Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Rinaldo [24th February, 1711, London, Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket]


[The recording referred to below is the following:
Bernarda Fink; Cecilia Bartoli; David Daniels; Daniel Taylor; Gerald Finley; Luba Orgonasova; Bejun Mehta; Ana-María Rincón; Catherine Bott; Mark Padmore;
The Academy of Ancient Music: Christopher Hogwood
Decca 467 087-2]

[The system of asterisks reflects the author’s entirely subjective appreciation of the arias, etc –  * = noteworthy; ** = excellent; *** = outstanding; **** = a masterpiece.]

References in these notes to ‘D&K’ are to Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp’s masterful account of the operas, Handel's Operas 1704 - 1726 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987).

Act I
‘Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto’ [Disk 1; track 10] (**)
‘Furie terribili’ [Disk 1; track 15] (**)
‘Molto voglio’ [Disk 1; track 12] (***)
‘Augelletti che cantate’ [Disk 1; track 15] (**) – one of Handel’s typical bird arias, and the inspiration for the famous ‘sparrows for the opera (see Comments below).
‘Scherzando/Ridono sul tuo’ [Disk 1; track 20] (***) – taken directly from ‘Cor fedele’ [‘Clori, Tirsi e Fileno’], as are so many excellent arias of the early operas.
‘Cara sposa’ [Disk 1; track 23] (****) – for a full analysis, see D&K, p.177
one of Handel’s typical bird arias – derived from Rodrigo and used again in Giulio Cesare [‘‘L’alma mia’, whose catchy melody (not his own) was a favourite with Handel at all periods of his life’, D&K, p.120].
‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ [Disk 1; track 29] (***)

Act II
‘Siam prossimi al porto’ [Disk 2; track 1] (**) – another aria from that compendium‘Cor fedele’ [‘Clori, Tirsi e Fileno’].
‘Il vostro maggio’ [Disk 2; track 4] (***) – an unusual aria, sung by two Sirens (setting Handel an obvious problem – their music has to seduce).
Lascia ch’io pianga’ [Disk 2; track 12] (****) [‘it would be impossible to guess that the melody began as a dance for Asiatics in Almira. As in its distant relative ‘Verdi prati’, Handel obtains an intensely emotional effect from a simple tune and accompaniment in a major key with a minimum of accidentals. This perfection is scarcely susceptible of analysis’ D&K, p.178.]
‘Basta che sol tu chieda’ [Disk 2; track 14] (**) – taken from Agrippina.
‘Fermati/No crudel’ [Disk 2; track 17] (**) - ‘Cor fedele’ [‘Clori, Tirsi e Fileno’ again.]
‘Abbrucio, avvampo’ [Disk 2; track 19] (**)
Ah! crudel’ [Disk 2; track 21] (***) [‘The situation resembles that at the corresponding point in Alcina. ‘Ah! crudel’ is scarcely less profound than ‘Ah! mio cor’ as a revelation of the anguish in the sorceress’s heart, torn between involuntary love and anger [...] D&K, p.174.]
Vo’ far guerra’ [Disk 2; track 24] (***) [‘Although the material, based on an unpublished aria in Rodrigo, does not look memorable, the impact in the theatre is electrifying, thanks partly to the rhythms (with sudden bursts of triplet figuration) and partly [...] to the scoring’, D&K, p.176.]

‘Sorge nel petto’ [Disk 3; track 8] (***)
‘E’un incendio fra due venti’ [Disk 3; track 10] (***) – interesting sources, here: the vocal line from the well-used Italian cantata ‘Sorgi il dì’ [‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo’] (July, 1708), the ritornello from the ‘Amarilli vezzosa’ (again 1708); the ritornello was also used in Rodrigo (‘Il dolce foco mio’) and Agrippina (‘Col peso del tuo amor’) (making four outings in three years) and would be used to its best effect later in Flavio (‘Ricordati, mio ben’).
‘Al trionfo del nostro furore’ [Disk 3; track 15] (**)
Bel piacere’ [Disk 3; track 17] (***) – taken directly from Agrippina (see notes).
‘Or la tromba’ [Disk 3; track 22] (***) [‘another unfailingly effective piece, thanks to the brilliant orchestration, with four trumpets and drums as well as strings and oboes. It is the only aria Handel wrote for this combination, and it illustrates his marvellous sense of texture’ D&K, p.178.]


