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.)