel lieto fine is one of the cruelest happy endings ever. The hero (Orlando) doesn’t win the girl he loves (Angelica) – he conquers himself; a subject Händel had already worked into his Rodrigo opera back in 1707 – Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria. And it is Orlando’s self-conquest or better said: this victory over love that was, right from the beginning, the declared objective of the man of reason Zoroastro. The music of this happy ending is, in the usual Händel style, an elegant, jolly ensemble, but somewhat longer than his usual operatic finales, somewhat more complicated, almost oratorio-like and with a hint of awful irony. Händel, who is always a powerfully ironic artist, plays this card perhaps even stronger than in any of his other works.
Now, there’s nothing basically wrong about conquering oneself, but if, in the process, we also conquer love, this makes the whole affair more problematic, and that is exactly the tragedy in this opera. Orlando is known as a heroic soldier, but he suffers from a psychological problem: he can’t decide between his love for Princess Angelica and his fame as a warrior. In his first arioso, “Stimulato dalla gloria” he reveals his full awareness of this problem: he knows that he must make up his mind. This happens in his second aria: “Non fu già man forte, Alcide” in which he reflects on the fact that even great mythological heroes like Hercules or Achilles lost none of their heroism when they laid in the arms of a woman or put down their weapons for a while. It’s quite clear: in this aria, Orlando decides in favor of love. Interestingly enough however, Händel has this decision accompanied by horns, which usual play when a hero decides in favor of battle. This way we can subliminally sense the perilous confusion between love and war in Orlando’s heart and the conflict he suffers through, and which will very soon burst into the open.
After all, it is just this confusion in Orlando’s mind that Zoroastro takes exploits. On the outside a man of reason and enlightenment, over the course of the action he keeps getting more and more dangerous. His parlance fatally reminds me of the virtue-and-honor vocabulary of Goffredo and Eustazio in Rinaldo – we have to watch out for the attitude of people who speak of clear paths, because there are always other ones concealed beneat them – and generally negative destructive impulses, which don’t come to the surface until later in the course of time, i.e. the drama. That’s the case with Zoroastro in Orlando. He may not quite realize how much power he has over the other characters, but in any case he uses them all like marionettes for his own purposes. He may possibly have arranged all the events before the curtain rises (and thus the point of departure of the drama) himself: Orlando’s rescue of Angelica after which the two fell in love, and the insertion of the seductive foreign warrior Medoro, whom Angelica and Dorinda have nursed back to health and in whom they have both fallen in love, without Orlando finding out about it. We can really sense that these four young people were intentionally brought together by Zoroastro: they’re like little mice in a laboratory, whom Zoroastro uses for a controlled experiment.
One of his ploys is arousing jealousy in Orlando through the introduction of Medoro. Orlando obviously hasn’t had much experience with women yet, we can see that clearly during Angelica’s aria, “Se fedel vuol ch’io ti creda” at a point in time when he is still knows nothing of her love for Medoro. In this piece, Angelica proves herself to be a crackerjack at playing the game of love. She is a rich young lady, who manages to leave us in the dark on the feelings she has for Orlando or Medoro and whom we really can’t trust. In the course of the drama she may undergo a development, but at the beginning she is still a dangerous player. She knows for certain that her accusations about Orlando having another princess are false, but she somehow wants to extricate herself from the affair with him to be free for Medoro. And the way she plays with Orlando in this first aria and ultimately tosses him aside, this is a seduction scene that reveals all of Orlando’s naïveté, inexperience and insecurity in affairs of the heart.
When Orlando then finds out about Angelica’s love for Medoro, he first contemplates suicide, In his sarcastic and bitter aria, “Cielo! Se tu il consenti” he suddenly starts talking to heaven and the gods, begging them for death. In our production, Orlando walks over to a broken telephone at this point in his attempt to contact the gods – right here we can see that he is starting to go downhill. He becomes a stalker, follows Angelica all over the place, disguises himself as a tree while she sings her aria of farewell, “Verdi piante” to the trees, he attacks her, nearly rapes and kills her. And then (toward the end of the second act) when she gets away from him, Orlando slowly slips into the world of insanity (“Ah! stigie larve!”, he fantasizes that he has died and is now descending into the underworld, where he encounters the furies, seeing Angelica and Medoro as the most horrible furies. Now he really turns into a “raging Roland”.
