|Giulio Cesare in Egitto|
Hyperion is delighted to present a tour de force from the supreme mezzo-soprano of today, Alice Coote, accompanied by The English Concert and Harry Bicket, making their Hyperion debut. Coote performs a selection of Handel’s greatest arias from opera and oratorio, employing an extraordinary range of vocal and dramatic colour, tone and emotion to produce triumphant and moving interpretations of these masterpieces.
Every piece is a highlight. Handel’s Italian operas are represented by his first two Covent Garden operas, Alcina and the great tragedy Ariodante, and also Radamisto and Giulio Cesare in Egitto (perhaps Handel’s most popular opera today). Handel’s English oratorio Hercules contains music of utter beauty. Written to a libretto by Thomas Broughton based on Sophocles’ Trachiniae, it is a drama of sombre magnificence. At its centre is the tragic figure of Hercules’ wife Dejanira, a role to rival Saul as a study in the corrosive power of jealousy. Little is known about the ‘Miss Robinson’ who created the part. But the music that Handel wrote for her suggests that she must have been a fine singing actress. Alice Coote’s powers in this direction are unrivalled today.
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‘Since the introduction of Italian operas here our men are grown insensibly more and more effeminate, and whereas they used to go from a good comedy warmed by the fire of love and a good tragedy fired with the spirit of glory, they sit indolently and supine at an opera, and suffer their souls to be sung away by the voices of Italian sirens.’ Like many of his countrymen, the anonymous author of the pamphlet ‘Plain Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy’ abhorred the aristocratic craze for Italian opera seria in early eighteenth-century London. Igniting a toxic mix of homophobia, xenophobia and anti-Catholic paranoia, this decadent new import was branded a danger to manhood and empire. But the London beau monde remained oblivious. Fresh from his Italian sojourn, Handel had created a sensation with Rinaldo in 1711. Nine years later, Radamisto likewise triumphed at its premiere in the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 27 April 1720. Running for ten performances, it launched Handel’s most glittering period as an opera composer and confirmed London as the new operatic centre of Europe.
The previous year a group of noblemen had raised over £20,000 by subscription to set up the Royal Academy of Music. King George I himself pledged £1000 a year. Armed with a virtual blank cheque, Handel set off to recruit star singers on the Continent. His prize catch was the castrato Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino), secured for the 1720–21 season: too late for the premiere of Radamisto, whose Anglo-Italian cast included the versatile Margherita Durastanti (who in Venice a decade earlier had been Handel’s first Agrippina) in the title role, and two English singers well versed in Italian opera, Ann Turner Robinson and Anastasia Robinson, as Prince Radamisto of Thrace’s sister Polissena and his wife Zenobia.
Opera librettos invariably did the rounds in the eighteenth century. The word-book of Radamisto (which Handel diplomatically dedicated to King George) is an adaptation, probably by the Royal Academy’s cellist/house poet Nicola Francesco Haym, of Domenico Lalli’s L’amor tirannico, o Zenobia, based in turn on the play L’amour tyrannique by Georges de Scudéry. The libretto distributed (in Italian and English) to the sharp-elbowed hordes at the King’s Theatre cites Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome as a source. But as usual in Baroque opera, ancient history is merely the pretext for a tale of lust, treachery, sadistic threats and heroic endurance in extremis. The only incident in the opera which corresponds to the Annals is the scene near the beginning of Act Two where a distraught Zenobia, lusted after by the treacherous Tiridate, King of Armenia (Radamisto’s brother-in-law), implores her husband Radamisto to kill her and then throws herself into the River Araxes. (She is subsequently rescued by Tiridate’s brother Fraarte.)
Zenobia’s unwavering devotion to her husband and her courage in the face of death align her with Handel’s Rodelinda and, more distantly, Beethoven’s Leonore. Her essential sweetness and serenity, even in extreme distress, suffuse the cavatina that opens Act Two, ‘Quando mai, spietata sorte’. In one of Handel’s most poetic inspirations, voice and solo oboe are locked in tender colloquy over a gently pulsing string accompaniment.
Giulio Cesare in Egitto The late Winton Dean, doyen of British Handel scholars, memorably summed up Giulio Cesare in Egitto as ‘a glorification of sexual passion uninhibited by the shadow of matrimony’. Composed at the zenith of Handel’s operatic success, it triumphed on its premiere at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 20 February 1724, and netted a record thirty-four performances in the composer’s lifetime. The familiar historical setting has doubtless contributed to Giulio Cesare’s popularity, then and now, though plot and characters were given a thoroughly Baroque makeover by librettist Nicola Francesco Haym. In the process Caesar, a role fashioned for the star castrato-from-hell Senesino, became an idealistic youthful hero, a far cry from the cynical middle-aged tyrant of history.
