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Love And Lunacy: Vivaldi's 'Orlando Furioso'

If Antonio Vivaldi had composed Orlando Furioso a couple of centuries earlier, a certain poet might have gone looking for the nearest copyright lawyer.

There was a time when bestselling writers were among the hottest celebrities on the scene. But when the stories those writers created started turning up in more high-tech forms of entertainment, things began to change. Think of Gone with the Wind, for example. Are you thinking of a book, or a movie? Probably a movie: After all, the 1939 classic, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, was one of the biggest Hollywood hits of all time, eventually overshadowing the Margaret Mitchell bestseller on which it was based. Mitchell surely did quite well with her book. But imagine what her cut would have been if everyone who has seen the movie had, instead, bought a copy of the novel.

Since then, plenty more bestselling books have wound up in the same boat. Mario Puzo's The Godfather and Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs come to mind, not to mention a whole string of James Bond books by Ian Fleming. It's no wonder that today's authors tend to drive a hard bargain before allowing their work to be used at the cineplex.

But writers had similar concerns long before movies came along. Consider what the 16th-century Italian writer Ludovico Ariosto might have hauled in had a certain, cutting-edge art form been invented just a few decades earlier.

In 1516, Ariosto came up with an epic poem called Orlando Furioso, filled with passion, violence, mystery and magic. It was an immediate hit, and it made Ariosto famous. But the poet died in 1533. So he wasn't around when, 60 years later, a group of inventive writers and musicians in Italy started joining forces to create opera, giving writers ever since another outlet for their work — and giving Ariosto's epic brand-new popularity it still enjoys today.

Ariosto's poem started inspiring operas in the 1620s, and dozens of composers have since climbed onto the Orlando bandwagon. Handel wrote three operas derived from Ariosto's masterpiece, starting with Orlando in 1733. In the next century, Rossini and Haydn also wrote Orlando-based operas.

Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso was premiered in 1727, in Venice. A literal translation of the title might be "Crazy Orlando," and that pretty much fits the bill. While the original epic presents a number of different stories and episodes, the opera deals with the poem's main plotline: It's about a knight called Orlando who falls in love with the wrong woman, and promptly loses his marbles. Vivaldi set the story to some of his finest music, in a score filled with dazzling arias and some of the most expressive recitatives found in any baroque opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a concert performance of Vivaldi's drama by the Santa Cecilia Academy, at the Parco della Musica in Rome, with a standout performance by Romina Basso in the title role. Also featured is one of the world's finest period-instrument ensembles, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, led by Andrea Marcon.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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