From Derek Alsop, ‘Strains of New Beauty’: Handel and the Pleasures of Italian Opera, 1711-28, in Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Roy Porter and Marie Mulvey Roberts (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996) pp. 133-163

The 'stage' had been set as early as 1706 with John Dennis's ludicrous and xenophobic attack against Italian opera: 'a Diversion of more pernicious consequence, than the most licentious Play that ever has appear'd upon the Stage'.1  His arguments are absurd, but certainly express a rich vein of anti-culture typical of the worst kind of provincial Englishness. 'Pleasure of Sense,' argues Dennis 'being too much indulged, makes Reason cease to be a Pleasure, and by consequence is contrary both to publick and private Duty'.2 The pleasures of Italian opera are too great for Dennis, offering, particularly, a threat to all young ladies, in its celebration of love and all its arts. French music is less a danger as it is 'by no means so meltingly moving as the Italian'.3 It's ironically amusing that such a silly and vituperative polemic should so manifestly reveal the intensity of the sensuous pleasures of Italian opera. But Dennis's real grouse seems to be that Italian opera is effeminate and foreign: 'the Reigning Luxury of Modern Italy, is that soft and effeminate Musick which abounds in the Italian Opera'.4 And the English, of all people, should least appreciate such entertainments:

What must those Strangers say, when they behold Englishmen applaud an Italian for Singing, or a Frenchman for Dancing, and the very Moment afterwards explode an Englishman for the very same things? What must they say, unless they have Candour enough to interpret it this way, that an Englishman is deservedly scorned by Englishmen, when he descends so far beneath himself, as to Sing or to Dance in publick, because by doing so he practises Arts which Nature has bestow'd upon effeminate Nations, but denied to him, as below the Dignity of his Country, and the Majesty of the British Genius.5

Actually, at least one of Dennis's objections should have been met by Handel's arrival ('But yet this must be allow'd, that tho' the Opera in Italy is a Monster, 'tis a beautiful harmonious Monster, but here in England 'tis an ugly howling one'6). But Handel's enterprise, in 1711, had more formidable literary arguments to overcome than from this raving nonsense. Rinaldo, like the operas which immediately preceded it, was attacked in the influential Spectator by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. Alexander Pope, who named both Dennis and Addison as his satiric targets, could dispense with Dennis as a mere dunce, but, in the very midst of attack had to acknowledge Addison's literary skills. However, there may have been an element of hubris in the Spectator's attacks, especially in Addison's emphasis on the absurdities of the Italian elements of the opera. Addison himself was the English librettist of the failed opera Rosamund, composed by the dire musician of Arsinoe, Thomas Clayton, and staged in 1707. Only two years after Arsinoe London opera audiences had learnt to expect more, and the production was dropped after a dismal three performances.

The Spectator's pillory was certainly a concerted attempt to discredit the Italian operas. Five numbers (5; 13; 14; 18; and 29) gave over their space to the ridicule of the increasingly popular new form, over a period of less than one month from March 6th to April 3rd, 1711. And though the sophistication of the critique offered here is incomparable with Dennis's clumsy, ill-conceived onslaught, there is still the condescending assumption that the English should have higher pleasures than the mere continentals:

If the Italians have a Genius for Musick above the English, the English have a Genius for other Performances of a much higher Nature, and capable of giving the Mind a much nobler Entertainment.7

The criticism of the use of Italian sources is interesting, as it reveals, aptly, the absurdities of the period preceding Handel's Rinaldo. As Dean and Knapp note: 'All the operas between Rosamund and Rinaldo were pasticcios processed locally from Italian materials'.8 Some of these were sung in Italian but others were  productions in both languages. The Spectator ridicules the absurdities of translation from the Italian which does not match the music:

I have known the Word And pursu'd through the whole Gamut, have been entertain'd with many a melodious The, and have heard the most beautiful Graces, Quavers and Divisions bestow'd upon Then, For, and From; to the eternal Honour of our English Particles.9

