A magical production of Agostino Steffani’s Orlando generoso opened the 20th incarnation of the Boston Early Music Festival’s biannual exhibition and concert extravaganza on Sunday. Half barricaded by construction fencing on Tremont Street, the beautifully restored Cutler Emerson Majestic Theater offered an exquisite haven of disbelief for a tale of thwarted loves, mistaken identities, sudden transformations and, above all, human frailties.
Born in Castelfranco, near Venice, in 1654, Steffani spent most of his life in Germany, and died in Frankfurt in 1728. As a boy soprano he sang at major churches in Padua, Ferrara, and Vicenza, as well as in operas in Venice. Discovered and taken to Munich in 1667 by the Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria, he sang in the court opera and was also provided with organ lessons. In 1672 he went to Rome to study composition, returning to Munich two years later and soon becoming known for his organ and harpsichord playing. Between 1678 and 1679 Steffani visited Paris, where he played before Louis XIV and became acquainted with the music of Lully. With the death of the Elector and the accession of his son, Maximilian Emanuel, Steffani’s found his career at the Munich court developing rapidly. He was soon appointed director of chamber music, and his first opera Marco Aurelio was staged. (The last of his Munich operas, Niobe, regina di Tebe, was performed and recorded at the Boston Early Musica Festival in 2011.) Steffani also engaged in secret diplomacy when he was asked to explore the possibility of a marriage between the elector and Princess Sophie Charlotte of Hanover.
In summer 1688 he entered the service of Duke Ernst August of Hanover. The duke established the first permanent Italian opera company in Hanover and built a magnificent new theatre for it, importing leading Italian singers and appointing Steffani as Kapellmeister. Opera was a means of enhancing the international reputation of the duke’s court and achieving the elevation of his duchy to an electorate in the Holy Roman Empire. He already had an Italian court poet, Ortensio Mauro, and his orchestra included players from France and the Low Countries. The Hanover opera lasted only eight years, but was known throughout the Continent. Orlando generoso was first performed in 1691 and revived in German translation for the Hamburg opera in 1696. Ortensio Mauro, its librettist, was secretary and councillor to the dukes of Hanover, a priest and abbate, and a central figure in the Catholic community in Protestant Hanover. The story is taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, written between 1502 and 1506 and widely read in Italy in the following century. It harks back to the story of the Frankish knight Roland depicted in the Chanson de Roland (ca. 1100). Ariosto’s Orlando is a fearless and invincible knight driven mad by his infatuation with the princess Angelica. By adding the pair of lovers, Ruggiero (Roger) and Bradamante, Ariosto paid homage to their supposed descendants, the d’Este family who were his patrons. In the Baroque era, Among the earliest operas based on Ariosto’s poem was Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s Island. 1625), masterfully performed in a chamber version by the Boston Early Music Festival ensemble last November.
