Handel's Orlando

Madness: Bellini & Handel at WNO | Opera

Steph Power reviews two Welsh National Opera performances which chart descent into madness, Bellini’s I puritani and Handel’s Orlando.


The most beautiful things are those that are whispered by madness and written down by reason. We must steer a course between the two, close to madness in our dreams, but close to reason in our writing.

André Gide


Madness – like the affliction itself – continues to provoke extreme or confused responses, despite today’s more enlightened attitudes. On the one hand it remains largely taboo, and sufferers continue to be laughed at, vilified or feared. On the other hand madness is viewed romantically, through rose-tinted glasses, as a prerequisite of creative genius. Clearly the former position stems from ignorance and cruelty. But, notwithstanding Schumann, Wolf (or indeed Woolf), Robin Williams and a host of others, surely the latter position could only seriously be held by those fortunate enough never to have experienced severe mental illness themselves, or in someone close to them. And yet statistics tell us that one in four adults will experience some kind of mental health problem at some point in their lives, and that suicide is the leading cause of death for women and men between the ages of 20 and 34 in England and Wales. Perhaps all those mad heroines and heroes of the operatic canon are expressing something less extreme – or at least less unusual – than we might suppose.

Of course it is the excesses of madness for which opera has proved so eloquent a vehicle through the ages; the fiery volatility of psychosis rather than the grinding flatness of depression. And, as Gide so poetically implies above, it is a matter of context and degree: up to a point, certain forms of madness can be a liberation from artistic or social constraint; a way of breaking loose from pressures to conform to what are often narrow, generic ideas about how we should live or think, exhorting us to behave reasonably. Or, to put it another way, within the bounds of ‘reason’. The fact that people in positions of power, and entire agencies of social control – families, police, governments – can themselves behave in very ‘unreasonable’ ways makes for an uneasy relationship between the psyche of the individual and the norms of the collective. Madness can be an act of protest, while the diagnosis of madness can be used to repress anything deemed threatening to the social order. And, as we can see in the operas explored below, the supposed causes of madness (beyond the purely neurological) – and how mad people are treated – tell us a great deal about social attitudes.

Bellini's I puritani: Elvira - Rosa Feola.
Bellini’s I puritani: Elvira – Rosa Feola.

It seems fitting that Welsh National Opera should embark on their 70th anniversary year with a season devoted to madness. In many ways, the subject goes to the heart of opera itself; not just through characters in extreme distress, or stories depicting social chaos or collapse, but through the very nature of the art-form, which invites us to step out of our everyday reality and into a fantastical world where the usual ‘rules’ of time and space are suspended, and characters communicate through song. In any production, the different elements of opera – music, libretto and staging – are experienced as a continual dialogue which may move in and out of internal congruence. Where that process is deliberately and thoughtfully undertaken, the results can illuminate or challenge our own psychological habits and assumptions.

Bellini's I puritani: Elvira - Rosa Feola / actress Elena Thomas, Arturo - Barry Banks.
Bellini’s I puritani: Elvira – Rosa Feola / actress Elena Thomas, Arturo – Barry Banks.

The operatic age most commonly associated with madness is that of 19th century Italian bel canto, or ‘beautiful singing’ – which immediately suggests a contradiction. How is it possible to find beauty in madness and suffering? And at what point does audience sympathy for the inevitable mad soprano turn to voyeurism as her affliction induces her to displays of searing emotion and dazzling, virtuoso coloratura? On the surface, it appears that, for composers such as Donizetti* and Bellini, losing her man is sufficient cause for a woman to lose her mind; thereby equating security and sanity with the masculine, and mental vulnerability with the feminine. Beneath this lies the point (noted by WNO artistic director David Pountney in his programme introduction) that such women are trapped; powerless within a patriarchal system that denies them the right to choose whom they may love. But herein too, lies a trap for modern directors: that, whatever her lack of recourse to other forms of protest, depicting a woman as ‘going mad’ rather than ‘getting mad’ at her situation can end up lending weight to the cliché of the hysterical female victim – or replaying the myth that madness is merely a form of aggression, passive or otherwise. Thankfully, WNO’s ‘madness’ teams skillfully avoid such perils.

 Bellini's I puritani: Elvira - Rosa Feola.
Bellini’s I puritani: Elvira – Rosa Feola.