The macaronic use of both languages in the same opera was a manifestly unsatisfactory compromise, allowing Addison many further strokes of wit: 'The King or Hero of the Play generally spoke in Italian, and his Slaves answer'd him in English'.10 There are two possible answers to Addison's critique of linguistic impropriety:  either operas should be sung wholly in Italian, or librettos conceived in English should be sung in English. Despite the failure of the wholly English Rosamund (which also should have proved to Addison that the music is more important than the words), the former possibility was (illogically) seen to be an even greater impropriety:

At length the Audience grew tir'd of understanding Half the Opera, and therefore to ease themselves intirely of the Fatigue of Thinking, have so order'd it at Present that the whole Opera is perform'd in an unknown Tongue.11

'An unknown tongue'! Even allowing for satiric exaggeration this is a ridiculous claim. It is right to suppose that the majority of the audiences could not speak Italian, but this comment puts it in the same category as an Asian or African language. Anyway, for the Italian productions of Handel's period the audience was supplied with word books, giving fuller translations than are usually available to a modern opera audience. And the singers the audiences wanted to hear (like the great castrato Nicolini, whom even Addison admires) were Italians, so the impropriety of having them sing in English operas would have been considerable. There is an odd contradiction in a literary culture which expects the educated to have at least some Classical Latin, but then assumes that none (despite the increasing popularity of European tours) has any modern Italian. The parochialism of the Spectator has often been echoed since. When Roger Fiske, writing in 1986, acknowledges that the 'appeal of Italian Opera to intellectuals was fully justified', adding that 'Handel's music was of superb quality', his comments act as an unsuccessful apology for the following:

As in more recent years, it affected only a coterie of society people and intellectuals; the middle and lower class theatregoer inevitably preferred the playhouses where he could understand the words. But opera in a foreign tongue has always had a strong snob appeal for those who wish to be thought cleverer than they are.12

This is a helpful comment, because we, if we enjoy Wagner or Puccini, but do not wish to fall into the category of those 'intellectuals', can feel some of the insult that our fellow music lovers might have experienced reading Addison. Moreover, the assumption behind the linguistic criticisms is a false one: they imply that if we hear opera in our own tongue we immediately have a true understanding. Actually the opera lover who enjoys, for instance, Peter Grimes cannot fully follow the text or its plot as sung. We must either know the opera beforehand, or study the libretto whilst listening. Handel's audiences had at least the advantage that the material for many of the operas is derived from well-known sources, and often forms the subject for a number of operas in the period (hence the contemporary comment already quoted praising Ottone refers to another production of the same material). The stories of Amadigi, Ottone, Rinaldo, Caesar, Tamburlaine, and most of the other heroes and heroines of this period of Italian opera are already broadly familiar, so the problem of comprehension is less than might be imagined. The English critical reaction to Italian opera misses the point in yearning, as it sometimes does, for an English national opera in the early eighteenth century. The Italians (Nicolini was followed by the sensational success of Senesino; and we have already touched on the popularity of Cuzzoni and Faustina) and their language were exotic, sensuous, and glamorous: they did not inhibit the pleasures of the music - they made them possible. Even if one admits that for some there is a delusive sense of social  elevation in the enjoyment of things foreign, one has to ask whether this is not attractive in comparison with the stultifying xenophobic nationalism of Dennis, or the inverse snobbery of English anti-intellectualism.

The second focus for the Spectator's attack was the spectacle of the new operas; again an attack which ironically helps us to focus on the pleasures of such productions. The Spectator had great fun with the famous lion that appeared on stage in productions of Francesco Mancini's opera Idaspe (generally known as Hydaspes) from May 1710. The hero, played by Nicolini, was supposed to grapple with this costume lion, and Addison plays charmingly with the dramatic postures of the different wearers of the costume.  But Addison understands, at least, that his wit is pointless - the lion was a great success; there are even comments about the propriety of its performance:

In the evening we went to the opera 'Hidaspis'. ... The opera was very lovely in all respects, in composition, music and representation. ... In especial the representation of the lion with which Hidaspes has to fight was incomparably fine. The fellow who played him was not only wrapped in a lion-skin, but, moreover, nothing could be seen of his feet.13

