Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The History and Geography of Handel’s Operas, Part I

Dean and Knapp noted drily of Handel’s Tamerlano that it was ‘the most recent in date of Handel’s “historical” operas, which of course have little connection with history’ (D&K, 1987, 531). But the libretti of these operas have at least their original sources in real history and geography, though their plots, events and anecdotes sometimes belong to what we might call ‘popular history’ or the creative re-writing of history.  Many of the episodes related have entered European culture through other works of art (literature, painting, sculpture and other operas). This guide, Part I of a series, offers a broad context for the settings of Handel’s operas.

Scipione, or Publio Cornelio Scipione (opera 1726; set 209 BC)
Scipione begins with the Roman triumph after the Battle of Cartagena (New Carthage) in 209 BC, one of the great victories of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 – 183 BC), later conqueror of Hannibal in the Second Punic War.


Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Opera 1725; set 47 BC)
Giulio Cesare features Julius Caesar’s meeting, in 47 BC, with Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt). Caesar had followed Pompey to Alexandria after his victory at the Battle of Pharsalus.

Radamisto (opera 1720; set c.51 AD)
Radamisto, set near Mount Ararat, west of the Caspian Sea, draws on the history of conflict in first century Asia Minor. Some of the opera’s main characters were real historical persons: Zenobia; Tiridates (Tiridate); Pharasmanes (Farasmane, King of Thrace) and Radamistus (Radamisto). The incident whereby Zenobia, fearing to lose Radamisto, asks him to kill her and, only wounded, casts herself into the River Araxes gives a nominal date of 51 AD.


Rodrigo or Vincer de stesso è la maggior vittoria (opera 1707; set c.710 AD)
Rodrigo is set in Seville in the early 700s. Rodrigo (or Roderick), in this opera identified as the King of Castile (who has, as the opera begins, conquered the Kingdom of Aragon) was the last King of the Visigoths, usurping the throne in 710. He was drowned in 711 during a battle with the Moors. His defeat led to the Moorish occupation of Spain.

Ottone, re di Germania (opera, 1723; set c.972 AD)
Ottone is set in Rome, probably in the 970’s (one of the subjects is the marriage of Otho [or Otto] II, Holy Roman Emperor to the Byzantine princess Theophano (here Teofane), which took place in 972). The libretto actually conflates events relating to Otho the Great (Otho I) and his son Otho II, though the ostensible subject is Otho II. The conflation is understandable, as Otho I was also Otho II of Saxony, and Otho II was made co-regent King of Germany and Italy in 961 (twelve years before his father’s death), and co-regent of the Holy Roman Empire in 967 (six years before his father’s death). Otho I founded the Holy Roman Empire in 962.
Tamerlano (opera 1724; set 1403)
Tamerlano deals with the outcome of the struggle between the Timurid (Turko-Mongol) and Ottoman empires. The opera begins after the Battle of Ankara in 1402, where Tamerlano (Timur, Tamerlane, Tamburlane, or Tamburlaine) has taken the Ottoman Emperor Bajazet (Bayezid I) captive.


Friday, 5 July 2013

Handel’s Rodelinda – An Introduction

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

No work in Handel’s remarkable and extensive opera-writing career is better placed than Rodelinda to give a sense of the excitement and success of a composer writing at the height of his powers, for the best singers in the world, at a time when London was the opera capital of the world.

Handel was in one of his several periods of particular creative genius, completing his third masterpiece in just over a year. Rodelinda, which followed  Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano, was one of the best received of all Handel’s operas for the Royal Academy, running for fourteen performances and revived at the end of the year for a second season.

Charles Burney (the eighteenth-century music historian, father of the novelist Frances Burney) noted that Rodelinda “contains such a number of capital and pleasing airs, as entitles it to one of the first places among Handel’s dramatic productions” (Burney, 302), and Chrysander found it to be “one of his most complete and satisfying operas” (Dean and Knapp, 577). Modern commentators and audiences agree. It was the opera which first began the twentieth-century revival of Handel’s operas in the famous Göttingen production of June 1920, and it has enjoyed numerous productions in every decade since.

