Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Handel’s Rinaldo – An Introduction

The following is a draft entry for The Literary Encyclopedia Online (the entry was published online in July, 2012)

The first performance of Handel’s Italian opera Rinaldo, in 1711, was one of the most important events in the history of opera production in England. There had been other operas in “the Italian manner of Musick” (Dean and Knapp, 142), as early as 1705, but Rinaldo was the work that truly established the genre. After his great success in Italy with Rodrigo (Florence, 1707) and Agrippina (Venice, 1709), Handel chose London as his next stage, and was to dominate the musical scene there until his death in 1759. His commitment to Italian opera would see the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music, in 1719, and the composition of over forty operas (all in Italian). Under Handel’s direction, London would become the opera capital of the world, signing up, at enormous expense, the best international singers, including the sensational Italian castrati.

The cast-list of the first production at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket (later, after Queen Anne’s death, the King’s Theatre) confirms the exotic international nature of the enterprise: Signora Francesca Vanini-Boschi; Mademoiselle Isabella Girardeau; Signor Niccolò Grimaldi (a famous castrato, known as Nicolini); Signor Valentino Urbani; Signor Giuseppe Maria Boschi; Signora Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti; and Signor Giuseppe Cassani. The only Briton – simply Mr. Lawrence – was assigned the insignificant role of herald (Deutsch, 34).

The libretto was a collaboration between Aaron Hill (the director of the theatre) and Giacomo Rossi (who had settled in London some years earlier), loosely based on a poem about the Crusades by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Goffredo, General of the Christian forces against the Saracens, promises the hero Rinaldo the hand of his daughter Almirena for helping him take the besieged city of Jerusalem, guarded by Argante, King of the region. Argante’s lover, the sorceress Armida uses her magic to abduct Almirena and capture Rinaldo. She becomes besotted with Rinaldo, as Argante does with Almirena (leading to various expressions of jealousy and revenge until the two “villains” are again united before the last battle). Finally Rinaldo and Almirena are liberated, the city is taken, hero and heroine embrace and there is general rejoicing (and a sudden conversion to Christianity amongst the heathens).

London had seen nothing as spectacular as this first of Handel’s several “magic operas”, with its “delightful” and “dreadful” scene settings, its battles, enchantments, monsters, mermaids, spirits, fire, thunder and lightning. The opera was an immediate success. Its thirteenth performance was advertised as its last but two more followed “at the Desire of several Persons of Quality” (Deutsch, 42). The publication of its songs alone made their publisher fifteen hundred pounds. The production was the talk of the town.

The literary world, though, was unimpressed. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele set out to ridicule the whole enterprise, giving over five numbers of the Spectator (5;13;14;18; and 29) to the critique of the new Italian venture. Their target was not only Handel’s new opera, but the pasticcio operas (operas put together from various sources) and macaronic productions (sung in both English and Italian) that prevailed before Handel’s arrival. The Spectator’s assault was certainly witty:

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. (Spectator, 80)

The use of both languages in the same opera was manifestly unsatisfactory, 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” (Spectator, 80). Handel’s arrival, as his first biographer John Mainwaring noted, “put an end” to the “reign of nonsense” (Mainwaring, 78), and Rinaldo was neither a pasticcio, nor macaronic, but an original composition in one language based on a new libretto. But this did not satisfy Addison, who had a personal axe to grind against Italian musical drama. He was the librettist of the English opera Rosamund (with music by Thomas Clayton), a complete failure when staged in 1707. His Spectator found the extravagant staging of Rinaldo ridiculous. He mocked Nicolini (whose singing was felt by others to be the highlight of the opera) “exposed to a Tempest in Robes of Ermin, and sailing in an open Boat upon a Sea of Paste-Board” (Spectator, 23); he was astounded to meet “an ordinary Fellow carrying a Cage full of little Birds”, not to be roasted and eaten but “to enter towards the end of the first Act [. . .] to fly about the Stage” (Spectator, 24); and he felt the terrible scenes to be less than intimidating:

 [T]he opera of Rinaldo is filled with Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations and Fireworks; which the Audience may look upon without catching Cold, and indeed, without much Danger of being burnt; for there are several Engines filled with Water, and ready to play at a Minute’s Warning. (Spectator, 24-25)

Steele’s ridicule went further, finding Rinaldo less successful than Mr Powell’s Punch and Judy show playing in Covent Garden, a comparison that allows him final swipes against the castrati and the use of Italian:

I shall only observe one thing further, in which both Dramas agree; which is, that by the Squeak of their Voices the Heroes of each are Eunuchs; and as the Wit in both Pieces are equal, I must prefer the Performance of Mr. Powell, because it is in our own Language. (Spectator, 65)

The Spectator’s satire, though, was ineffective, and Italian opera was to grow in status and celebrity over the next twenty to thirty years.

