Saturday, 6 May 2006

Rodelinda (and the Royal Academy)

Rodelinda and the Royal Academy

The following is the draft of a script, a revised version of which was broadcast by the BBC in the interlude for a production of the opera, and publicised as ‘Celebrity, Scandal and Opera Genius: Handel’s Rodelinda and the Royal Academy’ –  produced by Freya Mitchell, BBC Radio 3, 6/5/06.

No work in Handel’s remarkable and extensive opera-writing career is better placed than Rodelinda to give us a sense of the excitement and success of a composer writing at the height of his powers, for the best singers in the world, in the most ambitious opera venture the English stage had ever attempted, at a time when London was the opera capital of the world.

Handel was in one of his several periods of particular creative genius, completing his third masterpiece in only one year. Rodelinda, which followed the sensational Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, was one of the best received of all Handel’s operas for the Royal Academy, running for fourteen performances and revived at the end of the year for a second season. The tenor, Alexander Gordon, gave an insider’s preview of its brilliance, having attended a rehearsal:

Having the liberty of the house I went to the opera [...] and heard Julius Caesar which pleased me exceedingly but the new one to be acted for [the] first time next Saturday exceeds all I ever heard. [D&K, p.589]

(Praise from Gordon is perhaps particularly telling, as he was difficult to please. Two years earlier he is reported to have threatened to jump on Handel’s harpsichord and smash it to pieces, in complaint at the composer’s accompaniment to one of his arias. Handel is reported to have replied: ‘Let me know when you will do that and I will advertise it; for I am sure more people will come to see you jump than hear you sing.’) [Burrows, p.115]

Gordon’s first impressions have been confirmed ever since. Charles Burney noted that Rodelinda ‘contains such a number of capital and pleasing airs as entitles it to one of the first places among Handel’s dramatic productions’, and Chrysander found it to be ‘one of his most complete and satisfying operas’. [D&K, p.577] Modern commentators and audiences agree. It was the opera which first began the twentieth-century revival of Handel’s operas in the famous Göttingen production of June 1920, and it has enjoyed numerous productions in every decade since. Its place of importance, then, was assured well before the late twentieth-century surge of interest in baroque opera, and it is now generally acknowledged as a masterpiece of the period.

Rodelinda can reasonably be seen to mark the high point of the first period of the Royal Academy of Music. Six years earlier, in an unprecedented expression of artistic venture capital (with little promise of return, considering the enormous cost of opera productions) 10,000 pounds worth of stock in the new company was bought by an elite group of investors, the King himself allowing an annual 1,000 pounds to support the scheme. On February 21st, 1719, the Original Weekly Journal announced that:

Mr. Hendel, a famous Master of Musick, is gone beyond Sea, by Order of his Majesty, to Collect a Company of the choicest Singers in Europe, for the Opera in the Hay-Market.

So exciting was news of the venture that this journal had actually anticipated Handel's departure by three months. Italian opera was now a cosmopolitan enterprise and Handel went not to Italy but to Dresden where the Elector of Saxony had gathered one of the finest opera companies in Europe. Handel returned having secured the services of the famous soprano Margherita Durastanti and other signings soon followed.

The opening night of Radamisto, Handel’s debut Academy opera, according to Handel’s first biographer Mainwaring, had been a night to remember:

In the year 1720, he obtained leave to perform his Opera of RADAMISTO. If persons who are now living, and who were present at that performance may be credited, the applause it received was almost as extravagant as his AGRIPPINA had excited: the crowds and tumults of the house at Venice were hardly equal to those at LONDON. In so splendid and fashionable an assembly of ladies (to the excellence of their taste we must impute it) there was no shadow of form, or ceremony, scarce indeed any appearance of order or regularity, politeness or decency. Many, who had forc'd their way into the house with an impetuosity but ill suited to their rank and sex, actually fainted through the excessive heat and closeness of it. Several gentlemen were turned back, who had offered forty shillings for a seat in the gallery, after having despaired of getting any in the pit or boxes.