The plot is based on seventh-century Lombard history and politics, just as Handel’s Flavio was two years earlier. Both operas were based on Corneille, but Handel’s librettist, Nicola Haym, used a libretto by Antonio Salvi.

The opera opens with Rodelinda, wife of the king, Bertarido, in her apartments mourning the supposed death of her husband. She lives now only for their son, Flavio. Grimoaldo, now the king, expresses his love for her: he will make her queen again by marriage. She rejects him contemptuously. Grimoaldo tells Garibaldo, the Duke of Turin, of his frustration at the unwanted attention of Eduige, sister of Bertarido, and his rejection by Rodelinda. Grimoaldo urges him to scorn Eduige. She enters and Grimoaldo tells her that, having previously offered his hand, he now rejects her. Alone with Garibaldo she promises to make Grimoaldo grovel, and then, in front of him, offer herself to Garibaldo. Alone, Garibaldo declares his only interest is in gaining a throne. In a cypress-grove, Bertarido, who has been in secret exile, looks on at his own funeral monument, and considers the vanity of all things. The loyal Unulfo meets him, reporting Rodelinda’s utter despair. They see Rodelinda and Flavio, but Unulfo uirges Bertarido not to reveal himself. He can hardly bear it as he watches her mourn by his urn. Whilst Unulfo restrains him, they watch Garibaldo insult Rodelinda: she must have Grimoaldo or her son will be executed. She accepts marriage on these terms, but curses Garibaldo, and boasts that his death will be a condition of her marriage. Grimoaldo promises Garibaldo safety. Meanwhile, Bertarido complains to Unulfo that Rodelinda has too easily succumbed to threats, and curses her. Act II opens with Garibaldo promising Eduige a throne if she commits to marry him: she hesitates and he says he knows she is really in love with Grimoaldo. Eduige upbraids Rodelinda for the proposed marriage to Grimoaldo and swears revenge on him. Rodelinda, as her one condition for marriage, offers her son’s life to Grimoaldo – she cannot marry a tyrant and be mother to a rightful king. Grimoaldo confesses to Unulfo that her integrity makes him even more in love. Unulfo upbraids Garibaldo, but the latter is spitefully unrepentant, arguing that Grimoaldo should act the tyrant. Alone, though, Unulfo knows he will betray Grimoaldo. Bertarido, in view of a delightful prospect, bemoans his fate. Eduige enters and recognises his voice. He confesses to her his misery, but Unulfo assures him of Rodelinda’s fidelity, and Bertarido sets out to regain his wife and son. Unulfo meets with Rodelinda and tells her of her husband’s survival; she is overwhelmed. The lovers meet, but Grimoaldo enters and upbraids Rodelinda for her inconstancy to the memory of her husband, not recognising Bertarido. But Bertarido declares himself, and is promptly taken prisoner under death sentence. Rodelinda complains to Bertarido that he should so reveal himself, but the two embrace in parting. Eduige unfolds a plot to Udolfo: he is in charge of the prisoner and she has a key to a secret passage. Garibaldo urges Grimoaldo to vengeance but the king is unsettled and anxious. Bertarido, in prison, finds a sword, but unluckily wounds Unolfo who has come to rescue him. Rodelinda and Eduige arrive at the cell and seeing Unolfo’s blood assume the worst – that Bertarido is dead. Grimoaldo accuses himself of perfidy before falling asleep. Garibaldo finds him and goes to murder him, but is stopped by Bertarido who drives him off and kills him. Bertarido gives up his sword to Grimoaldo, who, in his gratitude, offers himself to Eduige and restores Bertarido to the kingdom of Milan. The opera ends in general rejoicing.