Really, then, the Spectator is ridiculing the taste of opera audiences; its pleasures are seen to be trivial and laughable. With Handel's Rinaldo, though, as with  Teseo (1713) and Amadigi (1715), his other 'magic operas' (so called because they both have a sorceress who conjures up all kinds of visions and monsters) the opera audiences could enjoy state of the art special effects, both in the production and in the music. Rinaldo calls for two chariots, one drawn by white horses and blackamoors, the other drawn by two dragons issuing fire and smoke; furies and dreadful monsters (more fire and smoke); a delightful grove with singing birds in the trees; singing and dancing mermaids; a dreadful mountain prospect; an enchanted palace; a magician's cave; ugly enchanted spirits; and plentiful supplies of thunder, lightning and 'amazing noises'. Not all this was possible -  Steele notes that the horses drawing the chariot never appeared - but as much as was possible was done. Addison ridiculed the whole enterprize in the issue of March 6th. Especially ludicrous to him seemed the provision of real birds for the delightful grove:

As I was walking in the Streets about a Fortnight ago, I saw an ordinary Fellow carrying a Cage full of little Birds upon his Shoulder; and, as I was wondering with my self what Use he would put them to, he was met very luckily by an Acquaintance, who had the same Curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his Shoulder, he told him, that he had been buying Sparrows for the Opera. Sparrows for the Opera, says his Friend, licking his Lips, what are they to be roasted? No, no, says the other, they are to enter towards the end  of the first Act, and to fly about the Stage.14

For all Addison's humour here and elsewhere, his descriptions do suggest the excitement of these productions: 'Rinaldo is filled with Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations, and Fireworks'.15 Some self-appointed proprietors of eighteenth-century taste may have scorned such entertainments but the opera public loved them. Rinaldo was one of the greatest successes of the period. The publication of its songs alone was reputed to have made their publisher fifteen hundred pounds. As Christopher Hogwood notes, Rinaldo 'can be said to have settled the course of Handel's career and the future of opera in England'.16 In a sense the number of issues devoted by the Spectator to the mockery of Italian opera is a testament  to the futility of its arguments. The thirst for Italian opera was already established before the Spectator's first issue. Handel, after the famous opera successes of Rodrigo (1707) and Agrippina (1710) in Italy,  visited a London already predisposed to the success of Rinaldo. In Italy Cardinal Pamphili, patron of music and the arts, had written a cantata in praise of Handel (originally in Italian):

Sing all and raise each voice
To strains of new beauty,
And let your fingers play
To this new Orpheus' tune.17

So now London repeated the legendary phrase: Addison noted that the preface to Rinaldo referred to 'Minheer Hendel ' as 'the Orpheus of our Age'.18 Handel did not disappoint, despite Addison's idea that this is merely florid Italian overstatement. Typical of the 'strains of new beauty' was the sublime aria 'Lascia ch'io pianga' where 'Handel obtains an intensely emotional effect from a simple tune and accompaniment in a major key'.19 Dean and Knapp, notable for their close reading of the scores, go on simply to comment  'this perfection is scarcely susceptible of analysis'.20


1. John Dennis, An Essay on the Opera's After the Italian Manner, Which are about to be Establish'd on the English Stage, With some Reflections on the Damage which they may bring to the Publick (London: John Nutt, 1706), Preface, p.4.
2. Dennis, Preface, p.2.
3. Dennis, Preface, p.7.
4. Dennis, Preface, p.6.
5. Dennis, main text, p.13.
6. Dennis, main text, p.14.
7. Donald F. Bond (ed.) The Spectator, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), I, 81
8. Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel's Operas 1704 - 1726 (Oxford:
     Clarendon Press, 1987) p.146.
9. The Spectator, I, 80.
10. The Spectator, I, 80.
11. The Spectator, I, 81.
12. Roger Fiske, English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: OUP,
1986), p.66.
13. Quoted by H. C. Robbins Landon, Handel and His World (London:
            Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1984), p.75.
14. The Spectator, I, 23-24.
15. The Spectator, I, 24-25.
16. Christopher Hogwood, Handel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), p.65.
17. Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Bibliography (London: Adam
            and Charles Black,1955), p.25.
18. The Spectator, I, 26.
19. Dean and Knapp, p.178.
20. Dean and Knapp, p.178.