At the Cutler Emerson Majestic, the BEMF orchestra, led by concertmaster Robert Mealy, sat in two rows, with first and second violins facing each other and the sizable continuo group, led by Paul O’Dette, theorbo, Stephen Stubbs, Baroque guitar, and Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, on the right. Oboes, recorders, bassoons, viola da gamba, and percussion provided additional instrumental color in a number of arias. The opera’s typically French Overture consisted of a slow movement in stately dotted rhythms followed by a sprightly triple-meter fugue. The curtain opened on a valley in the Pyrenees, topped by the enchanted castle of the sorcerer Atlante, a desolate cavern at its foot. The warrior maiden, Bradamante (soprano Emöke Baráth) has bound and tied the thief Brunello (tenor Zachary Wilder) to a tree after wresting from him the ring that serves as her charm against magic. Atlante has imprisoned her lover Ruggiero and she is determined to free him. Baráth’s ringing tones and belligerent stance were entirely in character with the intrepid warrior maidens well known from crusader epics. Atlante (baritone Jesse Blumberg) descends from the sky mounted on a hippogriff, a fantastic creature with the body of a horse and the head of an eagle. He has imprisoned Ruggiero only to protect him from his fated marriage to Bradamante. In stentorian tones he brandishes his magic shield, but Bradamante only pretends to be blinded by it. Atlante concedes defeat temporarily and breaks the spell, causing the castle and the lovely valley to disappear, giving place to a desert. Ruggiero (countertenor Christopher Lowrey) is liberated, and the reunited lovers sing a duet to a simple strophic bass, Lowrey’s restrained and mellifluous alto a foil to Baráth’s softened tones. But inexplicably, Ruggiero flies off on the hippogriff (thanks to the stage machinery provided by ZFX, Inc.) and Bradamante is left to muse that happiness is only fleeting. As Atlante bemoans his loss of power, Brunello, still tied up, reveals himself as a comic trickster who can divulge secrets if only he is untied and rewarded accordingly. In an affecting soliloquy alternating expressive recitative with virtuoso aria ornamentation, and accompanied — pastoral style — by two recorders, Bradamante falls asleep as she mourns the loss of Ruggiero. Her protector, the good sorceress Melissa, descends from a cloud and invokes aerial spirits to carry her away. Now we meet the other star-crossed pair of lovers, Angelica (soprano Amanda Forsythe) and Medoro (Kacper Szelążek), a peasant shepherd whom she has secretly married without the knowledge of her father, Galafro, King of Cathay. After disguising Angelica as a shepherdess so she can approach her father incognito, Szelążek, a nimble countertenor possessed of ringing high notes, sings of his good fortune. In the next scene, an exotic display of imagined oriental splendor at the court of Cathay, Galafro, resplendent in a yellow robe, suspects the timid Medoro as a foreigner and takes him prisoner. As Galafro, the Italian countertenor Flavio Ferri Benedetti railed against the cruelty of suspicion in a brilliant display of incisive high notes, surprising us with a momentary dip into an unexpected baritone. When Orlando finally made his first appearance, mad for love of Angelica, his soliloquy laid out the opera’s central dilemma as a conflict between love and duty. Tenor Aaron Sheehan’s superb musicianship guided him through a thicket of conflicting emotions in an expressive recitative, followed by a bravura aria in which he displayed extraordinary power and breath control. Confusion reigned in the following scenes. Angelica believes Medoro has forsaken her; Bradamante has lost Ruggiero; Orlando believes he recognizes Angelica, but she only repeats “I am not she,” adding to his confusion as he swears his fidelity to her. Act I concluded with the descent of a fearful dragon containing the magician Atlante and assorted spirits. As the spirits execute a ballet in the French style, Brunello promises to recover the magic ring from Bradamante: after all, ladies steal souls and hearts, so stealing from them is no crime. Acts II and III combine the psychological confusion of Orlando with the two pairs of magically ensnared and jealous lovers, increasingly confused by mistaken identities they cannot fathom and disembodied voices they cannot trace. In a dungeon soliloquy, Orlando comes to his senses. Galafro recognizes Angelica as his daughter.The grotto has become the royal palace of Cathay and Atlante has disappeared, leaving the king, the hero, and the lovers to draw their own moralistic conclusions.
Throughout this enchanting spectacle, the tragedy of human frailty intersected with the comedy of the lovers’ hopeless situations, all directed with verve and assurance by Gilbert Blin. Adding to our sense of wonderment were the ballets, directed by Melinda Sullivan and choreographed by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, and the stunning costumes by Anna Watkins. The painted sets by Gilbert Blin and Kate Noll transported us seamlessly from one fantastic world to another. The extraordinary degree of skillful collaboration demonstrated by the entire cast, orchestra, and production staff of this elaborate drama in all its refinement was proof that some things are still going right. Repeat performances are scheduled for June 12th and 14th at 7 pm and June 16th at 3:30 pm. Absolutely not to be missed!
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.