Rodelinda can reasonably be seen to mark the high point of the first period of the Royal Academy of Music. Handel’s cast included the great Italian castrato Senesino (in the role of Bertarido). The leading lady (Rodelinda) was the most celebrated soprano of the day, Francesca Cuzzoni. And Grimoaldo was played by Borosini, the best tenor of the period, who had recently starred in Handel’s Tamerlano. Even the minor role of Unolfo must have had a technically talented singer – the castrato Pacini - considering the coloratura virtuosity of passages in his arias. This was not only a remarkably gifted cast, but a very balanced one: soprano, alto castrati, contralto, tenor, and base. Handel had perhaps the best group of singers he had ever gathered together, and his writing didn’t let them down.

Superficially Rodelinda is typical “opera seria”, with conventional content and musical structures and devices. The simile arias offer typical comparisons with swallows, calming breezes, and ships in trouble at sea. There are pastoral arias, storm arias, revenge arias, and prison arias – all standard material. But Handel’s genius for adapting conventional forms to suit dramatic purposes is nowhere more obvious than here. Rodelinda is perhaps the most innovative of all his operas in this sense.

Handel’s use of typical “da capo” aria form was highly innovative. Normally each song has an orchestral introduction (the “ritornello”, so named, because it “returns”), then the first (“A”) section , followed by a “B” section in a contrasting key; then a repeat of the whole of the opening “A” section, with its ritornello (allowing the singer some improvisatory freedom). Handel is able to depend on his audience’s confident expectation of this structure to create some remarkable, unexpected and highly expressive variations.

So, in the first aria of the opera – “Hò perduto” – Rodelinda expresses her profound grief at the loss of her husband; in the “B” section she consoles herself with dedication to her son, but this just reminds her of her loss, so without the “da capo” ritornello, the aria moves straight back to the vocal line: the emotion for her husband is inseparable from her feelings for her son. Here, conventional form is disrupted by grief .

A very different emotion disturbs Eduige’s first aria; she swears she will make Grimoaldo beg her forgiveness; so angry is she, so determined, that she has no time for opening introductions; she gets in her first words before the ritornello.

But there are even more striking effects. “Dove sei” – out of context - is probably one of the best-known and loved of all Handel arias. In context it contributes to a piece of breathtaking dramatic writing. Bertarido, thought dead, returns to find his own monument. After a symphonic introduction, he reflects, in accompanied recitative, on the pomp and vanity of our memorials. He reads his own inscription in “secco” recitative (“dry”, without accompaniment), and then complains about his fate. This passage and its emotion then continues uninterrupted with “Dove sei”, as if we are still in the recitative, before a curtailed, displaced, ritornello gives way to the full aria, which now emerges with a complete emotional logic. Handel worked hard to create this effect (Dean and Knapp note four stages in the writing), and it shows his determination, for dramatic effect, to forge meaningful causal links between recitative and aria.

But Handel also motivates conventional forms. In Act II, Bertarido finds solace in nature, its playful breezes and gentle waters. After the “B” section of his aria (the sublimely beautiful “Con rauco mormorio”, with its imitative evocation of murmuring streams and fountains), his sister Eduige, who thinks him dead, enters, thinking she has recognised her brother’s voice – surely it can’t be him ... but, of course, he has the “A” section repeat to convince her! In Handel’s best writing for the stage he completely integrates form and content.

It’s hardly surprising that Rodelinda so captivated its audiences. As well as the dramatic intensity suggested by these examples, the opera has some of Handel’s most beautiful and sublime arias.

We can, perhaps, appreciate the music lover’s absorption in Handel’s masterful score as captured in a satiric poem written at the end of the opera’s first run:

Dear Peter, if thou can’st descend

From Roselind to hear a Friend,

And if those Ravished Ears of thine

Can quit the shrill celestial Whine

Of gentle Eunuchs, and sustain

Thy native English without pain,

I would, if t’aint too great a Burden

Thy ravished Ears intrude a Word in. (Deutsche, 178)

Works Cited

Burney, Charles. A General History of Music, 4 vols, Volume IV. London: T. Becket et al. 1789.

Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994.

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. OxfordClarendon Press. 1995.

Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955.

Recommended Reading

Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994. (The best general survey of Handel’s life and work.)

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 Rodelinda (572-603).)

