Tuesday, 30 May 2000

Radamisto and the Royal Academy


The following is a draft for a radio programme, presented as ‘Handel, Radamisto, and the Royal Academy’, produced by Paul Hindmarsh, for BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio 3, 30/5/2000.

Handel, Radamisto, and the Royal Academy
There are few works as important to the history of opera in England as Handel's Radamisto, the first of his operas for the Royal Academy of Music. Its production, in 1720, confirmed Handel's place as the greatest composer of Italian opera in London, and helped open a phase which would see London become the opera capital of the world. Over the next few years, during the first period of the Royal Academy which ended in 1728, Handel would follow the brilliance of Radamisto with other masterpieces for the English stage - including  Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda - to be sung by the best singers money could buy.

There had been  Italian opera successes in London before, though they'd always been controversial. Early in the century, before Handel's arrival, commentators such as John Dennis had set the stage for attacking what was essentially seen as an effeminate and un-British Italian diversion "of more pernicious consequence, than the most licentious Play that ever has appeared upon the Stage", depending on the practice of "Arts which Nature has bestow'd upon effeminate Nations, but denied to [us] as below the Dignity of [our] Country, and the Majesty of the British Genius."

The literary establishment, if more balanced in its judgement,  joined in the critique, and Addison and Steele's Spectator pilloried the rising form in a series of satirical articles:

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.

Even Handel's first London success with Italian opera - his Rinaldo of 1711 - was satirized for its spectacular excesses. Addison, the author of the attack, gave as an anecdote an interview with a fellow carrying a cage full of sparrows on his shoulder; when asked what they were for he replies '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, to fly about the Stage".

But, whatever the critics might say about such entertainments, the opera public loved them. Handel's Rinaldo was one of the greatest successes of the period. The publication of its songs alone was reputed to have made their publisher some fifteen hundred pounds. The course of Handel's commitment to Italian opera was firmly established. He returned to Hanover in 1712, but was back the next season with Teseo. Soon, after several other Italian productions, Handel was an established figure in London. He had already received a state pension, and had found welcoming lodgings with the Duke of Chandos and the Earl of Burlington, the greatest patron of the period,. With the Hanoverian succession complete, Handel found not only the support of Earls and Dukes, but of his own German patron, the Elector of Hanover, now George the First. Radamisto would be dedicated to the King, who, in return, would allow Handel a royal privilege of copyright, first to be used for the same opera:

Whereas George Fredrick Handel, of our City of London, Gent. hath humbly represented to Us, That he hath with great Labour and Expence composed several Works, consisting of Vocal and Instrumental MUSICK, in order to be Printed and Published; and hath therefore besought Us to grant him Our Royal Privilege and Licence for the sole Printing and Publishing thereof for the Term of Fourteen Years: We being willing to give all due Encouragement to Works of this Nature, are graciously pleased to condescend to his Request.


The right patronage was now available for the most remarkable venture in English opera history. As Handel's first biographer, Mainwaring, observed:

A project was formed by the Nobility for erecting an academy at the Haymarket. The intention of this musical Society, was to secure to themselves a constant supply of Operas to be composed by HANDEL, and performed under his direction.

In an unprecedented expression of artistic venture capital (with little promise of return, considering the enormous cost of opera productions) £10,000 of stock in the new company was bought by an elite group of investors, the King allowing an annual £1,000 to support the scheme. So began, giving a peculiarly capitalist slant to its title, the period of the Royal ‘Academy’ of Music in the early months of 1719.

On February 21st the Original Weekly Journal announced that Handel had gone abroad to gather together  "the choicest Singers in Europe" for the new company.

So exciting was news of the venture that this journal had actually anticipated Handel's departure by three months.  On May 14th the Lord Chamberlain, as Governor of the new Academy, issued a warrant to 'Mr Hendel to procure Singers for the English Stage':

Whereas His Majesty has been graciously Pleas'd to Grant Letters Patents to the Severall Lords and Gent [lemen] mention'd in the Annext List for the Encouragement of Operas for and during the Space of Twenty one Years, and Likewise as a further encouragement has been graciously Pleas'd to Grant a Thousand Pounds p[er].A [nnum]. for the Promotion of this design. ... You forthwith to repair to Italy, Germany or such other Place or Places as you shall think proper, there to make Contracts with such Singer or Singers as you shall judge fit to perform on the English Stage. ...


