Sunday, 1 July 2012

Tamerlano - A Summary

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

Tamerlano is one of Handel’s finest operas, unusual in its generally tragic tone. Composed at the height of Handel’s Royal Academy opera success, it was the second of three masterpieces performed within the space of two seasons from 1724-5, along with Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda (see entries on each in this encyclopedia). Though it is now acknowledged by Handel scholars to be as great a masterpiece as the two other works, it was not always so. The great Handel expert, John Merrill Knapp, in 1970, noted that:  “The neglect of Tamerlano is strange. It has not only just as much fine music as the other two operas but also one of the first important tenor roles in operatic history” (Knapp, 406).

The subject of the opera has an iconic status in music, literature and art – the subjugation of eastern Europe and western Asia in the fourteenth century by Timur or Tamerlane, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, and the opera’s eponymous Tamerlano. But the real hero of Handel’s opera is not the conqueror, but his conquered Ottoman ruler Bajazete, the historical Bayezid, and Marlowe’s Bajazeth. In Marlowe’s two-part play, though Tamburlaine is clearly the (ambiguous) hero, Bajazeth has some very fine lines, cursing his captor to all kinds of hell and dashing his brains out on the bars of his own prison cage to avoid further humiliation.

      Now, Bajazeth, abridge thy baneful days
And beat thy brains out of thy conquered head,
Since other means are all forbidden me
That may be ministers of my decay.
O highest lamp of ever-living Jove,
Accursèd day, infected with my griefs,
Hide now thy stainèd face in endless night
And shut the windows of the lightsome heavens!
Let ugly Darkness with her rusty coach
Engirt with tempests wrapped in pitchy clouds
Smother the earth with never-fading mists,
And let her horses from their nostrils breathe
Rebellious winds and dreadful thunderclaps,
That in this terror Tamburlaine may live,
And my pined soul, resolved in liquid air,
May still excruciate his tormented thoughts!
Then let the stony dart of senseless cold
Pierce through the centre of my withered heart
And make a passage for my loathèd life. (Marlowe, Part I, V, i, 286-304)

Though he has a less grotesque ending – poisoning, not braining himself – Handel’s Bajazete is one of the greatest tragic heroes of eighteenth-century opera.

The sources for Handel’s version of the story, pieced together by his librettist, Nicola Haym, were not English, though, but Italian (based on a French original). The main sources were Agostino Piovene’s Tamerlano, written for a Venetian production of 1710, and a revision of that libretto for a production in Reggio in 1719 (see Knapp, and Dean and Knapp for comprehensive accounts).

The opera opens in the palace of Tamerlano, in view of the cell where Bajazete is held prisoner. Andronico, Tamerlano’s ally, encourages the captive to move freely about the palace. Bajazete scorns Tamerlano’s condescension, and tries to take his own life, but Andronico reminds him of his daughter Asteria’s love, which moves him to restraint. Tamerlano promises to restore the Byzantine kingdom to Andronico, who says he prefers to stay to learn the art of war, though his real motive is the requited love of Asteria. Unfortunately for him, Tamerlano declares his love for Asteria; he says that Andronico must marry Irene, Princess of Trebizond, Tamerlano’s betrothed, and help him get Bajazete’s consent to marry Asteria. Tamerlano tells Asteria of his love, Andronico’s proposed marriage to Irene, and his negotiations with her father. She assumes the “unfaithful Greek” has agreed to the arrangement, and curses, but still loves, him. Bajazete will never consent to the marriage of his daughter to Tamerlano. When Irene arrives she is outraged that Andronico presents himself as her future husband, but they agree that she will disguise herself, and they will bide their time. Tamerlano is certain Asteria agrees to be his and thanks Andronico. Planning on murdering the tyrant, Asteria maintains her charade of acquiescience, though revealing her rejection of Tamerlano to Irene. Bajazete interrupts the ceremony, but Tamerlano subjects him, standing on his neck to lead his daughter to the throne. Irene intervenes, still in disguise, claiming the throne. In the face of her father’s outrage, Asteria gives up her plot and announces that her intention was to kill Tamerlano. Tamerlano swears horrible revenge, but Bajazete, Andronico and Irene all commend Asteria’s constancy and honour. Bajazete and Asteria agree on a poisonous suicide pact, if necessary. Finally, Andronico declares his love in public and stands up to Tamerlano, who orders Bajazete to be decapitated and Asteria to be married off to “the meanest Slave” (Haym, 73). Asteria tries to poison Tamerlano but is foiled by Irene. Tamerlano makes Asteria offer her poisoned drink to either her father or lover, but she tries to drink it herself. Andronico prevents her. Tamerlano will force Bajazete to witness his daughter humiliated and debased in the slaves’ harem, and promises he will marry Irene. But Bajazete has already poisoned himself, and delivers a dying speech, cursing his enemy, and saying he is incapable of killing his daughter who asks him to “[p]lunge in my willing Breast the shining Steel” (Haym, 94). Tamerlano is moved to pity, stopping Andronico from taking his own life. He will free Asteria for Andronico, himself marrying Irene in a celebration that will bring peace at last. Asteria is absent from the “celebrations”.