But Zoroastro is still not finished with him; Orlando still has to go a few steps farther before he is – so to speak – either healed or totally lost. This is why Zoroastro creates a virtual war around Orlando in the third act, during of which Orlando kills Angelica and Medoro. This is exactly what Zoroastro had set out to accomplish; he had to get Orlando to kill someone. By killing his beloved, Orlando also kills the love in himself, which will transform him forever. After this murder scene Orlando takes us completely unawares with the most beautiful aria in this work: “Già l’ebro mio ciglio”. He can feel the night, he can feel Morpheus, the god of sleep, coming to him, softly accompanied by two viole d’amore (which we use here instead of the originally scored violette marine, which are no longer available today). The aria is like a tender kiss, like a lullaby for a child, with which Orlando sings himself to sleep. When he wakes up and discovers what has happened, he again contemplates suicide. Not until Zoroastro brings Angelica and Medoro back to life, does Orlando feel assuaged from his guilt. But the love in him remains killed. Orlando can now become the perfect warrior, which, in Zoroastro’s opinion, he should have been in the first place.
For me as stage director, the basic story of Orlando is no problem in and of itself. It is clearly told, and it is very easy to accompany him on his journey. The whole thing gets much more complicated because of all the other characters with their romantic complications and their consequences. We have Dorinda, who might have been a charming, slightly tragi-comic supporting character, then we have the lovers Angelica and Medoro, who seem so false at the beginning, cold players of the love game, he with Dorinda and she with Orlando. How do we bring all the affairs and romantic complications together? The thought virtually forces itself on us that Zoroastro, the “magician” has all these people under his control, because the plot has all the trappings of a scientific experiment. The only reason why Orlando, Angelica, Dorinda and Medoro’s paths have crossed, in my eyes, is this one: they have been brought together to serve a purpose. They all go off on a journey, undergo a development and are totally altered at the end, not just Orlando as a consequence of the brainwashing Zoroastro has subjected him to.
The only one who manages to survive Zoroastro’s experiment more or less unchanged is perhaps Medoro. He is the exotically attractive seducer, a mysterious figure with the allure of a snake charmer, whom Zoroastro has introduced as a “disruptive factor” to thwart Orlando’s love for Angelica. Medoro is aware of his effect on women, he isn’t heartless, but he can be dangerous. It occurs to us that we see him together with Dorinda more frequently than with Angelica. We might almost surmise that before he turned to Angelica, he perhaps an affair with Dorinda, which he would now like to keep warm for possible future use. He may say that he has now fallen in love with somebody else, but the music is so seductive that we can’t get that thought out of our heads: here is a man who can move from one woman to another without a hitch, while still hanging on to his former beloved as an alternative. This is why the genuineness of his love for Angelica is so hard to define.
Angelica, on the other hand, begins her journey in our staging as a kind of Paris Hilton figure, a very wealthy and self-confident young lady without morality, who is ready to help herself to whatever comes along at any given moment, and nonchalantly toys with her fellow human beings. Later, however, she begins to develop guilty feelings toward Orlando, recognizing her part in the causes of his madness. During the war scenes in the third act she is also close to losing her own mind, and at the end she is totally changed. Perhaps even destroyed.
Dorinda is presumably the character with which the audience finds it easiest to identify: a perfectly normal young lady, who in our production works as a secretary to Zoroastro in his secret office and concurrently also runs a nearby motel, in which Angelica and Medoro are now staying. Perhaps she also works as a prostitute for soldiers. In any case she is a part of Zoroastro’s plan. And she is unfortunately in love with Medoro and has to come to grips with the realization that he will not decide in her favor. At the beginning she understands very little of love, at the end, after much suffering, she is very bitter towards love. But nevertheless she then has – like Orlando – the strength to conquer herself and accept Angelica and Medoro as a couple. In a certain way, Dorinda is our window to this drama; we see everything a bit through her eyes.
© Bavarian State Opera
English Translation by Donald Arthur