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A Writer's Guide to Orlando...

We've asked a series of Scottish writers to bring you their takes on the operas the Company will be performing during the 2010/11 Season. Giving us his thoughts on Orlando is Alan Spence...


Alan is an award-winning poet and playwright, novelist and short-story writer, and was the librettist for 2010's Five:15 opera Zen Story. His awards include the McVitie Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year, and the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award. His latest books are The Pure Land, a novel set in Japan, which has been translated into some 19 languages, and a poetry collection, Morning Glory, just published, with illustrations by Elizabeth Blackadder. He is Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, where he is also Artistic Director of the annual WORD festival, which he founded in 1999.



Here's what Alan has to say about Handel's Orlando...


Passion is a word that is much overused in our culture, almost to the point where its meaning is devalued. Barely an hour goes by without a would-be celebrity on some TV show or other declaring themselves passionate about whatever-it-is. (Asparagus? Football memorabilia? The paso doble? Beige?)

Passion implies an intensity of emotion in which we are more fully alive, swept along by its tide, overwhelming reason. Great art, of course, creates and celebrates that intensity, lifts us above the mundane into the extreme, and the journey towards wholeness often leads through madness. This is the theme of Handel’s Orlando, based as it is on Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso.

It’s the old familiar tale. Boy meets girl. Girl already loves another. Boy becomes insane, flies into murderous rage, descends into hell, threatens vengeful destruction on all, is saved and restored by divine intervention. There’s a passage in my novel, The Magic Flute, where the main character, Tam, goes to a screening of Bergman’s film version of Mozart’s opera. A couple of audience members are discussing it, asking ‘Is it sublime, or ridiculous, or what?’ Tam rounds on them, says, ‘It’s sublime and ridiculous and what. Especially what.’ The same could certainly be said of Orlando. In it Handel turns away from his earlier epic/historical approach to storytelling and plunges headlong into romance and magic.

There is a triangle of characters at the heart of the story. Orlando himself is a great military hero in the pay of Charlemagne. Angelica is the exotic Queen of Cathay with whom Orlando falls hopelessly in love. But she loves Medoro, an African prince, charismatic and charming. To these three, the opera introduces two characters not in Ariosto’s poem, and they contribute greatly to the twists and turns of the plot. Dorinda is a shepherdess, the only ‘ordinary’ character, an innocent who also falls in love with Medoro. At the other extreme is Zoroastro, a magician, a sorcerer. Like Sarastro in The Magic Flute, he is a powerful, ultimately benign, controlling force, and he will be the Deus ex machina who intervenes to rescue Orlando when he is hellbent on destruction. (It is also Zoroastro who tries to divert Orlando from ‘Love’ to ‘Glory’, showing him the debilitating effects of worshipping Venus as opposed to Mars. Orlando is unconvinced and thinks he can sustain both, and chaos follows.)


The love element in the story is as tangled as in any Shakespeare comedy, fraught with misunderstandings. Dorinda thinks Orlando is in love with a princess he has just rescued – Isabella. Meanwhile, Medoro really loves Angelica, but pretends she is a relation in order not to hurt Dorinda who is neither fooled nor consoled. Angelica pretends to Orlando she is jealous of Isabella. Orlando blames Dorinda for causing the misunderstanding, and she blurts out to him the truth about Angelica and Medoro. (Still with me?) This precipitates Orlando’s descent into madness and rage from which he only emerges when restored to sanity by Zoroastro.


It’s a story made to be told as opera. No other art form can match its extravagance and scale, its ability to portray heightened states of reality in all their complexity and simultaneity – sublime and ridiculous and what. And it’s the music that carries it all, the frenzy of Orlando’s turmoil and breakdown, the respite when Zoroastro imposes calm and rest (however fleeting).


In some ways too it’s a story for our own mad age with its baroque excess. One modern production placed the story in World War I, the present version sets it in London in 1940, where the action, appropriately, takes place in a hospital. In our time, notions of trauma and stress are common currency, Freud’s theories trip (or slip) off the tongue and it’s manifest that desire thwarted or repressed can lead to psychosis. (The Buddhists have been saying for centuries, ‘Existence is suffering, its cause is desire.’)


The magical element is also hugely popular in fiction these days (especially in children’s/fantastical literature), and the character of the magician is widespread. (For Zoroastro read Gandalf or Dumbledore.) Orlando himself is the overblown larger-than-life tragic hero who impresses by the sheer power of his will. The others suffer collateral damage – Angelica and Medoro by rejecting Orlando and Dorinda for each other, Dorinda caught in the crossfire, spurned by Medoro then suffering Orlando’s demented wrath as he tries to kill her. And yet it is Dorinda who shows a different kind of heroism as she vows to go beyond her suffering, get on with her life. The forces of destruction are held at bay, at least for the moment, as the characters come through their trials, all passion spent, and move towards acceptance, transcendence, love.