Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Notes on Alessandro Severo

Alessandro Severo: King’s Theatre, 25th February, 1738 (6 performances)
Pasticcio opera with music from Arianna, Arminio, Atalanta, Berenice, Ezio, Giustino, Orlando, Siroe, Riccardo Primo and Radamisto (‘Non hò più affanni’)

1732 - 1737 Handel had been in rivalry with the Opera of the Nobility

1737 Opera of the Nobility collapses - they had lost some of their star singers at the end of the 1736-37 season: Senesino, Cuzzoni.

1737, 14th May, paper reports Handel’s “paraletick disorder”: “he having at present no Use of his Right Hand, which, if he don’t regain, the Publick will be depriv’d of his fine Compositions”. He recovered at the vapour-baths at Aix-la-Chapelle.
1737, 11th June - Opera of the Nobility’s last performance.

1737, October/November - Handel returns refreshed and cured; begins Faramondo.

1737, 29th November, Queen Caroline dies (Handel composes The ways of Zion do mourn

1737 Probable negotiations between Heidegger (impressario and manager of the King’s Theatre (originally the site of Handel Royal Academy years, then home to the Opera of the Nobility) and Handel, which sees him take over as composer in January 1738

1738, 3rd January, first performance of Faramondo.

1738, 14th February, Handel completes Serse (composed in less than two months!)

1738, 25th February, first performance of Alessandro Severo: “for the opera company’s second production in 1738 he put together another pasticcio opera from his own music, Alessandro Severo. His cast consisted almost entirely of Italians, nd he did not even attempt a run of English or bilingual oratorios during Lent” (Burrows).

The work belongs to the last fling of Handel’s Italian opera career in London.Handel was to produce only a dozen more Italian opera performances - Serse (5 perfs), Imeneo (2 perfs), another Italian pasticcio (2 perfs) and finally, on 10th February, 1741 Deidamia(3 perfs), - and his career was to turn comprehensively to the English oratorios which had increasingly superceded the operas.

1738, 26th June, a notice from Heidegger reads: “Whereas the Opera’s for the ensuing Season at the King’s Theatre in the Hay-Market, cannot be carried on as was intended, by Reason of the Subscription not being full, and that I could not agree with the Singers th[ough] I offer’d One Thousand Guineas to One of them: I therefore think myself oblig’d to declare that I give up the Undertaking for next Year” [The offer was probably made to Caffarelli].

For the new season, beginning 3rd January, 1738, Handel had gathered a remarkable cast, certainly his last great opera cast.

Alessandro - Gaetano Majorano (castrato soprano) [known as Caffarelli]
Sallustia - Elisabeth Duparc (soprano)
Claudio - Margherita Chimenti (soprano)
Albina - Maria Antonia Marchesini (mezzo-soprano)
Giulia - Antonia Margherita Merighi (alto)
Marziano - Antonio Montagnana (bass)

Antonio Montagnana, a bass with a remarkable range , who had arrived in London in 1731. Burney claimed Handel’s scoring for him in Ezio “was manifestly intended to exhibit the peculiar power of the singer” - In Montagnana, Handel had a base who would allow the fullest expression of his imitative skills. Scales and leaps requiring astonishing security and versatility, calling on the full range of Montagnana's two octaves from high to low F's. Bravura arias demanding great vocal agility in rapid coloratura passagework and trills and melismas.

Elizabeth Duparc, La Francesina [because she was a Frenchwoman, trained in Italy] “whose ‘natural warble, and agility of voice’ clearly pleased the composer and who was destined to take Strada’s place as his prima donna in the coming decade” (Keates) She was famed for what Burney called her “lark-like execution” and came to have all the leading roles (she was, for instance, Handel’s Semele).

Gaetano Majorano, Il Caffarelli “vain and quarrelsome both in his professional and his private life, but a performer who made an unforgettable impression upon all who heard him and a worthy rival to Farinelli” (Keates). His temperament was exactly the opposite of Farinelli’s courteousness; his career “above all else ... earned the castrati their reputation for ridiculous and insupportable vanity” (Heriot). At one performance in Italy, the official report of his performance claimed he had been “disturbing the other performers, acting in a manner bordering on lasciviousness (on stage) with one of the female singers, conversing with the spectators in the boxes from the stage, ironically echoing whichever member of the company was singing an aria, and finally refusing to sing the ripieno with the others”. [He was briefly imprisoned, but released by the King’s orders.


