War Horse - Dartmoor, 1912 John Williams
An epic Italian poem from the 16th century has inspired more classical music than any other work of literature. Here are a few of the best.
‘Orlando Furioso’ is an Italian epic poem by Ariosto which first appeared in 1516 and was published complete in 1532. The real Orlando was an 8th-century military leader who served the Frankish warrior king Charlemagne. Ariosto turned the story into a 46-part poem about Christians versus Saracens, sorcery and seduction, secret weddings and concealed identity - and composers were thrilled by the amount of material they could turn into great operas.
Francesca Caccini's take on the Orlando story is probably the first opera written by a woman, and possibly the first Italian opera to ever be performed outside of Italy.
This opera based on Orlando Furioso was first performed in Rome in a lavish production at the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane. The composer Rossi was criticised for giving too much music to his friend, the castrato Marc Antonio Pasqualini, who played Bradamante, at the expense of the other roles. Some of the highly complicated stage machinery failed to work during the performance too.
French King Louis XIV commissioned Lully (pictured) to write 'Roland' at a time when the sovereign had reaffirmed his religious faith and wanted to impose Catholic orthodoxy on his country. Thus the Christian knight Orlando's rediscovery of his sacred mission was an ideal subject for the times. The opera premiered in the stables at Versailles, which had been specially adapted for the occasion.
Mostly admired today as an instrumental composer, Albinoni was well-loved in his own time as an opera composer. Most of his operatic works have been lost, though, having not been published during his lifetime. This Ariosto adaptation of 'Alcina deluded by Roger' received 'common applause' at its premiere. No music survives.
Vivaldi liked the sagas of Orlando so much he set them twice - the 1727 'Orlando furioso', an opera in three acts, was preceded by another version in 1714 set to much the same libretto. The story line combines several plot lines from Ariosto: the exploits of the hero Orlando are featured, as well as the tale of the sorceress Alcina.
One of Handel's best works, 'Ariodante' - also based on 'Orlando Furioso' - is a tale of honour lost and regained. It's a perfect example of Baroque opera, with all the necessary intrigue, betrayals, duels, false assignations and pomp.
Handel found Ariosto's deceitful sorceress Alcina such a dramatic challenge that he named a whole opera after her. After its premiere in 1735, it fell into obscurity until the 20th century. Joan Sutherland (pictured) sang the role in a production by Franco Zeffirelli in which she made her debut at La Fenice, Venice, in February 1960.
Piccinni, born in Naples in 1728, spent a number of years in Paris where he got a bit hijacked by the media, who spun an entirely fictitious rivalry between him and Gluck. His 'Roland' is part of a late 18th century trend for resetting libretti that had been written for Lully, the first major French opera composer, almost a century earlier.
A rare opera by Haydn, 'Orlando Paladino' predates Mozart's Don Giovanni by five years and is a similar mix of the comic and the dramatic - it's even known as a 'dramma eroicomico'. In 2009, the Berlin Staatsoper gave the opera a storybook staging.
Etienne Méhul, born in 1763, was possibly the first composer to be called Romantic with a capital R: he was certainly an important opera composer in France – between 1790 and 1822 he wrote more than 30 of them. His ‘Ariodant’ is based on the same episode in ‘Orlando Furioso’ that also inspired Handel's ‘Ariodante’. The work had a profound influence on the development of Romantic opera, particularly in Germany.
Donizetti's music teacher Mayr was considered by some to be greater than Beethoven. Rossini, no less, deemed Mayr a rival. For his version of 'Orlando Furioso', Mayr gave stratospheric solos to the characters of Ginevra and the castrato role of Ariodante.