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An Epic Spin-Off: Handel's 'Alcina'

Anja Harteros in the title role of Handel's <em>Alcina</em>, with Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero.
Vienna State Opera
Anja Harteros in the title role of Handel's Alcina, with Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero.

In the entertainment world, a hit can be registered in any number of ways. There are chart-topping songs, television ratings leaders and top-grossing movies. There are also times when a hit song, TV series or film outgrows those usual measures of success and becomes something even bigger: a franchise.

For example, there's the TV show Law & Order. It ended a 20-year run just last year, but by that time it had become more than just a weekly drama series. There have been several spin-off series, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which are still going strong. There was also a Law & Order TV movie, and there are Law & Order video games. The series has morphed into a franchise.

There are franchises at the movies as well--Star Wars and Indiana Jones come to mind. There are some that combine books and films, such as Harry Potter and Twilight. And there has also been at least one, great operatic franchise — rooted in a bestseller that's five centuries old.

Early in the 1500s, the Italian writer Ludovico Ariosto released an epic poem called Orlando Furioso, telling the story of a crusading knight who goes mad over a lost love, then travels the world trying to win her back. A century or so later, when opera was born, Ariosto's passionate characters and exotic settings quickly attracted any number of composers — creating what could be called an "Orlando franchise" in Europe's theaters.

Eventually, so many Orlando operas were written that scholars have never managed to catalogue them all. Vivaldi wrote two of them. Lully wrote one, and so did Haydn. And George Frideric Handel created an Orlando franchise all on his own.

George Frideric Handel realized that Orlando Furioso has plenty of characters — not just Orlando — that are worthy of their own operas. So, while Handel composed three operas based on Ariosto's epic, only one is called Orlando. Another is called Ariodante, after a different lovesick knight. And there's also the opera featured here this week. It's named for one of the epic's most colorful characters, the passionate sorceress Alcina.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Handel's Alcina in a brilliant new production from the Vienna State Opera. Soprano Anja Harteros sings the title role, with mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero, a warrior who falls under Alcina's deadly spell, and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström as Bradamante, a former-lover who braves Alcina's magic to win Ruggiero back.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.