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Legacy Of An Epic: Vivaldi's 'Orlando Furioso'

Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the crazed title character in 'Orlando Furioso.'
Alvaro Yañez
Champs-Elysées Theatre
Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the crazed title character in 'Orlando Furioso.'

If Antonio Vivaldi had composed Orlando Furioso a couple of centuries earlier than he had, a poet named Ariosto might have gone looking for the nearest copyright lawyer to claim his own share of the action.

There was a time when bestselling writers were among the hottest celebrities on the scene. But when the stories those writers created started turning up in more high-tech forms of entertainment, things began to change.

For example, when you think of Gone with the Wind, are you thinking of a book, or a movie? Probably a movie. The 1939 classic starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh was one of the biggest Hollywood hits of all time, eventually overshadowing the Margaret Mitchell bestseller on which it was based — both in the entertainment industry's limelight and on the bottom line. The film rights to the book did bring a price of $50,000. That was a record at the time, but it's pocket change in light of the movie's earnings since then.

Still, there was a time when authors were even less fortunate when it came to adaptations of their work. Consider what the 16th-century writer Ludovico Ariosto might have hauled in had a new, cutting-edge art form been invented just a few decades earlier.

In 1516, Ariosto came up with an epic poem called Orlando Furioso, filled with passion, violence, mystery and magic. It was an immediate hit and it made Ariosto famous — at least for a while. But the poet died in 1533, so he wasn't around to benefit some 60 years later, when a group of inventive writers and musicians in Italy joined forces to create the genre we call opera. The new form of theater gave Ariosto's story a new lease on life that it still enjoys today — while the original poem and its creator have faded into literary history.

Ariosto's epic began inspiring operas in the 1620s, and dozens of composers have since climbed onto the Orlando bandwagon. Handel wrote three operas derived from Ariosto's masterpiece, starting with Orlando in 1733. In the next century, Rossini and Haydn also wrote Orlando-based operas.

Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso premiered in 1727 in Venice. A literal translation of the title might be "Crazy Orlando," and that pretty much fits the bill. While the poem presents a number of different stories and episodes, the opera deals with the epic's main plot line — the tale of the knight Orlando, who falls in love with the wrong woman and promptly loses his marbles. Vivaldi set the story to some of his finest music, in a score filled with dazzling arias and showcasing some of the most expressive recitatives found in any Baroque opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Vivaldi's opera from the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris featuring a top-notch cast. Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings the title role, with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore as Alcina and soprano Verónica Cangemi as Angelica.

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.