Now little known in the English-speaking world, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was arguably the greatest poet of his age, and his 46-canto epic Orlando furioso (Mad Roland, 1532) was the most celebrated literary work of its era. At a time when books were still new and costly commodities, and only a tiny percentage of Europe's population was literate, Orlando furioso was publishing's first international sensation‹the Harry Potter of its day! By one estimate, at least 113 editions of Ariosto's poem appeared between 1540 and 1580. It inspired countless sequels and even exerted a retroactive influence on classical letters, with Italian translations of Ovid's Metamorphoses published in the meter and format of Ariosto's masterpiece. For many of Ariosto's contemporaries, Orlando furioso surpassed even the epics of antiquity; centuries later, Voltaire would declare it the equal of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Don Quixote combined.
At three times the length of Dante's La divina Commedia, Orlando furioso is difficult to summarize. Broadly speaking, its two main narrative threads concern the love-inspired madness of Orlando, Charlemagne's greatest warrior, and the courtship and marriage of two of Alcina's protagonists: Bradamante and Ruggiero, the mythical forbears of the Este dynasty, Ariosto's patrons at the court of Ferrara. Chivalric literature, both popular and learned, had been all the rage in Europe for centuries, and Ariosto's poem picks up where Orlando innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo, an earlier Ferrarese court poet, leaves off: with Angelica, the pagan temptress beloved of Orlando, scurrying into the forest pursued (we read twice) by a "cavaliere ('knight'; literally, 'horseman') traveling on foot."
"A horseman traveling on foot": from the very first lines of the narrative, things are amiss in the world of Orlando furioso. Although Ariosto's verses sparkle with humor and grace, the breathless plunge of Angelica and her suitor into the woods inevitably recalls Dante's "dark forest" of perdition. Ariosto borrows a phrase from Dante's Inferno V (the canto of the doomed lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta)‹"here, there, up and down"‹to depict his characters' pell-mell quests for the objects of their desire. While the narrative, at first glance, seems a genial jumble‹Ariosto's teasing practice of dropping one plot line and turning to another just when things are heating up was dubbed cantus interruptus by critic Daniel Javitch‹Orlando furioso is in fact no less carefully structured or cosmic in scope than Dante's Commedia.
Orlando furioso's vast canvas ranges from the icy, wind-whipped shores of northern Europe to the scorched deserts of Ethiopia, and from the maws of hell to the daffy landscape of the moon. Its characters happen upon magic castles and wondrous realms that prove to be traps; they wield, and are frequently undone by, enchanted arms. The British knight Astolfo (one of the many characters liberated in Alcina's final scene) traverses the globe astride the half-horse, half-gryphon hippogryph (which Orlando furioso's narrator, with mock sincerity, deems "not feigned, but natural"). At the poem's center (Cantos XXIII-XXIV), Orlando descends into bestial madness amidst a whirlwind of allusions to virtually the entire European literary canon, including ancient and vernacular lyric poetry, drama, pastoral, and the Bible.
Early modern thinkers invoked the idea of concordia discors or "discordant harmony" to describe the universe, a notion that finds its counterpart in Orlando furioso's kaleidoscopic play of perspectives. One maiden's excessive chastity earns her eternal damnation, while randy characters (including Ruggiero) find their way to the straight and narrow, sometimes in spite of themselves. The hippogryph and magic weapons slip away from those who would grasp them too tightly, but the harquebus (a real, early firearm) returns from the depths of the sea, where Orlando scornfully consigns it‹as readers of Ariosto's war-torn times knew all too well. Orlando furioso's breadth of vision has always appealed to history's most expansive minds. Galileo likened it to "a regal gallery… full of everything that is admirable and perfect," while Verdi pointed to Ariosto, along with Shakespeare, as an ideal of variety in literature.
Ariosto's poem has inspired countless visual artists, including Dosso Dossi, Tiepolo, Ingres, and Doré. Cervantes, Ronsard, and Spenser owe much to Ariosto, as does Milton (despite his professed disinclination to "dissect / With long and tedious havoc fabl'd Knights / In Battles feign'd"). Among the keenest readers of Orlando furioso are Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, whose final meditations on such themes as "lightness," "quickness," "exactitude," "visibility," and "multiplicity" might serve as a summa of the poem's most striking qualities. Orlando furioso is probably second only to Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, c. 1581) by Torquato Tasso, another Ferrarese court poet, in terms of the number of operas it has inspired. In addition to Alcina, these include Handel's Orlando and Ariodante, Vivaldi's Orlando furioso, and Haydn's Orlando paladino.
In crafting Alcina, Handel and his unknown librettist seized upon many of the novelties and paradoxes in Ariosto's poem. With its cross-dressed characters and "emasculated" leading men (castrati), opera of Handel's day upended conventional notions of gender, just as Ariosto had done in depicting the Este progenitors, Bradamante and Ruggiero. In epic poetry, female characters (Dido, Circe) generally hinder men's efforts to fulfill their dynastic responsibilities. Bradamante, though, dons arms and takes an active role in leading the wayward Ruggiero to the altar, in contrast to both traditional seductresses and to such characters as Vergil's silent, blushing Lavinia and Homer's wily Penelope. In Alcina, as in Orlando furioso, Bradamante's masculine dress leads to some piquant complications, as she draws the amorous interest of another woman‹here, the sorceress Morgana.
As for Alcina, she is perhaps Handel's most stunning, fully drawn heroine, even more multi-layered than her namesake in Orlando furioso. In typically Ariostoesque manner, Alcina becomes the victim of her own illusions. At opera's end, she speaks the truth to Ruggiero and Bradamante‹he is destined to die young, and she will bemoan his fate‹but, mistress of deceit that Alcina is, no one believes her. Worse still, the crafty sorceress falls sincerely in love with the knight she has enchanted, and not even her own magic can save her. In her Act III aria "Mi restano le lagrime," she wishes in vain to be turned into stone like her victims, but in the end is left alone with her pain. After Ruggiero destroys Alcina's magic, the sorceress's newly liberated victims celebrate their "blessed peace," grateful for the restoration of their "human will." In many ways, though, Alcina has proved to be the most deeply vulnerably human character of all, no less subject to emotional frailties than the mere mortals she has sought to enthrall.
The final canto of Orlando furioso opens with the long-deferred nuptials of Bradamante and Ruggiero, but closes on an unsettling note, with a final duel even darker than its model in Vergil's Aeneid. To this grim ending Ariosto appends an ambiguous motto: Pro bono malum, which can mean either "Evil for the sake of good" or "Evil in exchange for good." Handel, too, concludes Alcina with a question mark. Does anyone really believe that the "ferità" or "savagery" of Alcina's victims has been the result of her witchery alone? Deprived of Alcina‹her passion, her beauty, her rage‹is the world richer or poorer for its disenchantment? Centuries ago, Ariosto and Handel probed the mysteries of the human heart‹a realm, like Alcina's enchanted isle, destined to slip away, forever eluding our grasp.
Marion Lignana Rosenberg, a regular contributor to Opera News and Time Out New York, has written about the arts for Salon.com, Boston Magazine, and Oggi 7.