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Many opportunities were open to him, but Handel chose to come to England. A taste for Italian opera had just begun to develop in London, at first rather haphazardly through pasticcios (made up of arias from various sources) and a version of Giovanni Bononcini’s Camilla prepared by Nicola Haym, all sung in English. The arrival of Italian singers (particularly such castratos as Valentino Urbani and Nicolini) forced a move to the Italian language (not without much vituperative critical comment) and prepared the way for Handel’s arrival. His Rinaldo was the first Italian opera actually composed in Britain, and its triumphant production in 1711 effectively consolidated the dominance of Italian opera on the London stage.
Operas in London in the 1710s were still produced on an ad hoc basis under the system of theatre management then current for spoken drama, but in 1719 a group of noblemen formed the Royal Academy of Music, an organization dedicated to the production of Italian opera of a quality to rival the best opera houses of Europe. That meant, above all, obtaining the very best singers. For a while, the Academy succeeded. Handel acted as ‘Master of the Orchestra’ as well as composer, and other composers were also engaged, notably Bononcini (whose style had advanced considerably since he had composed Camilla in 1696) and Attilio Ariosti; but the greatest of the Academy’s productions were undoubtedly the three operas composed by Handel in 1724 and 1725: Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Tamerlano and Rodelinda. The singers of this period included the leading sopranos Margherita Durastanti, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, and the castratos Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino) and Gaetano Berenstadt. They were all highly gifted and consequently commanded extremely high salaries—a major factor contributing to the financial collapse of the Academy in 1728.
Handel and the impresario J J Heidegger took over the Academy’s assets and began producing operas on their own account, with support from the new King, George II. This annoyed several of the Academy’s previous supporters, and (further stimulated by political motives) they formed a new opera company (the ‘Opera of the Nobility’) to rival Handel’s, with Nicola Porpora as its musical director and (after its first season) the great castrato Farinelli as its star performer. Handel was temporarily exiled from the King’s Theatre, but found another home in John Rich’s newly built theatre at Covent Garden. There he produced his finest operas of the 1730s, Ariodante and Alcina. By this time a new musical form—English oratorio—was engaging the interest of Handel and his supporters, but opinions were mixed and he persisted with Italian opera. The Nobility Opera finished after only four seasons, and Handel returned to the King’s Theatre; but his latest operas never quite regained the inspiration of former years. Only the amusing and yet affecting Serse seemed to point fruitfully in a new direction (partly because it was a throw-back to an earlier and more flexible Venetian tradition) but it was not a success, and Handel’s last opera season of 1740/1 petered out somewhat ignominiously after just three performances of his last opera, Deidamia. Handel went to Dublin in the autumn of 1741 to give a highly acclaimed season of oratorios and other choral works, including the first performance of Messiah, and returned with a determination to abandon Italian opera. He soon found that he could confine his activities to short yet highly profitable oratorio seasons, and he kept to that formula for the rest of his life.
Handel’s operas thus became outmoded in his own lifetime and were virtually forgotten for two hundred years, though their scores were dutifully published in the collected edition of his works prepared by Friedrich Chrysander between 1858 and 1902. The first attempts at reviving them on the stage were made at Göttingen in the 1920s by Oskar Hagen, but in versions freely arranged to reflect the operatic taste of the time. In the 1950s revivals continued at Göttingen and Halle, where at first they remained influenced by Hagen’s ideas, while fresh and partly amateur approaches in Britain led to stage performances which kept closer to the scores as Handel actually wrote them, especially in avoiding the use of bass voices to sing the high-voice heroic male roles originally written for castratos (and occasionally for women). With the impetus of the early-music movement in the 1970s the old ways soon vanished. The best of Handel’s operas are now in the repertories of opera houses all over the world, and many modern directors—often controversially—have found their combination of artificial form and emotional truth well suited to productions influenced by abstract ideas—philosophical, psychological or political.
