Major Operas | Orlando by George Frideric Handel | Late Baroque

The mid-1730s operas Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina represent the artistic peak of Handel’s operatic career. Their stories all originate in the epic poem Orlando Furioso by the playwright and poet Ariosto, who was born and bred at the Ferrara court in the late fifteenth century.

Orlando portrays the destructive insanity of its title-hero, who ignores his destiny by pursuing the love of the unkind Angelica rather than glory in war. The climax of this madness, at the end of Act II, was brilliantly conveyed by Handel’s use of eccentric time signatures within striking accompanied recitatives, paradoxically followed by the lyrical yet slightly disturbed aria ‘Vaghe pupille’. Orlando’s magnificent arias also include ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’, featuring Handel’s typically robust yet melodic use of horns, in which the deluded warrior compares himself to Hercules. This was the last role Handel ever composed for his star castrato Senesino, and it is the most astonishing and innovative. Handel’s music for Angelica, the shepherdess Dorinda and the Prince Medoro is also superb, and their trio ‘Consolati o bella’, which concludes Act I, confirms that Handel’s dramatic ensembles exploring the emotions of different characters can hold their own alongside Mozart’s. The wise magician Zoroastro, composed for the remarkably agile bass Antonio Montagnana, is an antecedent of Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder’s (1751–1812) Sarastro, and is the only magical character in Handel’s operas who uses his power for good rather than evil.

Composed: 1732
Premiered: 1733, London
Libretto unknown, after Carlo Sigismondo and Lodovico Ariosto


Prince Medoro has been wounded in battle and is being nursed back to health by Dorinda, a shepherdess, and Angelica, Queen of Cathay, who is being courted by Orlando, a knight. Dorinda and Angelica have both fallen in love with Medoro.

Act I

Zoroastro, a magician, consults the stars and, seeing that Orlando has strayed from his destiny in his pursuit of Angelica, tries to persuade him to abandon his love and dedicate himself to noble deeds. Orlando says that he can reconcile his destiny and his love for Angelica. At Dorinda’s house, the shepherdess muses on love, while Angelica and Medoro declare their feelings for each other. Dorinda sees Angelica leaving, but Medoro pretends that she is a relative.

Zoroastro warns Angelica that if Orlando learns of her love for Medoro, the knight will wreak his revenge. To confirm that Orlando loves her, Angelica taunts him by accusing him of loving another. Orlando denies it and offers to prove his love for her by killing fearsome monsters. Angelica then joins Medoro and the two embrace; Dorinda enters and is inconsolable at discovering Medoro does not return her affections. Angelica gives her a jewel.

Act II

Orlando bursts in upon the grieving Dorinda and accuses her of telling Angelica that he has been unfaithful. Dorinda reveals the truth about Angelica and Medoro, showing Orlando the jewel, which, it turns out, was given to Angelica by Orlando. Consumed by rage,...

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