By the first production of Rodelinda five years later, Handel’s place as the pre-eminent composer of Italian operas for London had been fully established., even if some satirists still made fun of the rivalry between him and the other leading Academy composer Giovanni Bononcini, as in John Byrom’s famous epigram:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini

That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny;

Others aver, that he to Handel

Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle:

Strange all this Difference should be

‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!  [Deutsche, p.180]

Actually Bononcini had withdrawn from the Academy a year before this joke, in 1724, leaving the stage to Handel for the Rodelinda season. And by now Handel’s early efforts to secure the best voices had come to fruition. The cast for Rodelinda was perhaps the best – and was certainly the most celebrated – ever to appear on the London stage together. At the head of the bill was the great Italian castrato Senesino (in the role of Bertarido). Handel had in fact written the role of Radamisto for his introduction in 1720, though he hadn’t yet arrived for the first production of that opera.

Though today we can only imagine the combination of purity and power in the castrato voice, the contemporary flautist and composer Johann Quantz, gave us a first-hand account of Senesino:

[He] had a well-carrying, clear, even, and pleasantly low soprano voice [...], a pure intonation and a beautiful trillo. He rarely sang above the fifth line ‘f’. His way of singing was masterful and his execution perfect. He did not overload the slow movements with arbitrary ornamentation, but brought out the essential ornaments with the greatest finesse. He sang an allegro with fire, and he knew how to thrust out the running passages with his chest with some speed. [Larue, p.107]

His leading lady in the role of Rodelinda was the most celebrated soprano of the day, Francesca Cuzzoni. She had arrived in London for the first production of Handel’s Ottone in 1723, immediately establishing her reputation for moving, plaintive, arias and spoilt behaviour. Legend has it that she refused, at rehearsal, to sing the beautiful aria that Handel had intended for her introduction -  at which point, in French, Handel famously threatened to defenestrate her:

Having one day some words with CUZZONI on her refusing to sing Falsa imagine in OTTONE; Oh! Madame, (said he) je sçais bien que Vous êtes une veritable Diablesse: mais je Vous ferai sçavoir, moi, que je suis Beelzebub le Chéf des Diables. With this he took her up by the waist, and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window. [Mainwaring]

Quantz has also left us with an account of her voice:

Cuzzoni had a very agreeable and clear soprano voice, a pure intonation, and beautiful trillo. Her range extended from middle ‘c’ to the ‘c’ above the staff. Her ornamentation did not seem to be artificial due to her nice, pleasant, and light style of delivery, and with its tenderness she won the hearts of her listeners. [Larue, p.138]

He thought her acting ‘somewhat cold’ and did not find her figure particularly ‘favourable for the theatre’, though such criticisms were kindly-put compared with Horace Walpole’s verdict that she was ‘short and square, with a doughy cross face’, that she ‘dressed ill’ and ‘was silly and fantastical’. Celebrity, though, gives little thought to such details: Charles Burney, giving Walpole’s anecdote, continues with the account of her reception in Rodelinda:

And yet on her appearing in this opera, in a brown silk gown, trimmed with silver, with the vulgarity and indecorum of which all the old ladies were much]scandalised, the young adopted it as a fashion, so universally, that it seemed a natural uniform of youth and beauty. (Burney, History, Vol IV, p.299; D & K, pp.589-90)

It’s worth pausing, for a moment, to contemplate the impact of these two singing superstars on the London stage of the 1720’s, and together in the cast of Rodelinda.

We can start with their salaries. Both were contracted for the astonishing fee of £2000 each, for essentially part-time work.  It’s difficult to calculate the equivalent in today’s money, but if we consider some mid-eighteenth-century prices (as compiled by Liza Picard for her book Dr Johnson’s London) we can at least get a sense of our stars’ purchasing power: for two-and-six you could buy a whole pig;  five pounds would get you a silver hilted sword; and with seventy-eight pounds you could secure a coach. Two hundred pounds a year allowed Boswell to live in London and three hundred pounds was the annual rent of a house in Grosvenor Square. Nowadays a town house there will set you back at least £2000 per week, so judged by rental values, Senesino and Cuzzoni had our equivalent spending power of some £700,000 each. [Actually, on first arriving in London, Senesino took a house off Leicester Square, with three others, including his brother, sharing the cost. The total rent was £120 a year.]

