Have you ever wondered what it would be like if someone pulled an Ariadne auf Naxos on Handel’s Orlando and Alcina – i.e. demanded that the two works be performed GLEICHZEITIG – and had Vivaldi write the music?
I never wondered anything remotely like that, but sometimes life brings you answers to questions that you never even realized you hadn’t asked. If you can imagine Orlando and Alcina playing tag team via a series of tour-de-force Vivaldi arias, that is basically Orlando Furioso. It’s pretty entertaining. Basically, what happens is that Orlando shows up on or near Alcina’s island, looking for Angelica, and then Angelica arrives on a boat and rescues Medoro from a raft, and then Alcina shows up, and charms everyone, and then Ruggiero sweeps in on a flying horse (Ruggiero does not get a flying horse in Alcina, which must have been some kind of oversight) and Alcina ensnares him via some magic glitter, and then Bradamante shows up (in a dress! no! wrong!) and then Bradamante gives Ruggiero the magic ring and he sees Alcina as she really is, and Angelica and Medoro decide to get hitched, causing Orlando to go mad, then eventually there is a show down, and Alcina runs away, and it all sort of works itself out in the end. I suppose it has to; this is one of those slightly hyperactive librettos which goes on about as long as it possibly can and then stops.
The libretto did cause me to look one thing up, though. In Act III there is a moment when Astolfo (little Oberto’s father in Alcina – here he is merely another poor soul ensnared by Alcina), Ruggiero and Bradamante are preparing to confront Alcina, and someone mentions that Melissa will help them out. Who is Melissa? Well, you know the Melisso character in Alcina, Ruggiero’s mentor who provides him with the magic ring? As it turns out, in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which is the main source for all this tomfoolery, the character who gives him that magic ring is a sorceress named Melissa. How about that? She doesn’t actually show up in Vivaldi’s opera (Bradamante gives Ruggiero the ring) but I thought it was kind of interesting – and in a sense not surprising – given the gender politics of Alcina that Handel’s librettist made the character a man.
(Also, this is on the verge of an unnecessary digression, but there is a line in this opera in which Alcina tells everyone in no uncertain terms that “If I cannot terrify you, I will terrify the gods of Flegetonte,” which as a threat is lacking in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it caused me to look up “Flegetonte” in the index to my copy of Orlando Furioso; there is no “Flegatonte” in the index, but did you know that there is a character in that work named Fiordiligi? And that she is the lover, later wife, of Orlando’s friend Brandimart, who founded a chain of convenience stores in Aleppo in the early 1200s, and that she is followed, in the index, by a Fiordispina, who is one of those legions of girls who fall in love with Bradamante in disguise?)*
I guess the point of all this is that when the mad Orlando begins spouting French in the third act, causing the terrified Angelica to cry “heavens! What is happening?!” you end up feeling a certain amount of sympathy for both of them. Also, I never really realized this before, but Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso makes more sense if you read the index first.
*The bit about the convenience stores is the only part of that sentence that I made up.