Even during the long period of neglect, the music of Handel’s operas was occasionally heard. Individual arias remained in print (sometimes with new and irrelevant English words) and singers would include one or two in recitals. Orchestras likewise played some of the operatic overtures or sinfonias in concerts. There is still a value in excerpts even though Handel operas are often given complete in live performance or on record. It is good for distinguished performers to give their interpretations of favourite pieces which they may not have the chance to perform in the context of complete productions, and extracts from the lesser-known operas are valuable hints at treasures yet to be explored. The selection of the first part of this set, drawn from the first half of Handel’s operatic career (1704–1726), offers a mixture of items not previously recorded and some deservedly famous numbers from the well-known masterpieces.
The second selection two draws on the operas composed by Handel for the last three seasons of the Royal Academy of Music (1726–1728), all originally sung by the two sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. Cuzzoni’s roles are sung by Catherine Bott, Faustina’s by Emma Kirkby. Cuzzoni had made her debut in London in 1723. Faustina was engaged for the 1725/6 season, but her delayed arrival in London prevented her from appearing until the first performance of Handel’s Alessandro in May 1726, when most of the season was over. The fact that the two singers first appeared together playing rival lovers of Alexander the Great immediately ensured they were dubbed ‘The Rival Queens’, the title of an antiquated and much parodied tragedy by Nathaniel Lee, first performed in 1677 and still in repertory in the 1720s. (Like Alessandro it tells of two women vying for the love of Alexander, though the story is quite different. The play, unlike the opera, is set in the last days before Alexander’s death, and Roxana’s rival is Alexander’s first wife Statira, not the entirely fictional Lisaura of the opera.)
The choice of the libretto for the debut of Faustina leaves little doubt that the Academy’s directors were intent on exploiting the likely rivalry of the two singers, and the immediate success of Alessandro at first vindicated their decision. There were, however, dissenting voices, notably that of the agent Owen Swiney, who had helped arrange Faustina’s contract. Writing from Venice just when Faustina was arriving in England, he urged the Duke of Richmond, one of the Academy’s directors, ‘never to consent to any thing that can put the Academy into disorder, as it must, certainly, if what I hear … is put in Execution: I mean the opera of Alexander the great; where there is to be a Struggle between the Rival Queen’s, for a Superiority’. Swiney’s warning was ignored, but nevertheless proved prophetic. Satirical attacks on the expense and supposedly degenerate nature of Italian opera increased, and the next season, the first in which Cuzzoni and Faustina appeared throughout, ended in scandal with a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte at which factions of the audience supporting the rival singers behaved riotously in the presence of one of the royal princesses. Swiney’s prediction of ‘disorder’ had come true. The next season opened in a mood of pessimism. Dissent among the directors and the lowered reputation of the opera militated against efforts to recover the Academy’s growing debts, and the season turned out to be the last under the Academy’s regime. The success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, first produced on 29 January 1728, did not itself bring about the demise of the Academy’s activities but added an extra degree of hostile ridicule. Italian opera by no means vanished from the London stage, however. When an attempt to raise a subscription for the 1728/9 season failed, the Academy’s directors released the company’s assets to Handel and Heidegger, and opera resumed under the new management in December 1729.
Neither singer worked with Handel again. (The librettist Paolo Rolli implied that Handel never liked Faustina and grew tired of Cuzzoni.) Faustina married the composer Johann Adolf Hasse and had a successful career in Continental Europe for the next twenty years. Cuzzoni, a less stable character with a tendency to financial extravagance, never regained her popularity. She sang in London again for the Opera of the Nobility from 1734 to 1736, but made little impression. In 1750, ‘old, poor, and almost deprived of voice’ (according to Charles Burney), she returned for the last time, singing benefit concerts to clear her debts, but with little success. She finally retired to Bologna where she died in poverty.
The final section presents overtures and arias from Handel’s later operas. All but two of the arias are from roles originally created by Anna Strada del Pò. She was a member of the new company formed by Handel and Heidegger after the financial collapse of the Royal Academy of Music in 1728, and she remained Handel’s leading soprano for eight years, keeping faithful to him in 1733 when most of his singers defected to the rival Opera of the Nobility. He rewarded her with a series of superb roles, all testifying to her abilities in vocal technique and dramatic expression. The famous scene from Alcina included here is taken from what was perhaps her greatest role, and the other arias demonstrate the wide range of her artistry. The selection also serves to show that the operas of this later period which might not be placed in the very first rank always contain some wonderful music.
Anthony Hicks © 2000