Knapp was right to stress the importance of the tenor. In our age of the “three tenors”, and with a heritage of great operatic tenor parts, it is difficult to imagine the rarity of the tenor voice on the London opera stage of the early eighteenth century. Prior to Tamerlano, Handel had composed thirteen Italian operas, where all the main male roles were played by castrati – either soprano or alto.  It’s not surprising that the lead casting of the tenor Francesco Borosini in the role of Bajazete, should have provoked some humour at the expense of the castrati. Mist’s Weekly Journal, reported: “We hear that there is a new Opera now in Practice at the Theatre in the Hay-Market, called Tamerlane, the Musick composed by Mynheer Hendel, and that Signior Borseni, newly arrived from Italy, is to sing the Part of the Tyrant Bajazet. N.B. It is commonly reported this Gentleman was never cut out for a Singer” (Deutsch, 173-4). The only Handel tenor role of any significance before Bajazete was Giuliano, “a hair-brained military” character in Rodrigo, the first of his Italian operas (1707) (Dean and Knapp, 107). The general status of the tenor is best shown by the cast for Handel’s first London opera, Rinaldo (1711), where a glittering array of Italian roles was supplemented by one Englishman, the tenor Mr Lawrence, who played the completely insignificant role of herald.

But Borosini was not only the best tenor in Europe. He had a considerable influence on his own most important operatic role. He had already played Bajazet, in the revision of Piovene’s libretto in 1719, and had influenced the development of his part in that opera to the extent that the title changed from Tamerlano to Il Bajazet. And it seems he brought this revised libretto with him to London, which led to Haym and Handel revising their own version of Tamerlano, particularly to include Bajazete’s death scene. Perhaps Handel, too, should have renamed his opera Bajazete. (See Larue, 17-79, for a fascinating account of Borosini’s influence on Handel’s first production.)

Several characters have great arias in Tamerlano. Particularly impressive are: Andronico’s beautiful “Cerco in vano”; Irene’s sublime “Per che mi nasca”; and Asteria’s moving and tragic “Cor di padre’. But Bajazete has much of the best music and all of the best drama. The aria “Forte e lieto’ represents the fateful combination of a desire for death and the love of his daughter; “Ciel e terra” is a magnificent aria of disdainful defiance of Tamerlano; and “A suoi piedi” expresses profound despair at the possible (mistaken) betrayal of his daughter (Dean and Knapp even speculate that this “astonishing piece” may have been borrowed by Bach for his Matthew Passion (Dean and Knapp, 540-41). But it is the death sequence that most stands out. John Merrill Knapp has said that this passage “with its succession of secco and accompanied recitative, arioso, and aria is probably one of the most powerfully dramatic scenes in all Baroque opera” (Knapp, 406). Bajazete has defied his enemy by poisoning himself, and enters with calm and dignified resolution: “My Heart alone / Can tell the Reason yet, why all this Calm / Sits sporting smiling in my altered Looks” (Haym, 94). Tamerlano’s response, though, takes him from this assured resignation to cursing bitterness. Then interruptions by his daughter Asteria provoke complete shifts in mood to the tragic pathos of the situation, before he finally recovers his indignation, as his music literally breathes – in breaking breaths – its last.

Works cited
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.
Haym, Nicola. Tamerlano: Drama. London: King’s Theatre. 1724.
Knapp, J. Merrill. “Handel’s Tamerlano: The Creation of an Opera” in Musical Quarterly
            56. 1970, pp.405-30.
Larue, C. Steven. Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas,
            1720 – 1728. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995.
Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine the Great, ed. J. S. Cunningham and Eithne Henson.
            Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 1998.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Giulio Cesare in Egitto – An Introduction

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

The best-known of all Handel’s operas, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724) has been performed more times, in more countries, than any other. A great success in its own time, it was one of the most important works in the twentieth-century revival of interest in Handel’s operas. Oskar Hagan’s version for Göttingen in 1922 was given 220 performances in 38 cities within five years (Dean and Knapp, 507). It has retained its status in the twenty-first century, though all the surviving operas are now known, performed and recorded. Currently there are more than twenty versions of Giulio Cesare available on CD and DVD.

