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Opera on DVD: Vivaldi's Orlando furioso

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Antonio Vivaldi, Orlando furioso, Marilyn Horne, Susan Patterson, Kathleen Kuhlmann, San Francisco Opera (1990)
I've been steadily working my way through the operas on DVD in my Netflix queue (see previous posts on this topic here, here, here, and here). We are still really discovering the operas of Vivaldi, so I was happy to see the staged production of that composer's Orlando furioso from San Francisco Opera. My dissertation was a comparison of court ballets and operas in France derived from four stories taken from Ariosto and Tasso, so I find any opera related to those epics interesting by default. (Marion Lignana Rosenberg's essay on Orlando furioso for Playbill is a great introduction to the epic.) However, what this opera does to Ariosto is try to compress all of the major storylines and characters into far too short a space. (Having looked at a lot of musical works derived from Ariosto and Tasso, I think that one narrative thread of these complicated epics is more than enough material for an opera libretto.) Let me not mince words: the libretto of this opera is a mishmash, a pathetic frame on which to hang some glorious arias.

The singing in this production is definitely worth suffering through the libretto, and to produce this opera well, you need a cast with no weak links. This one is excellent, beginning with the incomparible Marilyn Horne in the title role (created by the contralto Lucia Lancetti, one of the first great trouser-role specialists in Venice in the 18th century). Horne had such incredible resonance in her low range, combined with nearly flawless agility, all of which she had to use to navigate her maze of melismatic arias. (As I learned from the invaluable L'Opéra Baroque Web page of Jean-Claude Brenac, Marilyn Horne's history with this role goes back to the first modern revival of the opera, at Verona's Teatro Filarmonico in June 1978, directed by Claudio Scimone and with James Bowman in the alto castrato role of Ruggiero. More or less the same production was revived in 1981 in Paris for the Festival de France.) Musically, you will have no complaints with the entire cast. The staging was, I thought, somewhat boring for this sort of over-the-top piece, although I enjoyed the dancers who accompanied Alcina (Kathleen Kuhlmann), costumed as marble statues who magically come to life (when I first saw them I thought they were awfully lifelike). Not having heard the recent Naive recording of this opera, I can't tell you how it stacks up, but I have read good things.

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