These singers were certainly the pop-stars of their age. Cuzzoni’s behaviour, as we have already seen, was exactly what we would expect from the cult of the prima donna. It was to become even more sensational two years after Rodelinda, by which time she had been joined on the London stage by her great rival, Faustina Bordoni. Handel had to take particular care when writing for both performers in the same opera to give an exactly equivalent amount of singing time to each. But their infamous rivalry came to a head during a performance of Bononcini's only opera for the Academy after his earlier withdrawal -  Astianatte. The furore was described by the British Journal:

On Tuesday-night last [the 6th [June, 1727]], a great Disturbance happened at the Opera, occasioned by the Partisans of the Two Celebrated Rival Ladies, Cuzzoni and Faustina. The Contention at first was only carried on by Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other; but proceeded at length to Catcalls, and other great Indecencies: And notwithstanding the Princess Caroline was present, no Regards were of Force to restrain the Rudeness of the Opponents.

The London Journal carried a similar report:

The contention [...] proceeded ... by the delightful Exercise of Catcalls, and other great Decencies, which demonstrated the inimitable Zeal and Politeness of the Illustrious Assembly [...] but no regards were of force to restrain the glorious Ardour of the fierce Opponents’

If other accounts are to be credited the two singers actually came to blows on the stage. A satirical pamphlet published within the month had the two sopranos grabbing each other’s headdresses while Handel comments ‘I think ‘tis best – to let ‘em fight it out’. John Gay was to have great fun in imitating the episode in The Beggar’s Opera by setting up the rivalry between Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit (as in their duet: 'Why how now, Madam Flirt? ... Why how now, saucy jade?').

Hardly less controversy, of course, attended the castrati of the age. Secrecy, mystery, and intrigue were, of course, partly necessary for legal reasons, since castration was punishable by excommunication as well as civil charges. Charles Burney’s investigations were fruitless:

I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration [...] I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna [...] I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples.

(Perhaps Burney should have tried Siena, which gave the nickname to three famous castrati, including our own Senesino!)

In London in the 1720’s jokes about the ‘elevation’ of notes, ‘injured’ reputations, and the ‘casting’ of ‘parts’ abound, of course. When the ‘Weekly Journal’ announced the arrival of the tenor Borosini (in the season before Rodelinda) it suggested that he was ‘never cut out for a singer’.

Ignoring the pun, nothing could have been further from the truth. Borosini went on to significantly influence the creation of one of Handel’s greatest tragic roles. Wonderful tenors were hard to come by in the 1720’s and Handel rose to the challenge of writing for one, by crafting the role of Bajazet in Tamerlano particularly for his voice. Borosini stayed on for the next season to appear as Grimoaldo in Rodelinda.

So the brilliance of the cast for Rodelinda extended beyond the principal roles. Handel called on his longest serving base, Giuseppe Boschi, for the role of Garibaldo, and the contralto Anna Dotti for Eduige. Even the minor role of Unolfo must have had a technically talented singer – the castrato Pacini - considering the coloratura virtuosity of passages in his arias. And this is not only a remarkably gifted and celebrated cast – it is a very balanced one: soprano, alto castrati, contralto, tenor, and base. We have only to look at some of Handel’s earlier operas for the London stage to note the relatively unbalanced preponderance of high voices. Amadigi, for instance, had four main roles, for two sopranos, a castrato and a contralto. In Rodelinda Handel had perhaps the best cast of singers he had ever gathered together, and his writing didn’t let them down.