A key answer to the first question above is that beauty and madness are not mutually exclusive, and that opera is surely one of the most powerful means to explore their interaction – not least through the power of sung melody. Bellini’s final masterpiece, I puritani (1835) – the opera which unveiled WNO’s ‘madness’ season this autumn – has the slightest of plots. But the sublime subtlety of the music (wonderfully played by the WNO orchestra under conductor Carlo Rizzi) ensures space for nuanced thematic exploration, and Bellini paints his mad heroine, Elvira, with an especially fine brush: gorgeously sung here by the outstanding Rosa Feola, with no, misplaced, histrionics but a myriad, delicate inflections. Elvira wrongly believes that her lover, Arturo – the soaring, tenor marvel that is Barry Banks – has deserted her for another woman, and she duly succumbs to lunatic fantasies brought on by inconsolable grief. Interestingly, Elvira’s rejected suitor, Riccardo (a suitably gruff, menacing David Kempster), retains his own sanity sufficient to plot revenge on Arturo – who has, in fact, gone off to rescue the widow of the executed Charles I: for Riccardo and Elvira are Roundheads (the Puritans of the title), but Arturo is a Cavalier, and the lovers are attempting to cross the ideological divide of the English Civil War.

Director Annalese Miskimmon’s response to Bellini is considered and intelligent, and her courageous new production not only sets Elvira’s madness within a timely modern frame, but goes some way to addressing those questions of voyeurism and gender politics raised above – at least regarding this particular piece – whilst re-working Bellini’s unconvincingly happy ending to shocking effect (I won’t give away what happens). Miskimmon and designer Leslie Travers draw compelling parallels with modern-day sectarianism, setting the opera in 1970s Belfast. Elvira and Arturo are respectively Protestant and Catholic, and the entire action – not just Elvira’s ‘mad scene’ – pivots around her cracking under the strain of the Troubles. As she descends into insanity, she hallucinates proceedings via the symbols of Riccardo’s Orange Order, back to the age of Cromwell. This is cleverly done, but, crucially, vis-à-vis Elvira’s madness, Miskimmon undercuts the problematic male gaze by introducing a silent Elvira doppelgänger, who looks on with horror from the equally mad ‘reality’ of Belfast. Thus the most important observer becomes the split Elvira herself, and the audience is drawn visually as well as musically into her inner conflict and its wider – political – outward cause.

When Bellini composed I puritani, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was enjoying great popularity in France and Italy, and Ophelia, fatally caught between the expectations, cruelty and kindness of various men, became an important model for staged female madness. Some hundred-plus years after Shakespeare, bisecting his and Bellini’s works in time, Handel composed his opera Orlando (based on Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando furioso, and premiered in 1733)  in which it is the eponymous hero, rather than a heroine, who goes mad. For this WNO season, the opera forms a kind of opposite sex counterpart to the Bellini in a handsome production by director, Harry Fehr, performed with conviction and panache by a strong cast and a convincingly baroque, reduced WNO band under conductor, Rinaldo Alessandrini.

 Handel's Orlando: Dorinda - Flur Wyn (& other nurses), Orlando - Lawrence Zazzo, Zoroastro - Daniel Grice.
Handel’s Orlando: Dorinda – Flur Wyn (& other nurses), Orlando – Lawrence Zazzo, Zoroastro – Daniel Grice.

Whilst the two operas have certain tropes in common, they present very different takes on madness. In Orlando, once again it is love – or the lack thereof – that triggers a descent into insanity, but here the action revolves around the romantic entanglements of four people: the traumatised Orlando and physically wounded Medoro are soldiers (sung here by robust countertenors: Lawrence Zazzo is especially rich-voiced as Orlando, whilst Robin Blaze makes a spirited rival). They both love the same ‘high society’ woman, Angelica (a superbly torn Rebecca Evans), who once loved Orlando but has now fallen for Medoro; a situation observed with dismay by the unfortunate nurse, Dorinda, who loves him to no avail (beautifully sung by Fflur Wyn).

Like Elvira, Orlando is caught between love and duty. In Elvira’s case, she allows her heart to overrule her tribal loyalties, but her choice is effectively between one man or another, and her madness is an expression of despair. With Orlando, however, the dilemma takes him into Hamlet’s territory rather than Ophelia’s, for it concerns the correct path of action: should he go back to war and rejoin the fight, thus leaving behind his beloved Angelica – which he cannot bear to do – or should he stay and devote himself to love?

