With the end of the Proms, BBC Radio 3’s cycle of Handel’s operas resumes on September 17th with Orlando. In this extract from Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, Winton Dean looks at the composer’s introduction of the figure of Zoroastro into the opera:
Handel’s choice of this subject marked a sharp change of direction from the heroic/epic/historical plots that had occupied him almost continuously since Amadigi in 1717 towards magic and romantic subjects. It may well have been the discovery of Ariosto that governed not only the follow-up with Ariodante and Alcina but a more relaxed attitude to classical stories in Arianna and Atalanta. He was to revert to the epic-historical type, less successfully, for four more operas before modifying his approach towards a lighter, ironical manner in his last three.
The libretto of Orlando poses a number of questions. Both the literary ancestor, Aariosto’s epic Orlando furioso, and the source libretto, Carlo Sigismondo Capeci’s L’Orlando, overo la gelosa pazzia, produced in the private roman theatre of the exiled Queen Maria Casimira of Poland in 1711 with music by Domenico Scarlatti, are known. But Handel’s libretto is no mere adjustment of the old text to suit local conditions in London, whether of taste or for a particular cast of singers. It takes a radically new direction. Although Ariosto’s poem is full of sorcery and sorcerers, the Angelica–Medoro–Orlando story is conducted on a purely human level, as it is in Capeci. Neither Zoroastro nor Dorinda appears in Ariosto, and Zoroastro is not in Capeci, or any other Ariosto libretto of the period. His commanding figure shifts the whole focus of the plot, introducing the element of magic and spectacle and controlling the destiny of the characters by acting as a benevolent deus ex machina. Where did he come from, and who brought him into Orlando?
Reinhard Strohm in a fascinating essay points out that Zoroastro figures in several contemporary operas on the Babylonian Semiramis story, generally as a rival monarch using his powers for his own ends; but in Johann Ulrich König’s Ninus und Semiramis, set conjecturally by G. C. Schürmann for Brunswick in 1730, he brings the plot to an end by acting as peacemaker. König was a friend of Mattheson and Brockes in Hamburg, a circle with which Handel may have been in touch. A contributory model could have been Ariosto’s Atlante, Ruggiero’s tutor, who casts plenty of spells in Orlando furioso, notably in the Alcina story. It may be more than a coincidence that Handel’s Orlando opens with a tableau showing atlas (Atlante) sustaining the heavens on his shoulders.
Capeci was an early member of the Arcadian Academy in Rome, the group dedicated to substituting a reasoned classicism for the extravagances of the seventeenth-century libretto. His Orlando eschews not only magic and spectacle but the mixture of comic and serious language so repugnant to the Arcadians. His Dorinda is very different from Handel’s; though a shepherdess, she uses the same elevated speech as the other characters, including Isabella and Zerbino, the chivalrous lovers suppressed in Handel’s opera. Orlando himself, it is true, was by tradition an ambivalent figure; Dent aptly likens him to Don Quixote. A hero who confuses the identity of the persons he meets, mistakes a shepherdess for Venus, rushes about invoking the ancient gods, and constantly expresses himself in the most extravagant language (though there is less of all this in Capeci’s libretto than in Handel’s) could be treated as a comic figure, and often was. A madman was fair game for laughs. It is possible to imagine a number of scenes in Handel’s libretto, especially the conclusion of Act II and Orlando’s confrontation with Dorinda in III.iii, as material for the eighteenth-century equivalent of an Offenbach farce. We do not know how Scarlatti coped with this, since his music is lost. It is only Handel’s music that converts these episodes into profound psychological drama.
We can surely credit Handel with the general plan of the opera and the introduction of Zoroastro. He presumably had a collaborator, and one of no little skill. Who was he? Strohm puts forward Nicola Haym, who adapted the librettos of Handel’s most successful royal academy operas. But Haym died on 31 July 1729, and Orlando was not composed till the autumn of 1732. Moreover if, as Strohm suggests, the inspiration for Orlando came from Handel’s visit to Italy in 1728–29, which ended with his return to England on 29 June, Haym would have had barely a month – the last month of his life – in which to confer with Handel and write the libretto. There is a stronger argument against Haym's authorship. The part of Zoroastro was clearly conceived for a powerful bass, such as Montagnana, who created it, and who did not reach London until autumn 1731, whereas in both the 1729/30 and 1730/1 seasons Handel had only mediocre singers for the bass parts, Riemschneider and Commano. Riemschneider was a failure in Lotario and allowed only one aria in Partenope, and in any case was a high baritone; Commano in Poro had no arias at all.
Handel’s collaborator remains a mystery.
More can be found in Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 by Winton Dean (Boydell Press 2006). The first volume of this monumental study – Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 – which Dean wrote with John Merill Knapp - will soon be available again in a matching edition and the two volumes as a set. An essential purchase for anyone who has rediscovered these marvellous works through the BBC season.