The warrant appended specific instruction to Handel:



    That Mr Hendel either by himself of such Correspondenc[e] as he shall think fit procure proper Voices to Sing in the Opera for one Year and no more....
    That Mr Hendel engage Senezino as soon as possible to Serve the said Company and for as many Years as may be.
    That in case Mr Hendel meet with an excellent Voice of the first rate he is to Acquaint the Govr and Company forthwith of it and upon what Terms he or She may be had.


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. Though the Academy had to wait until the end of 1720 to secure its star attraction, the castrato Senesino, Handel returned having secured the services of the famous soprano Margherita Durastanti and other signings soon followed. Durastanti was to take the title role in the first production of Radamisto (which Senesino would take over when he arrived for the second production), and although the librettist and first secretary of the Royal Academy, Paolo Rolli, had described her as "a bad choice for England" with the odd justification that she was "an elephant", Handel was certainly impressed with her voice, and had written for her previously both in Rome and Venice. She was to receive five hundred pounds for three months from March and a further eleven hundred pounds if she stayed for the next fifteen months. Italian Opera with these international stars, was scandalously expensive. London was paying more than any other city for the most celebrated voices available. The celebrated prima donna Faustina, who would follow Durastanti to England in the same decade to sing for Handel could earn seven hundred and fifty pounds a year more in London than in Venice. This was speculative investment on a grand scale, and one parallel in particular appealed to the satirists. Several notices in 'The Theatre' magazine, edited ironically enough by Richard Steele, whose Spectator had ridiculed Handel's first London opera nine years previously, made the association clear. March the first's edition commented tersely: 'Yesterday South Sea was 174. Opera Company 83, and a half. No transfer.' The second, a week later, developed the humour:

At the Rehearsal on Friday last, Signior NIHILINI BENEDITTI rose half a note above his Pitch formerly known. Opera Stock from 83 and a half, when he began; at 90 when he ended.

The campaign came to an elaborate conclusion on the 12th of March, with a letter purporting to be from 'Musidorus':

'Sir,
            Your last Paper very rightly and with great Justice, notify'd to the Town the Rise of the Opera-Stock, occasion'd by the elevation of half a Note above the usual Pitch of Signior Beneditti. I hope, Sir, you will allow no one hereafter to call him no Man, when you shall have heard from me, how much he is a Man of Honour. It happen'd, Sir, in the casting the Parts for the new Opera, that he had been, as he conceiv'd greatly injur'd; and, the other Day apply'd to the Board of Directors [...] for Redress. He set forth, in the recitative Tone, the nearest approaching ordinary Speech, that he had never acted any thing, in any other Opera, below the Character of a Sovereign; or, at least, a Prince of the Blood; and now he was appointed to be a Captain of the Guard, and a Pimp ... he found Friends, and was made a Prince.'

Vertiginous salaries, very high voices - hitting notes musical and raising notes sterling: the parallel is a gift to the authors, here. They cannot resist, of course, typically robust English humour about the castrati - the name 'Nihilini Beneditti' compounds the earlier castrato star of London's opera stage - the Nicolini of Handel's Rinaldo - with a tenor in the present company, Benedetto Baldassari. Actually, the anecdote about refusing to play such a minor role almost certainly relates to Baldassari's role of Fraarte in the first production of Radamisto.  The improbable 'rise' of a male castrato voice finds its metaphorical equivalent in the rise of South Sea stock. The idea that the 'he' who has been "greatly injured", should not be called 'no man' is a joke about castration - hence he is only a 'man of honour'. 'NIHILINI', plays on 'nihil' - nothing, thing of no value, or, in legal terms 'being found without the goods'.