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.)
Jones, Andrew V., “The Composer as Dramatist: Handel’s Contribution to the Libretto of Rodelinda”. Music and Letters, Vol. 88, No. 1 (Feb, 2007). 49-77. (A fascinating account of Handel’s involvement, during composition, in the revisions to the libretto

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.)



Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Handel’s Ariodante – An Introduction

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

In Handel’s time as well as our own, the sensational success of John Gay’s parody of Italian opera, The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 has been allowed, by writers and critics, a greater impact on the musical life of London than it deserves. Alexander Pope, in a footnote to his 1729 Variorum edition of the Dunciad, celebrated the success of his friend’s play, claiming: ‘it drove out of England the Italian Opera, which had carry’d all before it for ten years’ (Pope, 190). By 1735, when Handel’s Italian opera Ariodante was first produced, Pope had had to change his annotation to read: ‘it drove out of England for that season the Italian Opera’ (Pope, 190). The myth that Handel rather turned away from Italian opera after 1728, still has some currency. Yvonne Noble, for instance, argues that The Beggar’s Opera ‘changed the course of music, by helping turn Handel away from operas to oratorios’ (Noble, 1). The fact is that Handel would go on to produce over twenty more Italian operas after 1728, including several masterpieces, of which Ariodante is perhaps the greatest. Our own age has appreciated this opera more than its contemporaries and in the last fifty years it has been one of the most performed of all Handel’s forty or so Italian operas, with ‘more than fifty productions in fourteen countries’ (Dean, 304). Various reasons have been suggested for its recent success – including the idea that modern audiences can relate to an Italian opera better if it is set in Great Britain, or that the inclusion of dances is a welcome relief from the normal pattern of arias and recitative. But these are trivial circumstances. The opera has been successful because it has some of the greatest opera music Handel ever wrote, to a libretto which has a cohesive, coherent and unified plot.

The main story derives more or less intact from Ludovico Ariosto’s sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando Furioso, though Handel’s direct source was a version of the original by the librettist Antonio Salvi. Lovers of Shakespeare will immediately recognize the plot, as it is the basis for the Hero-Claudio story in Much Ado About Nothing (and other Shakespeare scenes, see Cairncross in Further Reading). There, Hero has the role of Ariosto’s (and Handel’s) Ginevra, and Ariodante is the original for Claudio.