Handel’s score more than lived up to the challenge of the libretto. The greatest music historian of the eighteenth century, Charles Burney (father of Frances Burney the novelist) noted that the opera was “so superior in composition to any opera of that period which had ever been performed in England, that its great success does honour to our nation” (Burney, 225). Before arriving in England, Handel’s success in Italy had already led Cardinal Pamphili, in a dedicatory cantata, to urge everyone to:

Sing all and raise each voice

To strains of new beauty,

And let your fingers play

To this new Orpheus' tune. (Deutsch, 25)

Rossi, in his foreword to the libretto for Rinaldo repeated the idea, referring to “Signor Hendel” as the “Orfeo del nostro Secolo” (“Orpheus of our age”). It is apt, then, that the plot of the opera implies comparison with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as Rinaldo searches for his lost Almirena (Curtis Price has explored the parallels and the “Orphic imagery” in his article “English Traditions in Handel’s Rinaldo”).

There are many highlights in Rinaldo, but amongst the “strains of new beauty” Almirena’s sublime aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” remains the most famous. Almirena, imprisoned in Armida’s enchanted palace, laments her fate and asks just to be left alone to weep. The aria leaves even Dean and Knapp, the most exhaustive modern analysts of Handel’s operas, speechless: “This perfection is scarcely susceptible of analysis”(Dean and Knapp, 178). Rinaldo’s best aria is “Cara sposa” which concludes a magnificent sequence in the first Act. The scene begins in a “delightful Grove in which the birds are heard to sing, and seen flying up and down among the Trees” (the birds so mocked by Addison). Rinaldo is blissfully with his Almirena, who sings “Augelletti che cantante”, Handel using his famous skills of imitation to echo the singing birds with two flutes and a piccolo. The two then share loving compliments before singing a charming duet. At the height of their joy, Armida appears and seizes Almirena. Rinaldo squares up to defend his lover, but then “a black Cloud descends, all fill’d with dreadful Monsters spitting Fire and Smoke on every side” (Rinaldo, 12-17). Under cover of this monstrous storm (with furious symphonic accompaniment) Armida makes off with Almirena. Bereft, Rinaldo sings his “Cara sposa”, where “the imploring accents of the voice are set against an intricately woven string accompaniment of great emotional intensity, with the parts constantly crossing” (Dean and Knapp, 178). The sequence shows Handel’s unrivalled ability to shift moods, from joy and delight to alarm, fear and despair in a few pages of score.

Overall, though, the best of the music belongs to Armida. She is the first of Handel’s several wonderful sorceresses, and her portrait, from aria to aria, shows the emotional range we associate with Handel’s greatest characters. She is furious, vengeful, spiteful, jealous, anxious and desolate – a cruel tormentor, but, herself, cruelly tormented.

Modern commentators have tended to agree that the historical importance of Rinaldo outweighs its musical achievement, though, like Dean and Knapp, they have found much to admire. Handel went on to write much better Italian operas, including the acknowledged masterpieces Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda and Ariodante (all with separate entries in this encyclopedia). But such operas might never have been written, or performed in London, without the success of Rinaldo.

Works Cited

Bond, Donald F. (ed.). The Spectator, 5 vols, Volume I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1965.
Burney, Charles. A General History of Music, 4 vols, Volume IV. London: T. Becket et al. 1789.
Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995.
Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955.
Hill, Aaron and Giacomo Rossi. Rinaldo, Opera. London: T. Howlatt. 1711.
Mainwaring, John. Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel. London: R. and J. Dodsley. 1760.
Price, Curtis. “English Traditions in Handel’s Rinaldo” in Handel: Tercentenary Collection, ed. Stanley Sadie and Anthony Hicks. 120-37. Basingstoke: Macmillan. 1987.


Recommended Reading
Burrows, Donald (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Handel. Cambridge: CUP. 1997. (Full of fascinating articles giving the cultural and musical context for Handel’s compositions.)
Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994 (The best general study of Handel’s life and music in context, with exhaustive Appendices.)
Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995. (This most important reference work for Handel’s early operas gives not only a comprehensive account of Rinaldo (168-205), but also a survey of the context relating to Handel’s first London production (140-67).)
Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955. (As with all Handel’s works, the most important source of contemporary information, commentary and reception.)
Price, Curtis, “English Traditions in Handel’s Rinaldo” in Handel: Tercentenary Collection, ed. Stanley Sadie and Anthony Hicks. Basingstoke: Macmillan. 1987. 120-37. (A fascinating account of the genesis of the opera, textually and musically.)



1 comment: