Alongside the numerous musical developments during the baroque period came the rise of opera: largely from opera developed the cult of the super-star singer. English audiences, conservative as ever, were one of the last to accept opera but, as the eighteenth century began, the form rapidly gained popularity, made all the more attractive by the import of foreign voices. Handel, on his early visits to England, realized that here was a ready market for his work: the extraordinary success of Rinaldo in 1711, with the castrato Nicolini in the title role, proved him right. And so the import of foreign singers, especially castrati, began in earnest, demanding (as Roger North noted) ‘immense charges in profuse salaries, pensions, subscriptions and promiscuous courtship and flatterys into the bargain. These farr fecht and dear bought gentlemen return home rich, buy fine houses and gardens, and live in admiration of English wealth and profusion’. The audiences flocked to hear fashionable foreign singers, and it was not long before Addison noted ‘the audience got tired of understanding half the opera, and therefore, to ease themselves entirely of the fatigue of thinking, have so ordered it at present that the whole opera is performed in an unknown tongue’.
Handel’s successes and failures as a promoter of his own operas in London are well documented. For around twenty-five years his operas were mainly successful, becoming eclipsed around 1735 by the new fashion for oratorio. It is perhaps no surprise that, with nearly forty operas premiered in London between 1711 and 1741, covering between them some 630 known performances, even in Handel’s day many works rapidly disappeared. However, just as today, ‘hit’ arias would be published separately and widely performed, ensuring that at least part of the opera was not totally forgotten.
The dramatic function of Handel’s opera arias was usually to comment on a situation that had arisen during the preceding recitative: plots were rarely hatched or developed during an aria. Audiences attended largely to hear these arias and the plot was often almost an irrelevence (which was sometimes just as well). There were well-established guidelines for distributing the arias amongst the singers, based on the rule that the bigger the star, the more arias he or she would be given.
This collection takes eleven arias from the vast riches Handel composed for four of his super-star castrati: Nicolini, Senesino, Carestini and Conti. All are sung by the heros of the opera (not always the title role). They are here performed in their original Italian language and, with the exception of ‘Scherza infida’ (written for an unusually high castrato), all are performed at their original pitches: Handel frequently tranposed existing arias to fit other voices. But as well as presenting musical jewels, this collection also celebrates a twentieth-century musical phenomenen. It was twenty-five years ago, in 1967, that the twenty-six-year-old countertenor James Bowman came to notice as a singer of international standing. Since that time he has done as much as any artist to promote the works of Handel, with his characterful voice, his inate musicality, and a stage personality of magnetic power, opening musical doors to audiences all over the world. (Twenty years ago this author’s first solo recording was made, as a nervous boy treble, singing Purcell alongside James Bowman; his magnificent singing that day was unforgettable.) The request to make a record of Handel arias to celebrate those twenty-five years, and the choice of music, was James’s. At the rehearsals and recording sessions there was a unique atmosphere. The recording that resulted stands not only as another testament to the genius of Handel, but as a small monument to one of his greatest twentieth-century champions.
After the extraordinary success of Rinaldo in 1711, revived in each of the next three years, Handel tried to repeat the magic formula. Il pastor fido, Teseo and Amadigi proved not to have quite the same golden touch, though Amadigi, like Rinaldo an opera of supernatural happenings, contained spectacular stage effects which led The Daily Courant to announce that ‘there is a great many Scenes and Machines to be mov’d in this Opera, which cannot be done if Persons should stand upon the Stage (where they could not be without Danger), it is therefore hop’d no Body, even the Subscribers, will take it Ill that they must be deny’d Entrance on the Stage’. The librettist Nicola Haym produced a rather muddled plot, but Handel wrote some superb music, especially for the scenes of sorcery and witchcraft. Dardano, Prince of Thracia, eventually comes back to haunt Amadigi. In 'Pena tiranna' Dardano laments his misfortune in love and his melody is accompanied by one of Handel’s most ravishing orchestral textures: over five-part strings a slow-moving oboe and bassoon wrap exquisite suspensions.
Handel allowed himself a considerable amount of composing time for Giulio Cesare, starting the opera in the summer of 1723 and completing it in time for its opening on 20 February 1724. It was a great success, and De Fabrice noted that ‘the house was just as full at the seventh performance as at the first’. The plot, characterization and musical invention were highly advanced, Caesar was sung by the great castrato Senesino, and the orchestration was especially colourful and varied, with exotic sounds such as a stage band playing muted strings, theorbo, harp and gamba. One such example of this splendid orchestration was 'Va tacito e nascosto' where Caesar, recently arrived in Egypt and received in great splendour by his deceitful rival Ptolemy (who is already plotting to kill him), comments on Ptolemy’s treachery, through which he has already seen. Over the cautious footsteps of the strings Handel superimposes the mysterious colour of a horn, always associated with hunting (with a true baroque horn recorded playing this aria for the first time).
Rinaldo was Handel’s first London triumph. He was not unknown in the capital, but this opera established him head and shoulders above his competitors. The young theatre manager Aaron Hill had moved from Drury Lane to the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket when the house obtained a monopoly for opera productions and he drafted an outline libretto for the theatre’s librettist, Rossi. Rossi worked with great speed, but Handel worked even faster and ‘scarcely gave me time to write … I saw an entire Opera put to music by that surprising genius … in only two weeks’. The composer actually re-used fifteen numbers from earlier works, but nonetheless his speed was remarkable. When the opera opened on 24 February 1711 it proved to be the success of the season, with the reviews unanimous in their praise of the music and the singing, especially of the great castrato Nicolini, for whom Handel wrote entirely new music. The bravura aria 'Venti turbini', which ends the first Act and in which Rinaldo summons the elements to help him in his quest to reclaim his beloved, delighted the audience with its virtuoso writing for Nicolini. The splendid orchestral writing, with an opening in the manner of a concerto grosso, must also have thoroughly tested the virtuosity of the opera house’s solo violin and bassoon.
At the end of the 1734 opera season, Handel’s contract with Heidegger at the Haymarket Theatre came to an end. Heidegger was free to re-let his theatre to a more profitable concern and, much to Handel’s disappointment, he did so to the rival Nobility Opera. Handel successfully approached John Rich, who had recently built the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, and immediately set to work on Ariodante. But his problems were not yet over, for the Nobility company had the best theatre, the most subscriptions, the best instrumentalists, the pick of Handel’s former company of singers and, their greatest coup, the great castrato Farinelli. In the event, Handel preferred not to present his new opera until the initial excitement had died down, and it was therefore January 1735 when Ariodante was staged. The reflective, pastoral libretto was the second of three Handel based on Ariosto, and Handel countered Farinelli with his new castrato star, Carestini. In Act 2, at the highest point of the drama, Ariodante is in deepest despair, imagining himself to have been betrayed by Princess Ginevra, to whom he is betrothed. For 'Scherza infida' once again Handel came up with a sensuous orchestral texture, with muted upper strings and pizzicato bassi supporting the other-worldly, desolate sound of a high bassoon and the solo voice.
By 1738, Handel’s operatic fortunes were firmly in decline, though the rise in popularity of the oratorio was compensation. Serse was Handel’s sole comic opera and, despite a strong cast, was destined only to have five performances during his lifetime. This failure was due to changing public taste, rather than musical standards, for such a strong, characterful overture might well have been an instant success had it been written ten years earlier.
Giustino too dates from the period when Handel’s ventures in the opera house were no longer the financial successes of ten years before. Even the rival Nobility company at the Haymarket, with the attraction of Farinelli, was suffering small audiences, and Conti, Handel’s latest castrato discovery, also failed to attract the crowds. At least Handel had the comfort, if it could be thus described, of knowing that his loss on the 1737 season of £10,000 was £2,000 less than that suffered by his rivals! By the end of the season Conti, Cuzzoni, Farinelli, Senesino and Strada had all left London: the capital was empty of star singers. Giustino was not revived, despite some marvellous melodies. One such masterpiece was 'Zeffiretto, che scorre nel prato', from Act 3, where the hero Giustino, who has started the opera as a humble farmer but has now become a faithful servant of the emperor Anastasio, sings of the treachery of Amanzio: his pretence of loyalty to his ruler is likened to a gentle breeze which can also blow in less welcome matters.
By the end of Giulio Cesare’s Act 2, Caesar has heard that Ptolemy’s henchmen are plotting an ambush. Cleopatra tries to persuade Caesar to flee, but he refuses to save himself, resolving instead to fight. In 'Al lampo dell’armi' Caesar is at his most defiant, and Handel provided Senesino with a sparkling aria, full of virtuoso runs, with the unison violins given an equally active part over a splendidly agile bass line.
By January 1723, when Ottone was premiered in the Haymarket theatre, London had been gripped by such opera fever that ‘folks that could not distinguish one tune from another, now daily dispute about the different styles of Handel, Bononcini and Attilio’. With a cast for Ottone containing Senesino, Durastanti and the latest attraction, the Italian soprano Cuzzoni, tickets were selling at up to six times the face price, and Handel had a winner on his hands. The success was due not only to such a strong cast, but also to the wealth of graceful melodies contained in arias of an unusual dramatic intensity. The Eastern princess Teofane arrives in a foreign country to marry a king she has never met and immediately finds herself helpless and alone in the midst of complex political intrigue: most of her arias are thus suffused with deep melancholy. Ottone, King of Germany, is for the most part an unflappable, rather dilettante monarch, but in Act 3 he unleashes the most intense expression of grief in the whole opera as he laments his continuing misfortunes and failure to wed his beloved Teofane. The accompanied recitative ‘Io son tradito’ is one of Handel’s finest, full of emotion and drama, and the aria 'Tanti affanni' which follows, one of his most desolate, marvellously written for the voice and strings, with a forlorn series of modulations in the middle section that takes the music through some of the most extreme keys Handel ever used.
The staging of Rinaldo in the Haymarket Theatre in 1711 was lavish, full of special effects: ‘The 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, in case any such Accident should happen … I hope he has been wise enough to insure his House … ’ The special effects which caused such concern to Addison, writing in The Spectator, were brought to a climax in Act 3. Accompanied by an extravagant orchestra containing no fewer than four trumpets, Rinaldo leads his forces into battle against the evil sorceress Armida and her general Argante with the splendidly warlike 'Or la tromba'. The battle is immediately fought, on stage, to the rousing music of the 'Battaglia'.
Handel’s writing in Rinaldo for Nicolini was as varied as it could possibly have been. Alongside virtuoso numbers such as ‘Or la tromba’ and ‘Venti turbini’ came the exquisitely tender 'Cara sposa'; Hawkins reported ‘the author would frequently say that it was one of the best he ever made’. During Act 1 Armida abducts Almirena (an action represented by the short opening Sinfonia included in this recording) and Rinaldo sings of his desolation in one of Handel’s most moving and memorable arias. However, the hero’s fighting spirit has not totally deserted him, and in the middle section we hear some of the strength of character that finally ensures good triumphs over evil.
Despite Handel’s difficulties in 1737 with rival opera companies and dwindling audiences, he still had his immovable fans. Mrs Pendarves wrote to her sister following a visit to the Nobility’s latest production that ‘with this band of singers and dull Italian operas, such as you almost fall asleep at, they presume to rival Handel … Mr Handel has two new operas ready—Erminius and Justino’. In Giustino, according to Burney, Handel ‘modernized’ his style, using ‘more bases and accompaniments in iterated notes’. During Act 1, the goddess Fortuna appears to the farmer Giustino in a vision, telling him that his destiny is to leave the fields and serve the emperor Anastasio. Giustino’s positive reaction is the jaunty 'Se parla nel mio cor' in which he realizes that his life will completely change.
Alcina, premiered in 1735, was Handel’s last operatic triumph, given eighteen performances in its first run ‘always by command of their Majesties’ (a support given because they had patronized the rival opera company rather too openly the previous season!). The runaway hit of the opera was Ruggiero’s aria 'Verdi prati', in which, tinged with sadness, he bids farewell to the paradise in which he was bewitched by Alcina. Burney reports however that Carestini did not at first like the aria: ‘Verdi prati, which was constantly encored during the whole run of Alcina, was, at first, sent back to Handel by Carestini, as unfit for him to sing; upon which he went, in a great rage, to his house, in a way which few composers except Handel ever ventured to accost a first-singer, cries out: “You too! don’t I know better as your seluf, vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver.”’ Carestini relented, perhaps advised that audiences would adore a melody of such winning simplicity, and one of the most glorious of all Handel’s arias entered the repertoire.
Robert King © 1991