Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Some Thoughts on Imeneo

There are many articles and extracts in this archive which, I hope, show a proper degree of scholarship. But one of the great pleasures of writing a ‘blog’ is an occasional freedom from the rigours of academic life – an opportunity to speculate beyond evidence. I have just listened again to Handel’s penultimate opera, Imeneo, so this seems an ideal opportunity to offer an unsupported and rather fanciful reading. The argument begins  with one aria: Tirinto’s ‘Piena il core di timore’. Unlike Mozart (often) and even Puccini (occasionally, as in the profoundly moving ‘Senza mamma’ from Suor Angelica), Handel didn’t ‘throw away’ his best arias; he knew them for what they were and exploited them, sublimely. A secure measure of some of his best songs is their length. Acknowledging variations of tempi, my collection of opera recordings gives Rinaldo’s ‘Cara sposa’ at over ten minutes and Ariodante’s ‘Scherza infida’ at nearly nine minutes. But ‘Piena il core’ comes in at over twelve minutes, I think the longest aria in the whole collection of over forty Italian operas. And it’s an astonishing piece. I quote Winton Dean: ‘The aria strikes like the crack of doom on the lover threatened by the loss of his beloved’ (Dean, 455).

[Dean gives his usual brilliant analysis, but the effect is frankly indescribable, so just listen

As an evocation of impassioned, doomed, love, this aria is unparalleled.

Tirinto’s lover is Rosmene, who has been rescued from a pirate attack by the ‘hero’ Imeneo, who has confidently claimed her hand in reward. The entire opera is devoted to Rosmene’s ‘choice’ between the two ‘lovers’ Tirinto and Imeneo. Imeneo, meanwhile, is loved by Clomiri, another woman he has saved in the pirate escapade. As Tirinto has all the best music, and many more arias than Imeneo, the pattern should be clear. Rosmene, feeling the duty of her thankfulness to Imeneo, should nevertheless favour passion over responsibility, and renounce Imeneo for Tirinto. The music confirms such a choice. Dean again: ‘Imeneo […] is a cold fish […] Neither of Imeneo’s arias  probes far below the surface, and both are marked by a conspicuous lack of passion’ (Dean, 455-56). When Rosmene makes the choice of her heart, for Tirinto, this will leave Clomiri free to marry Imeneo, and the opera will end in a chorus of celebration. But this typical, obvious, and neatly symmetrical denouement – so familiar from earlier domestic operas - doesn’t take place. For those familiar with Handel’s plots, the end of this opera is a scandal. Rosmene opts for the cold fish, preferring duty over passion, and poor Clomiri is left stranded and abandoned (without comment). For those who assume that Handel’s Italian operas offer merely conventional plots, this is a shocking ending.

The opera is an example of Handel’s work in a diminished context; having lost his great stages and singers to rival companies he creates the perfect chamber opera. Nothing hangs on Clomiri’s decision; there are no serious dynastic or heroic consequences as in so many of Handel’s Royal Academy operas. The musical forces are minimal, so the opera can concentrate on the love triangle without external interference. But why on earth would Handel so betray the conventional rules? Clearly Tirinto is the right match for Rosmene. And Rosmene’s passion must confirm this: she even feigns madness to express her torment of decision. The music dictates there is only one choice … but she takes the other. And the final chorus, far from offering the usual platitudes (everyone united with the right partner at last), gives a somber and unappealing plea for rationality over love:

Se consulta il suo dover
nobil’alma, o nobil cor,
non mai piega a’ suoi voler;
ma ragion seguendo vĂ .

When did reason and justice ever overcome the heart in opera? It’s an anti-opera message.

But what if Handel was creating a message for the end of his opera-writing career? There is no doubt that his first commitment was to the writing of Italian operas. This was his first and final object. Writing Imeneo, after thirty years of success and failure, after establishing Italian opera in London and fighting off his opponents, the struggle was nearly over. Rival companies had already had considerable success with Handel’s own English works; the Opera of the Nobility had strained the craving for Italian operas to its limit. Handel was about to have his greatest successes with English oratorio, for which he would remain famous for over two hundred years (my grandmother, a brilliant, self-taught woman, pianist, and lover of Handel’s music, died in 1979 without knowing any of Handel’s operas). In fact Imeneo shows the influence of Handel’s new direction, with its significant and dramatic choruses (in earlier operas the ‘chorus’ was usually only a coda, sung by the lead singers alone, to signify the end of the opera).

But, in Imeneo, Handel gives all of his best music, and one of his greatest ever arias to a man doomed to failure. Tirinto’s wonderful music is futile. Duty and responsibility win the day, and Handel, against all his most powerful inclinations has to give up the love of his life to public taste.

Imeneo is about sacrifice. The simpler (powerful, impeccable) justice of Solomon is waiting in the wings. Reason will triumph and the heart will have to learn its painful lesson. The passion of Handel’s life was coming to an end.




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