The opera is set in the environs of Edinburgh Castle. It opens in the royal palace, where Ginevra, the King of Scotland’s daughter tells her lady-in-waiting Dalinda of her love for Ariodante. Her father approves of her choice. The evil Duke of Albany, Polinesso, declares his love to Ginevra, and she immediately expresses her contempt and disgust at his advances. Left alone, Dalinda, who is infatuated with him, tells Polinesso of Ginevra’s match with Ariodante. He resolves to use cunning, and the devotion of Dalinda to achieve his dynastic ends. Ginevra and Ariodante, alone together, express their love for each other, and the King joins them in their celebrations, happily offering Ariodante his daughter and the crown. Arrangements are made for the marriage festivities, and Ariodante reflects, alone on his great good fortune. Meanwhile Polinesso hatches his plot. He manipulates Dalinda into changing into Ginevra’s clothes when her mistress is asleep, changing her hair to match, and imitating her manner. She will then let Polinesso into the royal garden by a secret door, where she will meet him as Ginevra. Polinesso promises to be hers should she perform this role. Meanwhile, Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother, tells Dalinda of his love, but Dalinda, alone, swears her constancy to Polinesso. In a delightful valley Ariiodante meets Ginevra, and they both look forward to their nuptials. Act I ends with dances and happy choruses. Act II opens at night at a spot in view of the royal garden. Polinesso greets Ariodante and Lurcanio. Ariodante speaks of his love for Ginevra. Polinesso wonders at this, claiming that Ginevra gives him her favours. Ariodante is ready to fight him, but Polinesso claims he can prove his point, and executes his plan, meeting with Dalinda in the guise of Ginevra within their view. Ariodante is only restrained from suicide by his brother, who swears revenge against Ginevra. Ariiodante, alone, sings of infidelity and betrayal and welcomes death (in the magnificent aria ‘Scherza Infida’). Polinesso celebrates his ploy with Dalinda, making her promises of love, and then, alone, congratulates himself. In the next scene, just as the King is announcing Ariodante as his heir, his captain Odoardo tells him the dreadful news that Ariodante has thrown himself into the sea to drown. For no known reason. Sadly, the King tells the distraught Ginevra of her lover’s death. Lurcanio comes to court and demands justice of the King against his own daughter; he seeks a defender of Ginevra who he will fight to the death. Ginevra comes to her father who immediately insults her. Ginevra is beside herself with horror and confusion, and Dalinda tries to comfort her (without confessing the truth). Ginevra’s nightmare is represented by a ballet dream sequence. Act III opens with Ariodante, alive, in a forest where Dalinda is pursued by two assassins. He chases them off, and Dalinda explains her part in Polinesso’s plot. Alone, Dalinda realizes her folly; clearly Polinesso is behind the attempt to kill her. In the royal garden Polinesso offers himself as Ginevra’s protector, to fight Lurcanio out of ‘duty, justice and love’. The King and his daughter are reconciled in a moving scene – Ginevra, by law, will have to die if her defender is unsuccessful. She rejects Polinesso’s protection; she doesn’t regret the loss of her life, but still hopes for her honour to be restored. In the ensuing duel Lurcanio kills Polinesso, and is ready to take on any other defender. The King says he will take the role, but is interrupted by Ariodante (in a visor). Lifting his helmet all recognize the hero, and soon all is explained. Dalinda is pardoned for her part, and, alone, Ariodante celebrates the end of night (in the aria ‘Dopo notte’). Dalinda now sees the generosity and merit of Lurcanio’s renewed expression of love. Just as Ginevra has lost all hope, the King enters to announce her innocence and freedom, and she is re-united with Ariodante. The opera ends in general rejoicing.

It is not surprising that Handel should take particular care with the score for Ariodante, and compose one of his finest operas. Far from Italian opera in London dying out it had just reached a new pitch of fervor and competition. Handel had been instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Academy at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1719 explicitly for the production of Italian operas. Though the First Academy period did come to an end in 1728, Handel had been granted a further King’s Theatre license for five years until 1734. After the expiry of this period (sometimes known as the Second Academy), Handel needed a new theatre, and secured an agreement with John Rich (ironically enough the producer of Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera which was supposed to have ended Handel’s opera career) for the use of the new theatre at Covent Garden (built in 1732). Ariodante was to be the first opera production for this completely new venture. Handel also needed new singers. A rival Italian opera company, known as the Opera of the Nobility, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, Frederick (whose father, King George II, supported Handel). This company had taken over The King’s Theatre, Haymarket, and Handel’s best singers, the Italian superstars Senesino (a castrato) and Cuzzoni. And for the 1734-35 season they also brought the castrato sensation Farinelli to their London stage. Handel had never had such competition, and Ariodante was his first major artistic response.

And what a response! The range of emotions, from complete delight to absolute horror and despair, in the roles of Ginevra and Ariodante show Handel’s absolute musical mastery of human emotion. There is no weak role, with even the minor characters having some fine arias. And in Polinesso we have Handel’s greatest villain: ‘Handel wrote the part for a woman [a normal convention when castrati were in short supply] and emphasized the slyness and slipperiness of the character, consumed by ambition and lust for power. All […] his arias […] reveal a profoundly cynical outlook and a contempt for those who live by conventional values’ (Dean, 295). Selection from such an opera is difficult, but two of the longest arias in the opera, expressing the extremes of Ariodante’s mood, have rightly become famous: ‘Scherza infida’, a magnificent, tragic, expression of loss and betrayal (when Ariodante thinks Ginevra unfaithful); and ‘Dopo notte’ when the denouement brings the light of day to the darkest of hours (‘[e]lectric cross-rhythms, huge bounds over two octaves by two-thirds of the violins in unison, and long vocal lines flowing  in exuberant coloratura, generate immense energy as Ariodante’s pent-up tension is released’ (Dean, 292)).

