There is no formal evidence that it was intended for a theatral representation. Opera wasn’t born yet, when Berchem decided to set the Furioso’s stances to a strict polyphonic music. But the dramatic conception of the work seems exceptionally obvious. Its gigantic dimensions if compared with the contemporary criteria, seems to appeal more to theater than madrigal. The composer divided Ariosto’s poem in three books or « acts ». The famous incipit of the first book of Orlando Furioso, is set as a prologue. A synoptic stance placed at the beginning of the second book, gives a summary of the plot situation and serves as another prologue.
The choices made by the composer in the fabulous set of episodes of the Furioso is even more significant. Berchem chose and arrange his stances according to narrative criteria borrowed from dramatic art. Alfred Einstein showed that a part of the Capriccio’s ottave have been selected because of their brevity.
Others intend to represent the vast theater of human passions, as opera does. In fact Berchem conceives affect in a plural version, as a series of feelings frozen in time like incarnations of a potential continuous and infinitely divisible movement: joy, indignation, melancholy, fury. The emblematic mottos printed in the madrigals’ frontispiece evidentiate this: « Lamento d’Orlando », « Lamento di Angelica », « Follia d’Orlando ».
An analysis of the work shows that the madrigals play the same role as the choir in Greek tragedy: it comments on the action, lectures or moralizes, questions history, human nature, the world and the work’s substance; it also reacts to the action in a more lyrical manner. As the representant of collectivity on stage, the choir takes part, as a worried witness, to the sequence of events: it asks questions to the world and history, shows its sympathy or contempt towards the events, gets worried for the fate of the characters. As a passive element, it is subjected to the passion and it expresses it lyrically by singing, dancing and by body language.
Consequently the idea of a theatrical representation of the Capriccio seems logical to us. Berchem united the essential elements of a vast choral drama, only expecting to be brought to the stage. It has been sufficient to invent an adequate form, relating to the conventions of that time. To stage it as an opera would have been a completely wrong historical assumption. Recitative is unthinkable in 1561, such as the fusion between music and drama. But there was a common form adopted by playwrights during the Renaissance for unifying text and music before the birth of lyrical drama: a declaimed action punctuated by musical intermezzi. Before inventing a totally sung action, humanist theater used a sort of prose representation where a clear separation was carefully maintained between words and music: pastorals, intermezzo pieces, ballets, masquerades, farces intertwined with madrigals, monodic singing, dances and instrumental interludes. In fact this repertory is closely related to Berchem’s madrigals in his Capriccio. To re-invent what might have been its original production context, it has been necessary to reconstruct a declaimed action assuming the function of the choir in tragedy. A Sicilian cuntastorie (storyteller), among the last ones still active in the south of Italy, performs the declamation of Ariosto’s stances. Of course, this choice could be viewed as a fancy or a « caprice ». But it wouldn’t take into account the historical value of such a form of declamation, clearly attested in 16th-century practice. The fame of Orlando Furioso very quickly brings it out of the perfumed atmosphere of aristocratic and educated circles. Orlando was everywhere in the streets in every range of poetry, be it literary or popular. At the beginning of the 16th-century, it was used as a basis for numerous frottole – less refined form than the madrigal – improvised by itinerant musicians. According to a member of the Academy of the Alterati – one of the Florentine circle where opera was born – Arioste was sung in the streets and in the taverns. During his Italian travel in 1580-1581, Montaigne met Italian farmers with a lute, humming Ariosto’s poems. They were heard everywhere, in Venice, Florence, Naples and Rome. Melodic formulas used as the basis of such improvisations and known as aria di Genoa, aria di Fiorenza, or aria di Ruggiero (from the name of a character in Orlando Furioso) were born this way.
LA FAVOLA DI ORLANDO