Vivaldi: Orlando finto pazzo

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

This is Vivaldi’s second opera (at least that we know of), performed for the first time in 1714, the same year that his amazing set of 12 violin concertos called “La stravaganza” appeared. Already known as a knockout composer for violin, Vivaldi clearly had no intention of disappointing those who admired him for his string writing just because he was becoming a composer of operas–and anyone listening to Orlando finto pazzo will have to notice the virtuoso string playing in addition to the outrageous demands made on the singers. Argillano’s first aria, sung with amazing speed and subtlety by mezzo Manuela Custer, ends with a violin cadenza that’s so remarkable that the audience at the time must have been left (as we are) breathless. The next aria, for Grifone (countertenor Martin Oro), is accompanied only by mellow pizzicato strings that seem almost like subconscious movements as the singer quickly and deftly describes a bee flitting from flower to flower, making honey. Throughout the opera the strings appear in dozens of different combinations with the singers (even the violas have a grand old time)–perhaps they should be on the stage with the vocalists. The occasional addition of horns, trumpets, and flutes add color, but the strings are the thing.

And it’s a good thing that the singing and string playing is of such grand virtuoso quality, since except in its broadest outline the opera’s plot is almost unfollowable and uninteresting. Baroque operas have notoriously, well, Baroque plots, but this one is so bizarre that Opus 111 deems necessary the inclusion of a diagram in the booklet to explain the characters’ inter-relationships, and who’s disguised as whom. This Orlando is not taken from the usual Ariosto “Orlando furioso”, the basis not only of Vivaldi’s opera of the same name but of Handel’s Orlando and Alcina, Lully’s Roland, and countless others. It is from a play by Boiardo, and while it also involves conspiracies, love, sorcery, and madness, here Orlando’s madness is pretended (unlike in Ariosto, where he goes genuinely batty). There’s plenty of recitative and even more arias; the opera runs to about three hours, with 25 minutes of alternate arias included at the end of Disc 3.

The highest tessitura is given to Ersilla, here sung by soprano Gemma Bertagnolli, who cajoles, tricks, and charms all around her, racing away madly at the opera’s close. Bertagnolli is a fine singer, executing Vivaldi’s rapid-fire runs, trills, and razzle-dazzle with ease, but her light sound hardly suggests evil. The lowest tessitura is Orlando’s, sung by bass Antonio Abete. Another excellent singer, Abete makes the most of what Vivaldi has given him: he has two brief arias and his mad scenes are mostly in lengthy recitatives. Handel’s Orlando behaves similarly, but it’s more effective in his opera than it is in Vivaldi’s. But at least we always know when our two protagonists are singing–they sound like no one else in the cast.

The remainder of the voices sit in the middle–three mezzos, a contralto, and a countertenor. The four mid-voiced women, much to the credit of whoever did the casting, are easy to differentiate. Weakest is Marianna Pizzolato’s Brandimarte (a friend of Orlando’s); her timbre is uninteresting and she’s the only singer who has trouble with the fiendish coloratura. Manuela Custer, as Argillano (a baddie, on Ersilla’s side) scrambles up and down the staff with fire and drama (as mentioned above), and Sonia Prina, as Orgille (a woman disguised as a man, of whom Ersilla is enamored), lacks only a certain bite to her burnished sound to be entirely effective. Marina Comparato is a spitfire with a big sound as Tigranda, the “priestess of potions”, and she’s utterly shameless about showing off her coloratura ability and low notes. Martin Oro, as Grifone, a pal of Orlando’s disguised as a woman, uses his countertenor with ease and a nice legato.

As suggested, Alessandro de Marchi’s Academia Montis Regalis is a prodigious band, and he leads the whole performance as if this were a great opera. I suspect it isn’t; as an entertainment with amazing singing and playing, however, it is superb. Listening in one sitting is a mistake–all those roulades can cause dizziness.

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Recording Details:

ANTONIO VIVALDI - Orlando finto pazzo

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