Friday, October 6, 2023

Alcina’s Literary Origin

By Jonathan Dean

Vintage line drawing of the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), who is famous for his epic Orlando furioso.

The troubled and troubling love-life of the seductive sorceress Alcina was first chronicled in the greatest epic poem you probably don't know: Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. Written in flowing octaves of luscious Italian between 1506 and 1532, this sprawling saga spins a vast spiderweb-like story of ladies and knights, love and weapons, courage and chivalry over some 600 pages. In a way it’s an Italian answer to the British legends of King Arthur, Merlin, and the rest. (Merlin, in fact, puts in an appearance early on in Orlando furioso, prophesying to Bradamante that she and Ruggiero will wed and found a mighty family. Ariosto compliments his noble patron, Duke Este of Ferrara, by making Ruggiero and Bradamante his ancestors.)

What differentiates Ariosto’s poem, among the many chivalric epics popular in the middle ages and Renaissance, is its gorgeous verse, the abundant variety of its story, and the tender, wise, confident, vital voice of its narrator. Orlando furioso is funnier and sexier than any comparable work. Its characters and episodes were so popular, Ariosto’s poem engendered spin-offs in every conceivable art form: painting, sculpture, illustration, madrigal, opera, more poetry, puppet shows, and, more recently, video games. Handel composed three dazzling operas based on Orlando furioso, Alcina not the least among them.

What’s Orlando furioso about? A whole lot of passionate love stories, set against the background of wars between Christians and Muslims before the Crusades. The poem’s title character, Orlando, is the strongest knight in Christendom; he goes mad (“furioso”) when the gorgeous Angelica, princess of China, spurns him for Medoro, a sweet, wounded Saracen boy from Africa. Orlando’s strength and madness are so extreme, he leaves a trail of devastation across Europe and Africa until another paladin, the English knight Astolfo, recovers Orlando’s lost wits: Astolfo finds them on the far side of the moon, where everything lost on earth can be found.

Painting of George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) by Balthasar Denner. Known mostly for his often-performed Messiah, Handel was a prolific composer of operas.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited union of Ruggiero (who’s North African) and Bradamante (who’s French), foretold by Merlin at the beginning of the poem, gets delayed and delayed and delayed. First Bradamante must rescue Ruggiero from his over-protective foster-father, the wizard Atlante. Later on, Ruggiero rescues Angelica, who is going to be sacrificed to a sea monster, and gets briefly distracted by her charms. Further complications and sexy misunderstandings are caused by Ruggiero’s sister, who likes to go about disguised as a male knight, and Bradamante’s twin brother Ricciardo, who masquerades as a girl.

But it’s Alcina who represents the greatest threat to the union of Ruggiero and Bradamante. Ariosto helped himself freely to situations and characters from Greek myth, and Alcina clearly derives from Circe. You may remember Circe from The Odyssey; she’s the seductive witch who turns Odysseus’s men into swine and keeps the hero as her lover on her gorgeous pleasure-palace island for a year. A few decades after Orlando furioso was written, the Italian poet Torquato Tasso paid Ariosto the compliment of deriving from Alcina another such character: Armida. In Tasso’s epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata (“Jerusalem Liberated”), the sorceress Armida seduces the heroic Rinaldo away from the Crusader army besieging Jerusalem. Armida’s love-life, like that of Alcina’s, has inspired dozens of operas. Rinaldo’s friends find him, enervated and emasculated with love, in the witch’s hidden pleasure-gardens. They remind him of masculine virtues such as strength, courage, self-control, and keeping your word, so he flees Armida and returns to the war. But by that point she has fallen in love with him, which she wasn’t supposed to do. In the operas, of course, her broken heart gives her lots to sing about.

Armida Discovers the Sleeping Rinaldo by Nicolas Poussin (1629).
In homage to Ludovico Ariosto, poet Torquato Tasso (1544–1595) published Gerusalemme liberata (“Jerusalem Liberated”). Tasso’s poem features Armida, a seductive sorceress similar to Alcina. In this painting by Nicolas Poussin, Cupid restrains Armida from stabbing her enemy.

No matter how tangled their plots become, Baroque operas always end happily, with justice and order restored. So Alcina and Armida are always defeated in the end. But the special genius of Handel, as an opera composer, was his ability to transform such an astonishing range of human emotion into music, from tender sensuality to wistful nostalgia to impatient petulance to fiery resolution. Even when Ariosto’s characters are making poor choices, Handel makes us feel what they feel. Thus, compassion overrides judgment; Alcina can be tragic, Ruggiero can be heroic, and the bold and brave Bradamante can be a furious, vengeful monster. Unlike her epic counterpart—the villainous Morgan le Fay—Handel’s Morgana is a bright, likeable young lady who learns a lot about the pleasure and pain of love over the course of this opera.

Curiously, the gender-play of this production brings Handel back closer to Ariosto. In Ariosto, the magician who helps Bradamante free Ruggiero from Alcina is Melissa, a benevolent sorceress. When Handel’s opera premiered, in London in 1735, this character became Melisso, sung by a bass, mostly because Handel wanted to write a part for his cook, Gustavus Waltz, who was also a wonderful singer. Restoring this character to her original gender restores the carefully balanced gender politics of Ariosto’s story: Alcina isn’t defeated by a (male) wizard; instead, another woman brings her down. “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”

Alcina runs October 14-28, 2023 at McCaw Hall. Tickets and info at

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