In the summer of 1720, between first and second productions of Radamisto the South Sea Bubble actually did burst. Rolli, in the same letter which announced the arrival to London of the most famous castrato of his day - Senesino - also commented on the current financial disaster: "My dear Riva, what ruination has the Southsea crash caused! The whole nobility is at its last gasp; only gloomy faces are to be seen. "  Handel himself must have lost money, for he had certainly invested at least five hundred pounds in the scheme. But the nobility was certainly not at its last gasp, as it could still afford to pay Senesino an unprecedented fee of  £2,000, an astonishing amount at the time.

And if London, in 1720, was in a fever about the stock market, it certainly seemed almost equally excited about Italian opera.  The Royal Academy's first season opened with Giovanni Porta's opera Numitore on April 2nd, 1720, little more than an appetizer for Handel's first Academy production  of Radamisto. Senesino hadn't arrived yet, but the fervour of anticipation was none the less for that. The first night, on April 27th, according to Mainwaring, was a night to remember:

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.

Those who made it were not disappointed. Handel, always ready and able to rise to an occasion like this, had composed a masterpiece. For the second production, eight months later,  he was able to call on the spectacular Senesino for the title role, and the consequent re-arranging of parts, and additional writing to suit and emphasise his voice led to a significantly new version: Applebee's 'Original Weekly Journal' for the 31st December, 1720, recorded another successful first night:

On Wednesday Night [the 28th] the Royal Family with a great Number of the Nobility, etc. were to see the New Opera, call's Rhadamistus ... Signior Nicoleni, the famous Italian Eunuch, is newly arriv'd here from Venice, and Sang last Wednesday Night at the New Opera with great Applause.


This wasn't the only report to mix up Nicolini with the actual performer Senesino. The identity of the performer was obviously less noteworthy to the uninitiated than the fact that he was a castrato. In fact the association between the two was natural enough, and not only because they were reported to look alike. The directors of the Royal Academy certainly knew that the sensational castrati had special pulling power. Nicolini had been the first great castrato to perform in England and Senesino was following in his glorious footsteps to establish an even greater age of Italian opera.

Both versions of Radamisto were worthy of its important place in the history of opera in London.

Not only did Handel reveal a complete mastery of the high heroic mode of opera seria, but also revealed his profoundest capacity to move. The most famous of the opera's arias was (and of course, remains) Radamisto's 'Ombra cara', where the hero laments the 'dear shade' of his wife who he mistakenly believes dead. It's an aria which almost beggars description. 'Of  'Ombra Cara', confess two modern scholars, 'it is difficult to write in measured terms'. In this they agreed with eighteenth-century commentators. Burney noted:

Too much praise cannot be given to that song ... I remember Reginelli sing the air at the opera in 1747, among some light Italian songs of that period, and it seemed the language of philosophy and science, and the rest the frivolous jargon of fops and triflers.

But Handel treats all the parts with an equally musical mastery of emotion. Take one of Polissena's early arias. Here is Polissena, a loving and duteous wife of a tyrannical and unfaithful husband. Having pleaded for mercy for her brother and father, she has been abruptly dismissed prompting this poignant aria of lament: 'Tu vuoi ch'io parta'' (You wish me to go, I go'). Handel devises a simple, unaffected, setting for her emotion, expressing perfectly her artless integrity. Usually in the arias of the period there is an intrumental introduction to the voice (called the  'ritornello' because it returns as a refrain between sections). But not here, as Polissena sings directly, spontaneously, from the heart. Yearning and sadness are perfectly bound together in the aria, with numerous dramatic rests expressive of the apparent hopelessness of her situation; she has so many contradictory feelings they keep stopping her short. Her unrequited love, though, is eloquent, as she refers to her husband as 'idolo del mio cor' though a 'but' causes further pause. She will leave the 'idol of her heart', duteously, 'but' 'senza core' - 'without heart'. Such arias are wonderful in themselves, and it's understandable that we often only know of Handel's operas through the fame of their best songs. But to hear single arias out of context is to lose much of their beauty and power. In a great opera like Radamisto each aria has its place within the whole scheme, contributing to a complex portrait of character, and helping to create, in its relationship with the rest of the opera, thematic and narrative coherence. Indeed, because the opera was so significantly revised for its second production we can even see the development of Handel's practice in this sense. Much later in the opera Polissena will be dismissed once more, again after pleading for her father and brother. Handel obviously saw the opportunity of developing the pattern, here, and substituted a new aria for the second production. Again Polissena opens without introduction, again her feelings are expressed as soon as felt, without disguise or artifice. But her remarkable patience is almost at an end, and she sings to her husband, 'Barbaro! partirò', in an explosive burst of truly righteous indignation. Again she will go, but if he is so barbarous that all her pleading will come to nothing, then he had better beware. The second aria echoes the first, structurally and verbally,  but there is a new spirit to the singer's complaint, capturing perfectly the building sense of catastrophe in the opera. The reasonable and the dutiful have been reasonable and dutiful enough, and if Kings cannot behave honourably then they will have honourable behaviour forced upon them!

