[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;
Music: Christopher Hogwood Academy of Ancient
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).
‘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.177one 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] (***)
‘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
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
that the music is more important than the words), the former possibility was
(illogically) seen to be an even greater
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
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
already predisposed to the success of Rinaldo.
Cardinal Pamphili, patron of music and the arts, had written a cantata in
praise of Handel (originally in Italian): Italy
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.