Antonia Maria Merighi, sang during the second period of the Royal Academy (1729-31), with substantial roles in Lotario, Partenope, and Poro. Returned to sing in the last period of the Opera of the Nobility, and, when it collapsed remained to take part in Handel’s new season.

Maria Antonia Marchesini, a mezzo, known as ‘La Lucchesina’


When lo! a Harlot form soft sliding by,
With mincing step, small voice, and languid eye;
Foreign her air, her robe’s discordant pride
In patch-work flutt’ring, and her head aside
.” (Alexander Pope)

PASTICCIO - from the Italian for a pie or pasty = a mix up, a mess, a hotchpotch, therefore an opera made up of fragments.

His adaptations using the music of other composers, arranged and augmented by Handel - there are nine of these (some of them particularly based on the work of a single composer).
His self-plagiarism, adapting his own music, with additional recitative and instrumentation to a new (or rather old) libretto - this is what he does in Alessandro Severo - there are three of these.

Alessandro Severo, though not a great success, had more performances than any of Handel’s last three newly composed operas. But this was not an unusual pattern. The public was used to pasticcio, and didn’t seem to object to it in the same way that Pope did. Indeed the London stage’s earliest experiences of Italian opera was in pasticcio operas assembled from the work of numerous different composers and sources.

Pasticcios are versatile - songs can easily be included or excluded.
Liberties can freely be taken, which would otherwise compromise coherently designed operas.
They offer an opportunity to import different styles - to include, for instance, the latest, most fashionable Italian music.
To a composer as busy as Handel they offer immediate variety for an opera season (Handel, after all, even at his most creative could only compose four masterpieces in a year or so (!), and he needed new attractions all the time).
And the audiences wanted to hear collections of their favourite arias, just as the music publishers would offer for sale collections of arias from different operas in single volumes.
The pasticcio, after all, is just an eighteenth-century compilation.
Also Handel’s own work was readily adapted by others in pasticcios, sometimes in rival productions, so he wasn’t doing anything unusual.

The ready acceptance of pasticcio operas suggests a very different culture from our own: the values associated with artistic coherence and originality belong more to modernism than to the eighteenth-century, with its natural mistrust of newness for its own sake. In an episodic tradition it is easy to vary the episodes of any given narrative.


This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that pasticcios are completely without coherence.
Alessandro Severo was based on a 1717 Italian libretto by Apostolo Zeno. It is a remarkable compilation of music from 10 other operas, stretching from the Radamisto, which opened Handel’s Royal Academy career in 1720 to the three new operas of the previous (1737) season, Arminio, Giustino, and Berenice: and therefore is a kind of summation of Handel’s career as London opera composer.

It is typical of Handel’s material - a combination of the heroic subject - the Roman emperor Alessandro Severus - and the domestic intrigues through which power struggles at court are organised. We have the typical figures of the jealous mother (Giulia); the patient and misused wife (Sallustia); the traitor(Marcianus) that we find in so many of the operas of the period, so it was not, perhaps, as difficult as it might seem for Handel to find all the music suitable for his needs. He had composed on these themes for the last twenty years and more.

Ultimate historical source – Herodian: Alessandro Severo - Severus Alexander (222-235). The history has him as a benign, virtuous, democratic ruler - not an effective commander, but this fault is secondary to the repeated accusations that he is governed by his mother - Julia Avita Mamaea [Giulia in the opera]

“She tried to control and dominate him ...”

“His mother provided a wife for him from a patrician family, but, though he lived with her and loved her, Mamaea banished her from the palace with insults. Wishing to be the only empress, Mamaea was jealous of the title of Augusta going to the girl. The abuse went to such lengths that the father of the girl [Marziano in the opera] ... could not stand the insults ... [and] took refuge in the military camp” (The Roman soldiers who kill him call him a “sissy”) [From the LOEB transliteration of Herodian]

Works Cited
Donald Burrows, Handel (Oxford: OUP, 1994)
Angus Heriot, The Castrati in Opera (London: Calder and Boyars, 1956)
Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and his Music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985)

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