This is the key to the success of Handel's greatest heroic operas. The action is always significantly public and every turn of events has implication for the fate of nations. The trumpets and horns of Handel's score regularly and magnificently emphasise the outcome of battles, the glory of triumphs, and the vainglory of the mighty. But the heroic code explores the relationship between character and action: the deed expresses the self. These dramas, then, become dramas of character, as the private world of relationships, personalities, and wills dominates the public stage of consequences.

Handel's Radamisto has everything opera seria usually has. The opera excels in all the conventional subjects of the period: it has the battle arias, where the great warriors call their troups to arms; it has the simile arias, where emotion is dramatised by comparison (so Radamisto, in crisis, compares his situation to that of a ship in storm without harbour or light to guide it); it has its arias of vengeance and complaint, all threaded together with noble recitative. But the sum of its parts raises it beyond any of its often compelling details. Handel, for his first great Academy production, brought his own miracles to bear on the conventions. In doing so he created not only a unified and coherent piece of musical drama, but one which explores the human heart in all its aspects. The dynamic range of the opera's emotions is remarkable: it moves from lament, fear, foreboding, tragic suffering. and melancholy despair through to optimism, triumph and eventually joy. The music carries us through these emotions, from spare, sombre settings which evoke the deepest sense of grief and loss, through  virtuoso displays of defiance and anger, to the ornaments of love and celebration. The opera was the perfect vehicle for its new star singers - by turns they could affect the audience with moving, plaintive, lyricism and astonish them with vocal acrobatics. They may have come for the money, but participating in Handel's greatest period of opera would have left them with a whole new musical education.
Possible edits:
1.  The following quotation can be omitted, with no changes necessary to the text around it:

Whereas George Fredrick Handel, of our City of London, Gent. hath humbly represented to Us, That he hath with great Labour and Expence composed several Works, consisting of Vocal and Instrumental MUSICK, in order to be Printed and Published; and hath therefore besought Us to grant him Our Royal Privilege and Licence for the sole Printing and Publishing thereof for the Term of Fourteen Years: We being willing to give all due Encouragement to Works of this Nature, are graciously pleased to condescend to his Request.

2. The following passage (A) can be replaced with the abbreviation (B):
(A)
On May 14th the Lord Chamberlain, as Governor of the new Academy, issued a warrant to 'Mr Hendel to procure Singers for the English Stage':

Whereas His Majesty has been graciously Pleas'd to Grant Letters Patents to the Severall Lords and Gent [lemen] mention'd in the Annext List for the Encouragement of Operas for and during the Space of Twenty one Years, and Likewise as a further encouragement has been graciously Pleas'd to Grant a Thousand Pounds p[er].A [nnum]. for the Promotion of this design. ... You forthwith to repair to Italy, Germany or such other Place or Places as you shall think proper, there to make Contracts with such Singer or Singers as you shall judge fit to perform on the English Stage. ...

The warrant appended specific instruction to Handel:

(B)
On May 14th the Lord Chamberlain, as Governor of the new Academy, issued a warrant to 'Mr Hendel' " forthwith to repair to Italy, Germany or such other Place or Places as you shall think proper, there to make Contracts with such Singer or Singers as you shall judge fit to perform on the English Stage. ...". The warrant appended specific instruction






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