Handel would eventually, in 1740, give up writing Italian operas (and turn to the writing of his greatest English oratorios Messiah, Samson, Solomon, Theodora and Jephtha). But in 1734-5 he was still composing some of his best ever music for his first love, Italian opera seria.

Works Cited

Dean, Winton. Handel’s Operas: 1726-1741. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 2006
Gay, John. The Beggar's Opera, ed. Vivian Jones and David Lindley. London: Methuen.

Nobel, Yvonne (ed.). Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Beggar’s Opera: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall. 1975.

Pope, Alexander, The Dunciad, ed. James Sutherland. London: Methuen. 1965.

Further Reading

Burrows, Donald, Handel (Oxford: OUP, 1994) — the best general study of Handel’s life and music in context, with exhaustive Appendices.

Burrows, Donald, ‘Perhaps Handel was right after all: some thoughts on editing Ariodante’. The Musical Times, Vol. 148, No. 1898 (Spring, 2007), pp.35-48 — gives a fascinating account of working on an edition of the opera for the Hallische Hädel-Ausgabe, which follows the process of revision and re-writing as Handel prepared the opera for production.

Cairncross, Andrew S., ‘Shakespeare and Ariosto: Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear and Othello’. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 1976), pp.178-82  — for those interested in Shakespeare’s use of the plot from Ariosto (the original source for the libretto of Ariodante) this gives an account

Dean, Winton, Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006) — the continuation and completion of Dean and Knapp’s survey of the earlier operas; an indispensable guide, with a full account of the history, sources and music of Ariodante (pp.285-311).

Deutsch, Otto Erich, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955) — the most comprehensive of all records of Handel’s life and times, as recorded, chronologically, in all kinds of documentary evidence; the most important source for all those interested in the cultural context of Handel’s work.





Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Nothing New Under the Sun: The History of a Handel Aria

The first performance of a Handel opera in London, the production of Rinaldo in 1711, was a sensational success (despite the mockery of the literary establishment in the pages of The Spectator). Both in terms of stage effects and musical brilliance the role of the sorceress Armida was the source of greatest entertainment. Her entrance, in Act I, Scene v, is suitably spectacular: ‘Armida in the Air, in a Chariot drawn by two huge Dragons, out of whose Mouths issue Fire and Smoke’.1  She sings, as she descends, the aria ‘Furie terribili’ invoking her dread allies. Commentators agree she has the best music in the opera: ‘she towers above all the other characters […] All her music has passion and energy’.2 After her furious opening, she sings an aria of hubristic pride, expressing her highest desires and hopes; with her great powers she must surely subdue the world and save Jerusalem from the conquering armies (which include the hero Rinaldo):

Molto voglio, molto spero
Nulla devo dubitar.
Di mia Forza all’alto impero
Saprò il Mondo assoggetar.3

It’s a perfect aria for her and for the leading soprano: ‘one phrase is even launched from the diving-board of a top C. A singer who can hit this cleanly is sure of making a mark’.4 The London stage had never experienced anything like her. But other stages had experienced ‘Molto voglio’ in other forms. The same air had introduced another of Handel’s leading women to the Venice opera stage in 1709. Here, the cunning Empress of Rome, Agrippina, has been putting all her plotting prowess to the task of having her son Nero declared Emperor. In her version of the same tune, the aria ‘L’alma mia frà le tempeste’, she boasts of her bravery and confidence. There is an obvious connection: Handel uses the same musical material for two powerful women boasting of taking on the world.

