Friday 8 December 2023

An Englishman, Frenchman, Spaniard, Italian and a German find themselves on a desert island: Bampton Classical Opera explores Alcina's Island

Title page of the third edition of John Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso, 1634. The first edition was 1591
Title page of the third edition of John Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso, 1634
The first edition was 1591

Ludovico Ariosto's Italian epic poem, Orlando Furioso, was published in the mid-16th century but it caught the imaginations not just of a generation but of a whole sequence of generations. The poem is about war and love and the romantic ideal of chivalry. It mixes realism and fantasy, humour and tragedy, with a huge cast of memorable characters who would crop up in art, literature and music. Handel was writing operas based on the poem in the 1730s (Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina), and composers were still mining it in the early 19th century (there are Simone Mayr and Ambroise Thomas' operas inspired by it).

On an interesting side note, Sir John Harington who translated Orlando Furioso into English was a courtier at Queen Elizabeth I's court and the inventor of a pre-cursor of the flush toilet. The raciness of his translation of Ariosto angered the Queen and he was banished from court until he had finished the complete translation, which was published in 1591. In 1596 he published at political allegory, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax which included a description of the flushing toilet. The title was a pun, Ajax being a 'jakes', the slang word for toilet.

One of the earliest surviving operas based on Orlando Furioso is Francesca Caccini's La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina from 1625. Francesca Caccini's only surviving opera, the premiere in Florence also featured a horse ballet though alas modern performances of the opera have not attempted to include this. It was staged in 2015 by BREMF [see my review]. Caccini's opera treats the subject quite lightly, and it is clear that Ariosto's characters were regarded as entertainment, with a moral perhaps, but definitely something to be enjoyed and not worried over.

In 1772 another Alcina-inspired opera, L’isola d’Alcina, was premiered at the Teatro San Moisè, Venice, this was by ;Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1718). Gazzaniga is now perhaps best known for his 1787 opera, Don Giovanni, whose text inspired Mozart and Da Ponte's opera. Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni was definitely comic, and his treatment of Alcina is similar.

In Gazzaniga's opera an Englishman, Frenchman, Spaniard, Italian and German get washed up on Alcina’s magical island where the seductive and beautiful sorceress (although 800 years old) has a habit of discarding her lovers and turning them into rocks or animals. Gazzaniga's music is fluent, cheerful and graceful, propelling the story forward with restless energy.

The opera was a success, it was widely seen in Europe until 1785. There were performances at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London in 1776 and 1777 – but probably not in England since then. Now Bampton Classical Opera are producing it for their 2024 season, with performances in Bampton, Westonbirt School, Wadhurst in East Sussex and St John's Smith Square.

The company's 2023 production of Salieri's At the Venice Fair was shortlisted for the International Opera Awards 2023, in the Rediscovered Work category.  And Bampton's recent Young Singers' Competition was won by mezzo-soprano Melissa Gregory  

Further details from the Bampton Opera website.

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