Monday, 18 February 2013

Notes on Almira

Almira, Königin von Castilien [Der in Kronen erlangte Glücks-Wechsel, oder: Almira Königin von Castilien] [8th January, 1705, Hamburg, Theater am Gänsemarkt]

[References are to the following recording of the opera –
Ann Monoyios; Patricia Rozario; Linda Gerrard; David
Thomas; Douglas Nasrawi; Jamie MacDougall; Olaf Haye;
Christian Elsner; Fiori musicali; Andrew Lawrence-King
Radio Bremen CPO 999 275-2]

[The system of asterisks reflects the author’s appreciation of
the arias, etc – * = noteworthy; ** = excellent; *** = outstanding.]

[References to ‘D&K’ are to Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp’s Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).]


Act I
‘Almire regiere’ (**) [Disk 1; track 2] – an early variant of ‘Vanne in campo’ from Roderigo
Sarabande (***) [Disk 1; track 4] – an early instrumental anticipation of ‘Lascia ch'io pianga’ from Rinaldo
‘Schönste Rosen’ (**) [Disk 1; track 10]
‘Liebliche Wälder’ (**) [Disk 1; track 14]
‘Geloso tormento’ (***) [Disk 1; track 18] [‘The contrasted dynamics of the ritornello, a dialogue for solo oboe and strings with alternate piano and forte bars, establish a tension that is not permitted to relax’, D&K]

Act II
‘Chi sa, mia spema’ (**) [Disk 2; track 4] - later adapted as ‘Barbaro fato’ in Partenope
‘Mi da speranza al core’ (**) [Disk 2; track 13]
‘Move i passi a le ruine’ (***) [Disk 2; track 15] – adapted for Agrippina, but also used again in a range of works, including Radamisto, Orlando and Acis and Galatea
‘Sonera la piaga’ (**) [Disk 2; track 18]
‘Der Himmel wird strafen’ (**)[Disk 2; track 20]

‘Quilt, ihr überhäuften Zähren’ (**) [Disk 3; track 5]
‘Vedrai, s’a tuo dispetto’ (***) [Disk 3; track 12] [D&K refer to ‘the sudden pause on a diminished seventh on the word ‘crudele’ as an ‘effective use of cliché’]
‘Kachet ihr Adern’ (**) [Disk 3; track 14]
‘Werthe Schrift’ (**) [Disk 3; track 16]

Handel’s first opera is at times a kind of work-book for the later operas, with a number of arias and other material appearing (with variations) again in Rodrigo, Agrippina, Rinaldo, Radamisto, Giulio Cesare, Partenope, Orlando, and Giustino. The use of variations on the theme of ‘Lascia ch'io pianga’ (twice, as sarabandes in Acts I and II) is a typical example. It’s an odd opera – Hamburg obviously did not object to the macaronic combination of German and Italian. At times it’s more opera buffa than opera seria. The accompaniment often suggests a chamber opera (the bassoon featuring particularly to confirm the comic aspect), but the main element of farce is in the characterisation of the servant Tabarco [given as ‘Fabarco’ in Deutsch’s Documentary Biography, p.15]. He is clearly a type, deriving (according to D&K) from the Venetian tradition, but echoing and anticipating all such operatic comic types (including Mozart’s later equivalents): his speech is idiomatic; he provides a sardonic commentary on the main action; he runs about stage; falls over; pries into the secrets of his betters; complains about his ailments and his treatment; etc. It’s interesting to see the beginning of Handel’s use of standard forms. The ‘da capo’ aria is not fully established here: for instance, the ‘ritornello’ sometimes acts as an instrumental coda to a one-section ‘cavatina’ aria (as if it forms a ‘B’ section, without da capo). There is a striking early use of dramatic accompagnato, in three sections, most impressively as Almira expresses her love-anguish (‘Ich kann nicht mehr’) before her Italian complaint ‘Move i passi’ – oddly, the combination of German and Italian, here, is most effective. Only an imperfect copy of the original score survives, thanks probably to a later production by Telemann.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Some Thoughts on Imeneo

