‘Through such saving, the Opera may be said to have fallen from heaven upon the earth, and being divorced from an intercourse with the gods, to have humbly resigned itself to those of mortals.’ Such changes did not happen overnight, nor were they clearcut. Although Handel favoured historical topics, more than a quarter (12) of his operas feature supernatural scenes, including the great trio founded on Orlando furioso (Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina). Until moves inspired by Gluck’s so-called ‘reform’ it remained a rare exception for 17th- and 18th-century French opera not to do so.
Casting opera in a more believable light was possible by means other than the presence of gods and mythological characters. Changes in the human condition that allowed for the introduction of illusion or delusion brought with them a temporary suspension of disbelief. The most powerful such change is obviously madness. Today it is rightly a sensitive subject but during the 17th and 18th centuries it was not infrequently a cause of wonderment or even mockery, and it is not surprising to find madness, both real and feigned, used in the context of opera, seriously and humorously. One of the earliest examples can be found in Monteverdi’s lost comic opera La finta pazza Licori, in which are introduced not only feigned madness, but also pretend sleep and the disguise of a woman as a man, further examples of the suspension of disbelief. In one of a series of letters to his librettist Alessandro Striggio (also the librettist of Orfeo) in May 1627, Monteverdi makes clear that the supposed madness of Licoris will on stage be ‘novel, versatile and amusing’, but that things must be managed so that ‘the crazy girl is not seen too frequently in action’. This, he tells Striggio, will mean that whenever she does come on stage she can ‘always produce new moods and fresh changes of music, as indeed of gestures’.
The near-infinite flexibility of mood and behaviour that come with derangement or madness would be endlessly employed by composers throughout the Baroque era and beyond, producing some of the most dramatic moments in the operatic canon. The character of the knight Orlando, driven mad by his rejected love for the flighty Angelica in Tasso’s Orlando furioso, may be cited as symbolic, a figure depicted in countless operas of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) the knight’s madness reaches its apogee in the concluding pages of the second act, a remarkable freely composed and disconcertingly fragmented scena in which Orlando becomes delusional, first raving at the Stygian monsters that have spirited Angelica away. He vows to follow her (shades of Orfeo) and in his delusional state crosses the Styx to Pluto’s underworld. There he imagines he sees Angelica’s lover Medoro in the arms of Proserpine, the wife of Pluto. He sees she is weeping and his mad rage softens. This extraordinary sequence offered Handel freedom from the shackles of conventional scenic organization, a challenge he accepted eagerly, producing music and drama of such startling originality as to disconcert his first Orlando, Senesino.
A less extreme manner of creating illusion was sleep, which appears in countless operas across the whole period, the conceit being particularly popular in the 17th century. As with madness, it might be either feigned or for real, the latter often occurring as a result of extreme emotional exhaustion. For a composer the sleep scene offered the opportunity of creating music of lyrical, dreamy beauty, an invitation rarely passed up. Sleep itself sometimes made an appearance as an allegorical figure, as in Act 2 of Handel’s Arianna in Creta (1733), where it appears as ‘a venerable old man on a cloud’ to open the gates to Dreams that will show the troubled Teseo (Theseus) the path to
Opera, May 2021