Handel’s Orlando by Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre, Oxford – Oxford Prospect

Handel’s Orlando by Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre, Oxford “Of knights and ladies, of love and war I sing, / Of deeds of valour and of chivalry.” That was how Ariosto described his lengthy epic poem Orlando Furioso, set in the time of Charlemagne and the Crusades. There were operatic versions of this story before Handel’s, as the epic provided librettists with endless material. A tangle of love-stories, heroic deeds or terrible catastrophes, it was a goldmine for stage drama, but it did pose one great challenge – how does a composer, working within the fairly narrow conventions of Baroque opera, adequately present a character who is mad? This is a challenge to which Handel rose amazingly well. His music is inventive, ingenious and expressive, as the character of Orlando ranges from melancholy to distracted jealous fury and uncontrollable rage. Lawrence Zazzo gave a powerful performance in this lead role, showing talents as an actor as well as a singer. Orlando, the war hero, is suffering at the start from what might be termed depression, and refuses to return to the battlefield. The cause is his love for the pagan Angelica, whom he rescued from some monster or other. However, knights have no monopoly on heroism, and Angelica herself saves another knight named Medoro from a similar predicament, and falls in love with him. This is bad news for the fair Dorinda, who has nursed Medoro and secretly loves him herself. Out of a mistaken kindness, he feigns that he does love her, but she is not deceived. Angelica for similar motives pretends to Orlando that she loves him and for a while he is taken in, but his later realisation of the truth is all the more painful. Like Othello, he is consumed by a jealous fury. There is a lexical interchange between words for insanity and extreme anger: the Italian word furioso resembles our English “furious” while in modern America “mad” means “angry” and insanity has to be described as “crazy”.

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