There are many articles and extracts in this archive which, I hope, show a proper degree of scholarship. But one of the great pleasures of writing a ‘blog’ is an occasional freedom from the rigours of academic life – an opportunity to speculate beyond evidence. I have just listened again to Handel’s penultimate opera, Imeneo, so this seems an ideal opportunity to offer an unsupported and rather fanciful reading. The argument begins  with one aria: Tirinto’s ‘Piena il core di timore’. Unlike Mozart (often) and even Puccini (occasionally, as in the profoundly moving ‘Senza mamma’ from Suor Angelica), Handel didn’t ‘throw away’ his best arias; he knew them for what they were and exploited them, sublimely. A secure measure of some of his best songs is their length. Acknowledging variations of tempi, my collection of opera recordings gives Rinaldo’s ‘Cara sposa’ at over ten minutes and Ariodante’s ‘Scherza infida’ at nearly nine minutes. But ‘Piena il core’ comes in at over twelve minutes, I think the longest aria in the whole collection of over forty Italian operas. And it’s an astonishing piece. I quote Winton Dean: ‘The aria strikes like the crack of doom on the lover threatened by the loss of his beloved’ (Dean, 455).

[Dean gives his usual brilliant analysis, but the effect is frankly indescribable, so just listen

As an evocation of impassioned, doomed, love, this aria is unparalleled.

Tirinto’s lover is Rosmene, who has been rescued from a pirate attack by the ‘hero’ Imeneo, who has confidently claimed her hand in reward. The entire opera is devoted to Rosmene’s ‘choice’ between the two ‘lovers’ Tirinto and Imeneo. Imeneo, meanwhile, is loved by Clomiri, another woman he has saved in the pirate escapade. As Tirinto has all the best music, and many more arias than Imeneo, the pattern should be clear. Rosmene, feeling the duty of her thankfulness to Imeneo, should nevertheless favour passion over responsibility, and renounce Imeneo for Tirinto. The music confirms such a choice. Dean again: ‘Imeneo […] is a cold fish […] Neither of Imeneo’s arias  probes far below the surface, and both are marked by a conspicuous lack of passion’ (Dean, 455-56). When Rosmene makes the choice of her heart, for Tirinto, this will leave Clomiri free to marry Imeneo, and the opera will end in a chorus of celebration. But this typical, obvious, and neatly symmetrical denouement – so familiar from earlier domestic operas - doesn’t take place. For those familiar with Handel’s plots, the end of this opera is a scandal. Rosmene opts for the cold fish, preferring duty over passion, and poor Clomiri is left stranded and abandoned (without comment). For those who assume that Handel’s Italian operas offer merely conventional plots, this is a shocking ending.

The opera is an example of Handel’s work in a diminished context; having lost his great stages and singers to rival companies he creates the perfect chamber opera. Nothing hangs on Clomiri’s decision; there are no serious dynastic or heroic consequences as in so many of Handel’s Royal Academy operas. The musical forces are minimal, so the opera can concentrate on the love triangle without external interference. But why on earth would Handel so betray the conventional rules? Clearly Tirinto is the right match for Rosmene. And Rosmene’s passion must confirm this: she even feigns madness to express her torment of decision. The music dictates there is only one choice … but she takes the other. And the final chorus, far from offering the usual platitudes (everyone united with the right partner at last), gives a somber and unappealing plea for rationality over love:

Se consulta il suo dover
nobil’alma, o nobil cor,
non mai piega a’ suoi voler;
ma ragion seguendo và.

When did reason and justice ever overcome the heart in opera? It’s an anti-opera message.

But what if Handel was creating a message for the end of his opera-writing career? There is no doubt that his first commitment was to the writing of Italian operas. This was his first and final object. Writing Imeneo, after thirty years of success and failure, after establishing Italian opera in London and fighting off his opponents, the struggle was nearly over. Rival companies had already had considerable success with Handel’s own English works; the Opera of the Nobility had strained the craving for Italian operas to its limit. Handel was about to have his greatest successes with English oratorio, for which he would remain famous for over two hundred years (my grandmother, a brilliant, self-taught woman, pianist, and lover of Handel’s music, died in 1979 without knowing any of Handel’s operas). In fact Imeneo shows the influence of Handel’s new direction, with its significant and dramatic choruses (in earlier operas the ‘chorus’ was usually only a coda, sung by the lead singers alone, to signify the end of the opera).

But, in Imeneo, Handel gives all of his best music, and one of his greatest ever arias to a man doomed to failure. Tirinto’s wonderful music is futile. Duty and responsibility win the day, and Handel, against all his most powerful inclinations has to give up the love of his life to public taste.

Imeneo is about sacrifice. The simpler (powerful, impeccable) justice of Solomon is waiting in the wings. Reason will triumph and the heart will have to learn its painful lesson. The passion of Handel’s life was coming to an end.




Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Notes on Alessandro Severo

Alessandro Severo: King’s Theatre, 25th February, 1738 (6 performances)
Pasticcio opera with music from Arianna, Arminio, Atalanta, Berenice, Ezio, Giustino, Orlando, Siroe, Riccardo Primo and Radamisto (‘Non hò più affanni’)

1732 - 1737 Handel had been in rivalry with the Opera of the Nobility

1737 Opera of the Nobility collapses - they had lost some of their star singers at the end of the 1736-37 season: Senesino, Cuzzoni.

1737, 14th May, paper reports Handel’s “paraletick disorder”: “he having at present no Use of his Right Hand, which, if he don’t regain, the Publick will be depriv’d of his fine Compositions”. He recovered at the vapour-baths at Aix-la-Chapelle.
1737, 11th June - Opera of the Nobility’s last performance.

1737, October/November - Handel returns refreshed and cured; begins Faramondo.

1737, 29th November, Queen Caroline dies (Handel composes The ways of Zion do mourn

1737 Probable negotiations between Heidegger (impressario and manager of the King’s Theatre (originally the site of Handel Royal Academy years, then home to the Opera of the Nobility) and Handel, which sees him take over as composer in January 1738

1738, 3rd January, first performance of Faramondo.

1738, 14th February, Handel completes Serse (composed in less than two months!)

1738, 25th February, first performance of Alessandro Severo: “for the opera company’s second production in 1738 he put together another pasticcio opera from his own music, Alessandro Severo. His cast consisted almost entirely of Italians, nd he did not even attempt a run of English or bilingual oratorios during Lent” (Burrows).

The work belongs to the last fling of Handel’s Italian opera career in London.Handel was to produce only a dozen more Italian opera performances - Serse (5 perfs), Imeneo (2 perfs), another Italian pasticcio (2 perfs) and finally, on 10th February, 1741 Deidamia(3 perfs), - and his career was to turn comprehensively to the English oratorios which had increasingly superceded the operas.

1738, 26th June, a notice from Heidegger reads: “Whereas the Opera’s for the ensuing Season at the King’s Theatre in the Hay-Market, cannot be carried on as was intended, by Reason of the Subscription not being full, and that I could not agree with the Singers th[ough] I offer’d One Thousand Guineas to One of them: I therefore think myself oblig’d to declare that I give up the Undertaking for next Year” [The offer was probably made to Caffarelli].

For the new season, beginning 3rd January, 1738, Handel had gathered a remarkable cast, certainly his last great opera cast.

Alessandro - Gaetano Majorano (castrato soprano) [known as Caffarelli]
Sallustia - Elisabeth Duparc (soprano)
Claudio - Margherita Chimenti (soprano)
Albina - Maria Antonia Marchesini (mezzo-soprano)
Giulia - Antonia Margherita Merighi (alto)
Marziano - Antonio Montagnana (bass)

Antonio Montagnana, a bass with a remarkable range , who had arrived in London in 1731. Burney claimed Handel’s scoring for him in Ezio “was manifestly intended to exhibit the peculiar power of the singer” - In Montagnana, Handel had a base who would allow the fullest expression of his imitative skills. Scales and leaps requiring astonishing security and versatility, calling on the full range of Montagnana's two octaves from high to low F's. Bravura arias demanding great vocal agility in rapid coloratura passagework and trills and melismas.

Elizabeth Duparc, La Francesina [because she was a Frenchwoman, trained in Italy] “whose ‘natural warble, and agility of voice’ clearly pleased the composer and who was destined to take Strada’s place as his prima donna in the coming decade” (Keates) She was famed for what Burney called her “lark-like execution” and came to have all the leading roles (she was, for instance, Handel’s Semele).

Gaetano Majorano, Il Caffarelli “vain and quarrelsome both in his professional and his private life, but a performer who made an unforgettable impression upon all who heard him and a worthy rival to Farinelli” (Keates). His temperament was exactly the opposite of Farinelli’s courteousness; his career “above all else ... earned the castrati their reputation for ridiculous and insupportable vanity” (Heriot). At one performance in Italy, the official report of his performance claimed he had been “disturbing the other performers, acting in a manner bordering on lasciviousness (on stage) with one of the female singers, conversing with the spectators in the boxes from the stage, ironically echoing whichever member of the company was singing an aria, and finally refusing to sing the ripieno with the others”. [He was briefly imprisoned, but released by the King’s orders.