The libretto for the opera was put together by Nicola Haym, one of Handel’s best collaborators, from a range of earlier Italian sources, particularly a work of the same name by Giacomo Bussani.

Julius Caesar has followed the defeated Pompey to Egypt, where the action begins, beside the Nile. Pompey’s wife Cornelia and her son Sesto (Sextus) arrive asking for peace, and Caesar agrees to embrace Pompey. But Cleopatra’s brother Tolomeo (Ptolemy) has sent his general, Achilla, to present the head of Pompey to Caesar as a token of loyalty. A furious Caesar dismisses Achilla with scorn. Achilla falls for Cornelia. Curio, a Roman Tribune, proclaims his love for Cornelia, and prevents her taking her own life, but she is inconsolable, and Sesto vows bitter revenge. Cleopatra, hearing the news, determines to meet Caesar, ridiculing her brother’s claim to the throne. Achilla brings Tolomeo news of Caesar’s disdain and proposes the murder of Caesar (Achilla wants Cornelia’s hand in return). Tolomeo resolves on murdering Caesar. “Lidia” (Cleopatra in disguise) complains to Caesar of her treatment by Tolomeo. Both Caesar and Curio are immediately besotted with her. Cleopatra then overhears Cornelia’s story. Cornelia is determined to take revenge against Tolomeo, but Sesto insists that this is his destiny. Still as Lidia, Cleopatra promises her support. Caesar arrives at Tolomeo’s palace, offering a veiled insult, before being shown to his rooms (where Tolomeo plans to murder him). Cornelia and Sesto are immediately seized as soon as they reach court. Sesto is imprisoned and Cornelia is assigned to the seraglio, where Tolomeo plans to have her. Achilla tries to woo Cornelia who is disgusted by his advances. Sesto is taken off to prison, parted from his tearful mother. Cleopatra has further plans to seduce Caesar, and arranges for him to overhear her singing in a delightful grove of cedars with the Palace of Virtue and the nine muses on the slopes of Parnassus. Caesar hears her aria “V’adoro, pupille” (discussed below). Enraptured, he rushes towards her, but the scene changes and she disappears. However, Cleopatra’s eunuch, Nireno, announces that “Lidia” awaits him in her chambers. Tolomeo now takes over the role of Cornelia’s suitor. She thinks him insane, but he determines on rape if necessary. Alone, Cornelia prepares to hurl herself to her death, but Sesto intervenes. Nireno announces that Cornelia is to go to the seraglio, but suggests a murder plot: Sesto might there be able to catch Tolomeo off-guard. Caesar attends “Lidia” but news of the attempt on his life interrupts them, and Cleopatra accidentally reveals her true identity. Caesar escapes the conspirators. Achilla foils the plot to murder Tolomeo in the seraglio, and then announces the death of Caesar who has thrown himself into the harbour and drowned; Cleopatra is already armed to revenge his death. Achilla asks for Cornelia’s hand but he is rudely rebuffed by Tolomeo, who heads off to engage Cleopatra’s forces. Achilla joins with Cleopatra, but the latter is taken prisoner in the ensuing battle. Tolomeo is determined to subdue his haughty sister, putting her in chains to grovel at the foot of his throne. Caesar, actually alive, having swum to safety, overhears the dying Achilla giving Sesto a seal which will command a hundred armed men; he mentions a subterranean passage which will lead directly to the palace. Caesar rescues Cleopatra, and she heads off to gather her troops for the decisive battle. Meanwhile Tolomeo is forcing himself on Cornelia when Sesto arrives and kills him. The Romans and Egyptians celebrate their victory; Caesar crowns Cleopatra Queen of Egypt and they sing a love duet before a final chorus of celebration.

From the first speech, which cites the famous “Veni, vidi, vici” in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong context, the text offers an inventive approach to history. (Dean and Knapp, 483).

The opera was produced at the height of Handel’s powers, in 1724 (the first of three new masterpieces composed in little more than a year – see the entries on Tamerlano and Rodelinda). The Royal Academy of Music, set up in 1719 for the production of Italian opera was fully established, as one visitor to England noted a month after the first performance of Giulio Cesare: “The passion for the opera here is getting beyond all belief” (Deutsch, 160). The year before, John Gay had written to Jonathan Swift:

As for the reigning Amusement of the town, tis entirely Musick. […] Theres nobody allow’d to say I sing but an Eunuch or an Italian Woman. […] folks that could not distinguish one tune from another now daily dispute about the different Styles of Hendel, Bononcini, and Attillio. […] Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man that ever liv’d. (Gay, 43)

For Giulio Cesare Handel had not only Gay’s most famous “Eunuch”, the castrato Senesino (who of course played Caesar), but also the most celebrated “Italian Woman”, the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (Cleopatra, naturally) and a glittering supporting cast. The result was sensational. Another visitor wrote:

The opera is in full swing also, since Hendell’s new one, called Julius César — in which Cenesino and Cozzuna shine beyond all criticism — has been put on. The house was just as full at the seventh performance as at the first. (Deutsch, 160)

The production ran for thirteen consecutive nights, and was revived (with changes) for a further ten performances the following season.