Superficially Rodelinda is typical opera seria, with conventional content and musical structures and devices. The plot is based on seventh-century Lombard history and politics, just as Handel’s Flavio was two years earlier (indeed Flavio is Rodelinda’s son). There are all the usual subjects. The simile arias offer typical comparisons with swallows, calming breezes, and ships in trouble at sea. There are pastoral arias, storm arias, revenge arias, and even prison arias are standard for the period. But Handel’s genius for adapting conventional forms to suit dramatic purposes is nowhere more obvious than here. Rodelinda is perhaps the most innovative of all his operas in this sense. Take, for instance, his use of typical da capo aria form. Normally we have an orchestral introduction (the ‘ritornello’), then the ‘A’ section of the aria, followed by a  ‘B’ section in a contrasting key (to indicate a shift of mood or subject); then a repeat of the whole of the opening ‘A’ section, with its ritornello (typically, in practice, allowing the singer some improvisatory freedom). Handel is able to depend on his audience’s confident expectation of this structure to create some remarkable, unexpected and highly expressive variations. So, in the first aria of the opera – ‘Hò perduto’ – Rodelinda expresses her profound grief at the loss of her husband; in the ‘B’ section she consoles herself with dedication to her son, but this just reminds her of her loss, so without the ‘da capo’ ritornello, the aria moves straight back to the vocal line: the emotion for her husband is inseparable from her feelings for her son. Here, conventional form is disrupted by grief .

A very different emotion disturbs Eduige’s first aria; she swears she will make Grimoaldo beg her forgiveness; can she really make him do it? asks Garibaldo: you bet she’ll make him – so angry is she, so determined is her will, that she has no time for opening introductions; she gets in her first ‘Lo farò’ before the ritornello.

But there are even more striking effects. ‘Dove sei’ – out of context - is probably one of the best-known and loved of all Handel arias. But in context it contributes to a piece of breathtaking dramatic writing. Bertarido, thought dead, returns to find his own tombstone. After a symphonic introduction, he proclaims, in accompanied recitative, on the pomp and vanity of our memorials; unaccompanied, he reads his own inscription; and then, in secco recitative complains about his fate. This passage and its emotion then seems to continue uninterrupted with ‘Dove sei’, as if we are still in the recitative, before a curtailed, displaced ritornello gives way to the full aria, which now emerges from the previous passage with a complete, but surprising, emotional logic. Handel worked hard to create this effect (Dean and Knapp note four stages in the writing), and it shows his determination, for dramatic effect, to forge meaningful causal links between recitative and aria.

But Handel also motivates the conventional forms. In Act II, Bertarido finds solace in nature, its playful breezes and gentle waters. After the ‘B’ section of his aria (the sublimely beautiful ‘Con rauco mormorio’, with its imitative evocation of murmuring streams and fountains), his sister Eduige unexpectedly enters; she thinks she has recognised her brother’s voice – surely it can’t be him ... but, of course, he has the ‘A’ section repeat to convince her! In Handel’s best writing for the stage he doesn’t just make old things new; he completely integrates form and content.

It’s hardly surprising that Rodelinda so captivated its audiences. As well as the dramatic intensity suggested by these examples, the opera has some of Handel’s most beautiful and sublime arias. Charles Burney’s comment on the duet ‘Io t’abbraccio’ sixty years after the first production, is perhaps a testament to the lasting quality of the whole opera:

There is not a passage, or point of imitation [...] which breathes not grace and dignity; and so far is the whole composition from discovering its age. That it seems of a kind which must be immortal, or at least an evergreen; which, however times and seasons vary, remains fresh and blooming as long as it exists.

We can, perhaps, appreciate the music lover’s absorption in Handel’s masterful score as captured in a satiric poem written at the end of the opera’s first run:

Dear Peter, if thou can’st descend

From Rodelind to hear a Friend,

And if those Ravished Ears of thine

Can quit the shrill celestial Whine

Of gentle Eunuchs, and sustain

Thy native English without pain,

I would, if t’aint too great a Burden

Thy ravished Ears intrude a Word in.