Handel composed the role of Sesto, teenaged son of Pompey’s widow Cornelia, for the soprano-turned-mezzo Margherita Durastanti, a Handel stalwart in these first Royal Academy years. Intent on avenging his father’s murder, Sesto cuts a coltishly impetuous figure. A rare moment of repose is ‘Cara speme, questo core’ in Act One, a touching prayer for hope which Handel reworked from an aria in his Brockes Passion. The accompaniment is for continuo alone until the violin enters, as if in sympathetic echo, in the final ritornello.
Ariodante Handel’s operatic fortunes waned after the glory years of the early 1720s. The Royal Academy in the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, was dissolved after the 1728 season, re-founded the following year and continued, with fitful success, until his contract ran out at the end of the financially disastrous 1733–4 season. Yet true to form, the forty-nine-year-old Handel remained unbowed. He immediately teamed up with the actor-manager John Rich at his new Covent Garden theatre, built on the back of the fortune he had made from The Beggar’s Opera at his former theatre. Trained as a dancer himself, Rich specialized in multimedia extravaganzas combining music, dance and spectacular visual effects. The rival Opera of the Nobility had scored a coup by enlisting the celebrated castrato Farinelli. Rich retaliated by engaging a comparable star: the Parisian ballerina Marie Sallé, the Isadora Duncan of her day, renowned for her choreography and daring costumes alike.
Handel’s first Covent Garden opera, Ariodante, drawing on episodes from Ariosto’s epic Orlando furioso, duly incorporated ballet numbers for Sallé and her troupe at the end of each act. The setting is Edinburgh, though there is no trace of local colour, save Ariosto’s erroneous belief that in medieval Scotland a sexually unfaithful woman was automatically put to death. The crux of Ariosto’s plot—Duke Polinesso’s tricking of Ariodante into believing that Princess Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, has betrayed him—was the source of the episode in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing in which Don John contrives to inflame the jealousy of his rival-in-love Claudio.
Ariodante scored a fair success on its premiere on 8 February 1735, and ran for a further ten performances. After Sallé, the biggest draw was the celebrated castrato Giovanni Carestini in the role of Ariodante. The music historian Charles Burney described him as ‘tall, beautiful, majestic … he rendered everything he sung interesting by good taste, energy, and judicious embellishments’. Handel exploited his ‘taste’, agility and two-octave range, going up to soprano high A, in a superb succession of arias that, as in all his greatest operas, simultaneously flatter the voice and illuminate the character.
Handel exploited Carestini’s famed mastery of what the eighteenth century dubbed ‘rapid divisions’ in the bravura aria ‘Con l’ali di costanza’, where Ariodante joyously anticipates his marriage with Ginevra. His betrothed’s apparent faithlessness prompts an almost luxuriant outpouring of despair in ‘Scherza infida!’. In this, one of Handel’s most profound arias, the vocal line seems to expand infinitely—a Handelian secret shared by few of his contemporaries—while the bassoon weaves a mournful plaint between muted upper strings and pizzicato basses.
After Polinesso, mortally wounded in a duel, has confessed his treachery, and Ginevra’s innocence, the regulation happy ending is assured. Ariodante gives vent to his euphoria in the roulades and catchy hornpipe syncopations of ‘Dopo notte’, a dazzling showstopper of an aria, and a glorious release after the excruciating tension of the preceding scenes.
Alcina Ariosto’s Orlando furioso was also the source for Handel’s next opera, Alcina. Emboldened by its predecessor’s success, and the continuing presence in London of Marie Sallé, John Rich and the composer pulled out all the stops in another operatic masterpiece. Into the mix went ravishing ballet sequences and dazzling scenic effects including a magic garden, an enchanted palace, grottoes, and rocks transformed into men. With the sorceress Alcina, who specializes in luring men to her magic island and then turning them into trees and wild beasts, Handel created a role to rival Cleopatra in sensuous allure. The rowdy audiences at the premiere on 16 April 1735 contained the usual anti-Handel claques. La Sallé, as so often, seems to have divided opinion. While King George II caused a near-riot by forbidding her to dance an encore, her admirers hissed her off stage at one performance, apparently outraged at her wearing an unflatteringly skimpy male costume as Cupid. Yet despite these distractions, Alcina was a resounding success, with no fewer than eighteen performances in 1735. For the moment, at least, the Opera of the Nobility was outgunned.
