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.