The first operas of Venice and London launched Handel’s Italian opera career in no uncertain terms. Handel’s first biographer, Mainwaring, could have hardly been more effusive about the reception of Agrippina:

The audience was so enchanted with this performance, that a stranger who should have seen the manner in which they were affected, would have imagined they had all been distracted. The theatre, at almost every pause, resounded with shouts and acclamations of viva il caro Sassone! And other expressions of approbation too extravagant to be mentioned.5

It is understandable, then, that when faced much later with an artificial challenge to his supremacy as composer of Italian operas, Handel should recall music from these earlier successes. Handel had been the crucial figure in the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. His first production for the new company was the heroic masterpiece Radamisto. His second was the collaboration Muzio Scevola. For this odd opera Flippo Amadei (a minor talent) provided the first act, Giovanni Bononcini (a much more formidable rival) the second, and Handel the third. There was no contest, musically. A foreign visitor, who attended the first performance, noted that Handel ‘easily triumphed over the others’6.And he chose to end the piece with the final celebratory chorus ‘Si sara più dolce amore’ using the same material as for ‘Molto voglio’ and ‘L’alma mia frà le tempeste’. Even this was not the end of the tune’s participation in Handel’s operas, as it made a final Italian renaissance eleven years later for a ‘Sinfonia’ in Ezio.

But towards the end of Handel’s career, as he was forced by circumstances to move away from Italian opera to English choral texts and oratorios, the same musical theme has two further reincarnations. It becomes the final tenor aria and then chorus for Part Two of Jennens’ adaptation of Milton – L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – first performed in 1740: ‘These delights if thou canst give, / Mirth, with thee I mean to live’. And its last appearance is in the oratorio Joshua, first performed at Covent Garden in 1748, in the aria ‘Heroes when with glory burning’.

Handel knew when he was on to a good thing. In fact, he had been on to this particular good thing before any of these compositions. The formative period, for this as for so many of his other favourite tunes, had been his visit to Italy from 1706-1710. The aria in Agrippina is therefore the culmination of Handel’s first interest in the theme. He had first used it in the Sinfonia for an Italian cantata, orchestrated with oboes, strings and continuo, ‘Ah! Crudel, nel piante mio’, in 1707, and for the Italian ‘oratorio’ La Resurrezione (or Oratorio per la Risurrezione di Nostro Segnor Giesù Cristo), first performed in Rome in 1708. We might wonder why Italy inspired this obsession. The answer must be because Handel ‘borrowed’ the music from Alessandro Scarlatti’s aria ‘Cara, cara e dolce’. Handel had met both Alessandro and his son, Domenico, on his visit to Italy. Mainwaring gives a famous anecdote, though it’s not certain which of the Scarlattis he is referring to:

When he came first into Italy, the masters in greatest esteem were ALLESSANDRO SCARLATTI, GASPARINI and LOTTI. The first of these he became acquainted with at Cardinal OTTOBONI’s. Here also he became known to DOMINICO SCARLATTI, now living in Spain, and author of the celebrated lessons. As he was an exquisite player on the harpsichord, the Cardinal was resolved to bring him and HANDEL together for a trial of skill.7

(Apparently, Scarlatti won on the harpsichord and Handel on the organ.) But we need not be too indebted to Alessandro for one of Handel’s favourite airs. He himself had ‘borrowed’ not only the music but even the lyrics (the whole song, in other words) from Pietro Marc'Antonio Cesti.

This recycling of music, from composer to composer, and in self-quotation, was typical of the baroque period. It makes it perhaps slightly easier to understand how Handel could produce over forty operas and over twenty oratorios along with hundreds of other compositions. But the remarkable adventures of this one tune need not compromise our sense of Handel’s originality. Our idea of original composition is a recent one. Handel’s period did not seek orginality for its own sake. As Alexander Pope put it in 1711, in the same year as Handel’s first London production:

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind8

The subtle musical variations in each incarnation of the song, and the diversity of operatic and dramatic contexts to which it is applied, all give Handel’s treatment recurrent delight.

Note: for those who want to follow the genesis of this song for themselves, though the original hint was given by Chrysander, there are three important modern sources: Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) [particularly p.120]; Winton Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) [p.501 and Appendix E, p.646]; and Siegfried Flesch and Bernd Baselt, Händel-Handbuch, Band 1: Lebens- und Schaffensdaten / Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis: Bühnenwerke (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag, 1978), p.109. Between them, these sources identify a further use in Handel, in an Air for Harpsichord (HWV 468), and another composer’s use of the same theme before Handel, in 1700 (in Reinhard Keiser’s La forza della virtù).