Handel’s cast for Alcina included several singers who had appeared in Ariodante, not least Carestini as the bewitched paladin Ruggiero, caught in an emotional tug-of-war between Alcina and his abandoned fiancée Bradamante (disguised as her own brother Ricciardo). When the ring of his former tutor Melisso has broken Alcina’s spell, Ruggiero voices his growing suspicion that ‘Ricciardo’ may indeed be Bradamante in ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’. The aria’s beguiling melody, with that Handelian gift of instantly memorability, sounds like an Italianized English ballad.
Ruggiero’s greatest number—and one often encored in Handel’s own performances—is ‘Verdi prati’, an E major sarabande of aching nostalgic sweetness in which he bids a lingering farewell to the visual, and by implication the erotic, delights he must forsake. This exquisite aria, in rondo form (symbolizing the circularity of Ruggiero’s thoughts), was not to Carestini’s taste. Desiring something more brilliant and vote-catching, he initially refused to sing it, whereupon Handel flew into one of his proverbial rages, as reported (phonetically!) by Charles Burney: ‘You toc! 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 vill not pay you ein stiver.’ Carestini wisely yielded, duly received his stivers, and then decamped to Venice as soon as the season ended. Yet even his preening vanity must have been flattered by his final aria, ‘Stà nell’Ircana’. After presenting a largely passive figure for much of the opera, Ruggiero here asserts himself as a heroic warrior in a swashbuckling virtuoso showpiece, complete with triumphantly whooping horns.
‘Handel has set up an Oratorio against the Operas, and succeeds. He has hired all the goddesses from farces and singers of Roast Beef from between the acts at both theatres, with a man with one note in his voice and a girl without ever an one.’ The politician-cum-litterateur Horace Walpole may have deplored the triumph of Samson at Covent Garden in February 1743, but after the final collapse of Handel’s operatic ventures in 1741, there was no going back. Oratorio, an unlikely but successful amalgam of Italian opera and English anthem that also drew on Purcellian masque, Greek tragedy and French Classical drama, had decisively ousted opera seria.
Spurred by public acclaim for Samson, Handel embarked on a contrasting pair of works, Semele and Joseph, for the 1744 Lenten season. While Joseph was a financial success, Semele flopped. Undeterred, Handel composed another pair of oratorios, one Biblical, one Classical, for the following season: Belshazzar and Hercules, composed in July and August 1744 and premiered at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 5 January 1745. Another disguised English opera, albeit without Semele’s erotic titillation, Hercules likewise failed with Handel’s new, predominantly middle-class public. It hardly helped that one of the principal draws, Susanna Cibber, in the role of the herald Lichas, was ill on the first night. After just two thinly attended performances Handel temporarily suspended the oratorio season and offered to repay his subscribers. He never risked a full-length Classical drama again.
While far less familiar today than Semele, Hercules, to a libretto by Thomas Broughton based on Sophocles’s Trachiniae, is a drama of sombre magnificence (its predominantly dark tinta may have been one reason for its failure). At its centre is the tragic figure of Hercules’ wife Dejanira, a role to rival Saul as a study in the corrosive power of jealousy. Little is known about the ‘Miss Robinson’ who created the part. But the music that Handel wrote for her suggests that she must have been a fine singing actress.
In Act One Dejanira responds to the oracle’s false news of Hercules’ death in the sweetly elegiac ‘There in myrtle shades reclined’, accompanied by continuo alone until violins and violas enter softly in the coda (the same device used in Sesto’s ‘Cara speme’). By the second act Dejanira has become convinced that Hercules, returning home in triumph after another of his heroic exploits, is in love with the captive Oechilian Princess Iole. After unjustly taunting him, she laments the loss of his love in ‘Cease, ruler of the day, to rise’, with its sorrowful canonic imitations. Handel would expand this beautiful aria as the final chorus of Theodora. The climax of Hercules is Dejanira’s terrifying vision of the furies ‘Where shall I fly?’, arguably the eighteenth century’s greatest ‘mad scene’. A recitative, lurching between widely disparate keys and tempos, hurtles into an aria (‘See the dreadful sisters rise’) that alternates deranged frenzy, with a graphic evocation of Alecto’s slithering, hissing snakes, and slow music of eerie calm (‘Hide me from their hated sight’) that initially unfolds over a Purcellian ground bass.
Richard Wigmore © 2014