Nicholas Mcgegan

Into the crazy world of Orlando: From our Handel expert (and Music Director) Nic McGegan

Nicholas McGegan joins us again to let us know what’s so special about George Frideric Handel’s opera Orlando, which the orchestra and chorale will perform in April:

Pictured above is the autographed score of Orlando, one of a series of so-called magic operas by Handel. While the sources of many of his plots are derived from classical history or mythology, the 1733 opera Orlando (as well as Ariodante and Alcina, both of 1735) is based on an Italian epic poem from the Renaissance – Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. Its story is one of extravagant valour and passion taken to the point of madness. Indeed, one could say that works in this genre were parodied by Cervantes in Don Quixote.

Extravagance, passion and madness are, of course, the life blood of opera and it is clear that Handel was inspired by the subject to produce one of his finest works. This is the last opera he wrote for the great alto castrato Senesino (left) for whom he had composed operas for a dozen years. Senesino was a difficult character but a superb singer and, unlike Farinelli, a splendid actor. This must have been a perfect role for him. The Mad Scene that forms the climax to the Second Act is one of the moments of Baroque Opera. Gone are all the normal conventions of the genre, even normal rhythms go awry as Orlando descends (in his own deluded mind) into Hell in five/eight time.

Into this crazy world, Handel, or rather his librettist, introduces two characters who are not found in Ariosto’s original. One is the magus Zoroastro who watches over the mad Orlando and eventually cures him of his insane love for Angelica. He is a wise father figure who will reappear in the Magic Flute as Sarastro. The other is the shepherdess Dorinda who represents an ordinary ‘down to earth girl’ mixed up in the rarified world of chivalrous romance. Her reactions are sometimes comic but she is also emotionally hurt by the crazy grandees about her, who use her and occasionally abuse her. However, she is the contact between us, the audience, and the other characters. This role was created for Celeste Gismondi, a Neapolitan comedienne, newly arrived in London. Obviously, she was an excellent singer and pert actress. It is with her character that we most often sympathise.

Handel’s music is of the highest level throughout and, because of the story, he was inspired to experiment with glorious results. Apart from the famous Mad Scene, the Trio at the end of the First Act is one of the finest ensembles he ever wrote and the aria during which Orlando finally collapses would not be out of place in a Bach Passion.


All this emotional extravagance was matched on stage by new scenery and costumes (like pictured left) specially made for the production. This was unusual at the time and was even noted in the newspapers. In addition, there were flying machines, including a chariot drawn by dragons to take Orlando out of Hell. We are, of course, giving the work in concert, so the audience will have to imagine the magic world on stage that went hand in hand with Handel’s glorious music.