1 Rinaldo, an Opera (London: Thomas Howlatt, 1711)

2 Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p.174

 3 Rinaldo, p.12

4 Dean and Knapp, p.174

5 John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1760), pp.52-53

6 Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955), p.126

7 Mainwaring, pp.59-60

8The Poems of Alexander Pope, Vol. I, ed. E. Audra and Aubrey Williams (London: Methuen, 1961, pp.272-73

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Handel – Select Bibliography

In my many years of researching and writing on Handel, the following books have proved invaluable. I have added some notes for those interested in the details:

Burrows, Donald, Handel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) – despite my own ungenerous, misguided, review on Radio 3, this has proved its value, year after year, as the best of all guides to Handel’s life and music, with detailed background and astute musical analysis.

Burrows, Donald (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Handel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) – an excellent collection of essays, under the headings ‘Background’, ‘The music’ and ‘The music in performance’, from some of the best Handel scholars of the age.

Dean Winton, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959) – the standard reference work for Handel’s choral compositions and oratorios.

Dean, Winton, and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas, 1704-1726, second edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) – a brilliant, authoritative, commentary on Handel’s opera career from his earliest German opera to the end of the first period of the Royal Academy; the book gives all the historical information you could ever need, with the best musical analysis available.

Dean, Winton, Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006) – the completion of a life’s work, concluding the survey of Handel’s operas until the end of his career; a tour de force and labour of love.

Deutsch, Otto Erich, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: Charles Black, 1955) – the most important source of sources for Handel scholars; a comprehensive compilation of reviews, letters, journal articles, newspaper features, advertisements and other published material from the period.

Flesch, Siegfried and Berndt Baselt (eds), Händel-Handbuch, Band I –Lebens- und Schaffensdaten / Thematisch-systematisches  Verzeichnis: Bühenweke (Leipzig: Veb Deutscher Verlag Für Musik, 1978) – a complete, systematic,  catalogue, with musical illustrations of the musical motifs, themes and borrowings for all of Handel’s operas; even for  readers without German, easy to follow, and the best means of tracing Handel’s self-sourcing of arias.

Harris, Ellen T. (ed.) The Librettos of Handel's Operas, edited by Ellen T.Harris, 13 vols (Garland Publishing Inc., New    York and London, 1989) - this collected edition gives facsimiles of the original publications of the Italian librettos and their translations; sometimes the translation is rather loose, and sometimes arias are not translated in full, but they offer a fascinating opportunity to read the material available to the contemporary audience.

Harris, Ellen, Handel and the Pastoral Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1980) – a revelatory study of the pastoral tradition in European music and its influence on Handel’s music.

Heriot, Angus, The Castrati in Opera (London: Secker and Warburg, 1956) – a compelling record of the history of the castrati.

Hogwood, Christopher, Handel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988) – an account of Handel’s life and work for the general reader, from one of the leading musicologists and performers of baroque period music.

Keates, Jonathan, Handel: The Man and His Music (London: Victor Gollanz, 1985) – one of the best guides of Handel’s life and music for the general reader.

Mainwaring, John, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (R. and J. Dodsley: London, 1760) – the most important eighteenth-century biographical source; a wonderful account, full of fascinating and compelling anecdotes.

Marx, Hans Joachim (ed.), An International Handel Bibliography / Internationale Händel-Bibliographie: 1959-2009 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2009) – the best modern bibliography of critical works on Handel.

Sadie, Stanley and Anthony Hicks (eds), Handel: Tercentenary Collection (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987) – a collection of essays by leading critics to commemorate the tercentenary of Handel’s birth.

Smith, Ruth, Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) – the best guide to the political and ideological context for Handel’s English texts.

Steven LaRue, C., Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas, 1720-1728 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) – a fascinating account of the first Royal Academy period, showing how Handel tailored individual opera productions for the voices at his disposal.