The casting for Giulio Cesare suggests the riot of sexual uncertainty in the operas of the period. Here was a rare opportunity to have a castrato actually play a castrato, as Nireno is an Egyptian eunuch. So, in the first production of February 1724, Giuseppe Bigonzi fulfilled that most logical of castings as “alto castrato”. But the castrati were generally the expensive stars, and Nireno is a minor part. The revisions for January 1725 saw Nireno “cut” to a “mute”. But for the last few nights of the 1725 run Handel revived the role as a singing part, renaming the character Nirena and making “her” a lady-in-waiting to Cleopatra, sung by a female soprano. Oddly, though, he didn’t have to make the sex change. It was quite normal for women to play “male” roles when castrati were in short supply. After all, the male role of Sesto was first played by Margherita Durastanti.

It is difficult, adequately, to summarize the achievements of Handel’s operas in the first period of the Royal Academy. His music shows a mastery of human emotion and dramatic incident unsurpassed in his age. But he also developed a profound ability to portray character in depth. As the highest expression of this art his portrayal of Cleopatra has often been compared to Shakespeare’s.

Cleopatra has nine arias and in them Handel explores every side of her notoriously protean personality: dismissive, rude, playfulness (“Non disperar”); a coquettish enjoyment of the female arts of love (“Tutto può donna”); her optimism, gaiety, and radiance (“Tu la mia stella”); her beguiling graces (“Venere bella”); her capacity for profound tragic feeling (“Che sento?”); her sublime sense of noble pathos (“Piangerò”);  her joyous energy (“Da tempeste”); and her unaffected love (“Caro/Bella”).

But the aria that best reveals her compelling character is “V’adoro pupille”, perhaps the greatest seduction aria in musical history. It has the equivalent force of Enobarbus’ famous speech in Antony and Cleopatra:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne

Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggar'd all description [...] (Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii, 191-198)

Shakespeare, here, follows his source, North’s Plutarch very closely. But Plutarch gives an additional detail: “her voyce and words were marvelous pleasant: for her tongue was an instrument of musicke to divers sports and pastimes” (Antony and Cleopatra, pp.247-8). Shakespeare also economises on the music that attends her. His “tune of flutes” is based on Plutarch’s  “sounde of the musicke of flutes, howboyes, citherns, violls, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge” (Antony and Cleopatra, p.246). Cleopatra’s legendary power is one naturally expressed by the metonym and metaphor of music. In Handel's score it is her song that seduces Caesar. And Handel overtrumps Plutarch with his instruments, as Winton Dean notes:

Handel deploys a double orchestra: a group of nine instruments played by the nine Muses on stage or behind the scenes, including harp, theorbo and viola da gamba, is contrasted and combined with the main body in the pit, the violins of both orchestras being muted. The senses of the audience must have been as ravished as Caesar's. (Dean, 23)

Hearing this music nearly three-hundred years later, the experience is no less “ravishing”.

Works Cited

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995.
Dean, Winton. Notes to Giulio Cesare, dir. René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi. 1991.
Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955.
Gay, John. The Letters of John Gay, ed. C. F. Burgess. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1966.
Haym, Nicola Francesco. Giulio Cesare In Egitto. London: Thomas Wood. 1724.
Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley. Methuen: London and New York.1954.

Recommended Reading

Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994. (The best general survey of Handel’s life and work (see particularly135-50 for a musical analysis of Giulio Cesare.)
Dean, Winton. “Handel’s Giulio Cesare”. The Musical Times, Vol. 104, No. 1444 (June, 1963). 402-404. (A good introduction to the opera, its libretto, and its early casts.)

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995. (The most important of all reference works for this period, with an extensive account of all aspects of Giulio Cesare (483-526).)

Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955. (The best documentary source for the facts and opinions of the period – see particularly157-74 for Giulio Cesare.)

Monson, Craig. “Giulio Cesare in Egitto: From Sartorio (1677) to Handel (1724)”. Music and Letters, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Oct, 1985). 313-43. (Gives a comprehensive account of the various libretto treatments of the subject, and their relation to each other