Orlando furioso was a work in progress for Antonio Vivaldi during the most productive years of his maturity as a composer. He created several operas on the same subject, starting in 1714, with a version that did not find favour with the public, to arrive at the version of 1727, presented in this season in Venice.

Sonia Prina (Orlando)
© Festival della Valle d’Itria di Martina Franca

La Fenice revived Fabio Ceresa’s spectacular production, from last year’s Festival in Martina Franca. Ceresa recreates a true Baroque opera, featuring splendid costumes (with camp overtones) by Giuseppe Palella, moving elements on stage to create the different environments, papier mâché monsters animated by dancers. The dancers, from Fattoria Vittadini, were on stage most of the time, animating the scene for glamorous visual effects, while the singers’ movements were more minimalistic and stereotypical. It was joyous and fun; a nice break, after so many productions with travelling salesmen and desperate housewives pretending to be magicians and paladins.

Diego Fasolis is one of the benchmark conductors for “historically-informed” Vivaldi performances. He was leading an ensemble constituted by elements of the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, enhanced with some Baroque specialists. The instruments (as far as I could tell) had modern, metal strings, with a 440Hz tuning. Fasolis conducted from the harpsichord with his usual vigour and total command of the music; the continuo (harpsichord, archlute and cello) was dynamic and engaging. The performance suffered from heavy cuts, about 40 minutes of music; most of them aimed at simplifying the story, removing the many subplots leading nowhere, typical of Baroque operas. The result was a more streamlined plot, and the loss of one aria per character.

Orlando furioso
© Festival della Valle d’Itria di Martina Franca

Sonia Prina, in the title role, confirmed her status as a true Baroque specialist. Her voice had some acidic overtones in the top register: the edge in her high notes was sometimes very sharp. However, her command of the coloratura and the style was excellent. One of the best features of her performance was her commitment to the role – she inhabited the character of Orlando with fearless arrogance in all his incarnations: lover, warrior, madman. The madness scene was impressive. Vivaldi employs only the continuo to support every emotion, every flutter of Orlando’s heart, in a detailed psychological characterisation expressed almost entirely in recitativo secco, with the strings entering only at the end to support his explosion of rage.

Lucia Cirillo was Alcina, whose countenance on stage reminded me of a silent movie diva. Alcina is the only other character, besides Orlando, who is fully three-dimensional. She shows different sides of her personality, turning from a scheming con-woman to a full-throttle evil witch, who is still truly broken hearted after Ruggiero’s abandonment. Cirillo, with her warm mezzo, was in full command of the music and of her enchanted island, a true queen.

Angelica was Francesca Aspromonte, a young singer whose silvery soprano was perfectly suited to the role of the ambiguous, mellifluous character. Her voice was less convincing in her middle register, so that the aria “Chiara al pari di lucida stella”, with a somewhat lower tessitura, was perhaps less successful than the others. In this aria she seduces Orlando, in an attempt to lead him to his ruin (so she can be rid of him). Aspromonte and Prina showed great chemistry, with Prina very believable as the invincible knight completely captivated by the charms of the beautiful, cunning Angelica.

The reason Angelica wants to get rid of Orlando is because of her lover Medoro, sung by Raffaele Pè. He had a shaky beginning, his voice losing focus (and, at times, even intonation) in the first aria, the formidable “Rompo i ceppi”. It might have been nerves, because, as the evening progressed, he recovered his command of the role, and showed a beautiful, high, clear countertenor voice, a confident coloratura and a funny interpretation of the conventional, naive, somewhat silly lover.

Orlando furioso
© Festival della Valle d’Itria di Martina Franca

The other countertenor in the cast, Carlo Vistoli, as Ruggiero, impressed with his smooth, uniform timbre and his furious coloratura. Ruggiero has two of the most moving arias in the whole opera: “Sol da te, mio dolce amore” in act 1, and “Piangerò sinché l’onda del pianto” in Act 2. The first is remarkable for the duet between voice and transverse flute, an instrument which, at Vivaldi’s time, was almost unknown to Venetian audiences. The flute part is seductive and of considerable virtuosity, admirably performed by Stefano Bet.

Bradamante, Ruggiero’s betrothed, was Loriana Castellano, whose deep, burnished alto perfectly characterised the fiery warrior, as well as the jealous lover. Riccardo Novaro convinced as Astolfo with a fine performance.

The audience of Teatro Malibran, despite engaging in conversation during the whole performance, seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, and saluted the artists with warm cheers.