Antonia Maria Merighi, sang during the second period of the Royal Academy (1729-31), with substantial roles in Lotario, Partenope, and Poro. Returned to sing in the last period of the Opera of the Nobility, and, when it collapsed remained to take part in Handel’s new season.

Maria Antonia Marchesini, a mezzo, known as ‘La Lucchesina’


When lo! a Harlot form soft sliding by,
With mincing step, small voice, and languid eye;
Foreign her air, her robe’s discordant pride
In patch-work flutt’ring, and her head aside
.” (Alexander Pope)

PASTICCIO - from the Italian for a pie or pasty = a mix up, a mess, a hotchpotch, therefore an opera made up of fragments.

His adaptations using the music of other composers, arranged and augmented by Handel - there are nine of these (some of them particularly based on the work of a single composer).
His self-plagiarism, adapting his own music, with additional recitative and instrumentation to a new (or rather old) libretto - this is what he does in Alessandro Severo - there are three of these.

Alessandro Severo, though not a great success, had more performances than any of Handel’s last three newly composed operas. But this was not an unusual pattern. The public was used to pasticcio, and didn’t seem to object to it in the same way that Pope did. Indeed the London stage’s earliest experiences of Italian opera was in pasticcio operas assembled from the work of numerous different composers and sources.

Pasticcios are versatile - songs can easily be included or excluded.
Liberties can freely be taken, which would otherwise compromise coherently designed operas.
They offer an opportunity to import different styles - to include, for instance, the latest, most fashionable Italian music.
To a composer as busy as Handel they offer immediate variety for an opera season (Handel, after all, even at his most creative could only compose four masterpieces in a year or so (!), and he needed new attractions all the time).
And the audiences wanted to hear collections of their favourite arias, just as the music publishers would offer for sale collections of arias from different operas in single volumes.
The pasticcio, after all, is just an eighteenth-century compilation.
Also Handel’s own work was readily adapted by others in pasticcios, sometimes in rival productions, so he wasn’t doing anything unusual.

The ready acceptance of pasticcio operas suggests a very different culture from our own: the values associated with artistic coherence and originality belong more to modernism than to the eighteenth-century, with its natural mistrust of newness for its own sake. In an episodic tradition it is easy to vary the episodes of any given narrative.


This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that pasticcios are completely without coherence.
Alessandro Severo was based on a 1717 Italian libretto by Apostolo Zeno. It is a remarkable compilation of music from 10 other operas, stretching from the Radamisto, which opened Handel’s Royal Academy career in 1720 to the three new operas of the previous (1737) season, Arminio, Giustino, and Berenice: and therefore is a kind of summation of Handel’s career as London opera composer.

It is typical of Handel’s material - a combination of the heroic subject - the Roman emperor Alessandro Severus - and the domestic intrigues through which power struggles at court are organised. We have the typical figures of the jealous mother (Giulia); the patient and misused wife (Sallustia); the traitor(Marcianus) that we find in so many of the operas of the period, so it was not, perhaps, as difficult as it might seem for Handel to find all the music suitable for his needs. He had composed on these themes for the last twenty years and more.

Ultimate historical source – Herodian: Alessandro Severo - Severus Alexander (222-235). The history has him as a benign, virtuous, democratic ruler - not an effective commander, but this fault is secondary to the repeated accusations that he is governed by his mother - Julia Avita Mamaea [Giulia in the opera]

“She tried to control and dominate him ...”

“His mother provided a wife for him from a patrician family, but, though he lived with her and loved her, Mamaea banished her from the palace with insults. Wishing to be the only empress, Mamaea was jealous of the title of Augusta going to the girl. The abuse went to such lengths that the father of the girl [Marziano in the opera] ... could not stand the insults ... [and] took refuge in the military camp” (The Roman soldiers who kill him call him a “sissy”) [From the LOEB transliteration of Herodian]

Works Cited
Donald Burrows, Handel (Oxford: OUP, 1994)
Angus Heriot, The Castrati in Opera (London: Calder and Boyars, 1956)
Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and his Music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985)