Handel's Orlando: Orlando - Lawrence Zazzo & nurses. Madness
Handel’s Orlando: Orlando – Lawrence Zazzo & nurses.

This kind of proactive decision-making is naturally available to Orlando in a way which would simply not arise for a woman of the opera’s time, nor indeed the Bellini. But then Handel, the master psychologist, through music of exquisite dramatic nuance, undercuts Orlando’s apparent agency in two significant ways – effectively emasculating him and, it is implied, thereby finally sending him mad. Firstly, Angelica invalidates Orlando’s predicament by rejecting him, precipitating a jealous, psychotic attack in which her would-be lover murders Fedoro before threatening to kill her too. However, they are all then rescued by a more powerful agent still in the form of Zoroastro (sung here with passion if not authoritative presence by Daniel Grice), who restores Angelica and Medoro to life and love, and Orlando to sanity and peace.

As dramaturg, Sophie Rashbrook’s excellent English surtitles inform us, ‘The lesson of Orlando [is]: love can often lead to madness.’ But of course there’s more to it than that. In Handel’s vision, Zoroastro is a supernatural figure; a wizard, retrospectively inviting comparison with the characters and moral dilemmas of Mozart’s later, The Magic Flute. Fehr and his designer, Yannis Thavoris, depict him as a doctor – indeed as the proverbial mad psychiatrist – up-dating the action to a World War II hospital during the London Blitz. The setting enables some pertinent modern questions to be addressed concerning the social roots of madness which, in Handel’s day, was often attributed to demonic possession. In the Handel as in the Bellini, war is shown to be a form of madness. But here, Orlando is cared for on the one hand, and subjected to medical experimentation á la Wozzeck on the other – including bouts of electro-convulsive therapy. Moreover, he is brainwashed (in a scene which might be strengthened by more overt reference to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), as Zoroastro attempts to instil the highly dubious notion that war is preferable to love.

Handel's Orlando: Dorinda - Fflur Wyn, Angelica - Rebecca Evans. (Madness)
Handel’s Orlando: Dorinda – Fflur Wyn, Angelica – Rebecca Evans.

Ultimately, Zoroastro is confirmed as the most powerful force; the implication being that we challenge the gods – or authority – at risk of madness. Through the psychiatrist’s intercession, deus ex machina, Orlando returns to chastised sanity and will, it seems, obediently go back to war like a good soldier. But it is noteworthy that, in Fehr’s production, the role of wizard should be given to a sinister representative of medical science; perhaps a portrayal of which figures such as Lacan, Foucault and R.D. Laing, of the last few decades’ ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement, would approve. It is also interesting that Dorinda manages to suffer equal rejection and disappointment to the mad hero without losing her mind – or her ability to empathise with others.

Which leads us to especially fraught, probably unanswerable, questions about the nature and limits of behavioural responsibility. Today, there remains no medical definition of the word ‘insanity’. Rather, it is a legal term, pertaining to a person’s ability to determine right from wrong following the commitment of an [act of] crime. How far Orlando is responsible for murder, or may be excused on the grounds of diminished responsibility, is a fascinating question which goes right to the heart of WNO’s next installment of their ‘madness’ season: Sondheim’s brilliant ‘musical thriller’, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.


* With tragic irony, Donizetti, composer of the most famous so-called ‘mad scene’ of all – ‘Il dolce suono… Ardon gl’incensi… Spargi d’amaro pianto’ from Lucia di Lammermoor – died in a lunatic asylum in 1848, having suffered syphilis-induced derangement for several years.


Bellini – I puritani / Handel – Orlando

Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 11 and 27 September, 2015

You can see Orlando at the WMC tomorrow, Sat Oct 3 and Weds Oct 7, and I puritani there on Sun 4 before each tour to Southampton, Bristol, Llandudno, Oxford and Birmingham. Further information at https://www.wno.org.uk/

Sweeney Todd opens at the WMC next Thurs Oct 8 and will tour as above, and to Liverpool.

Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90 (24-hour national helpline)

All photos, including the Handel’s Orlando header: Credit – Bill Cooper


Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.