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Soprano Emma Bell's outstanding second album featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Amadigi was last in the group of five early operas that Handel composed for London before the great period following the foundation of the Royal Academy of Music in 1720. It seems plain that Handel was seeking to repeat the success of the first, Rinaldo: here too we have a lovesick sorceress, Melissa, laying amorous siege to a hero, Amadigi, who loves Princess Oriana. And Amadigi was a success, not least because of its visual spectacle: it was revived twice, and was also staged in Hamburg. Following two acts of intricate amorous intrigue, Amadigi persists in rejecting Melissa, and Oriana spiritedly defies the sorceress: Melissa closes the second act—as did Armida in Rinaldo—with an aria of fury, her rage enhanced by the trumpet obbligato and barely tempered by the more contemplative middle section.
Deidamia was Handel’s last opera, given at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and a failure: there were only three performances. It was, maybe, ahead of its time rather than out of date in a period when public enthusiasm for opera seria was on the wane. The tone of the libretto is ironic, cynical even, adroitly mixing the comic and the serious in near-Mozartian manner. The hero Achilles is in hiding on the island of Skyros, in disguise as the nymph Pyrrha, because prophecies have foretold both that he will die in Troy, and that the Greeks will not succeed without him. The king’s daughter Deidamia has seen through his female disguise and they are in love. The wily Ulysses comes to Skyros to find Achilles and pays court to both Deidamia and ‘Pyrrha’, whose skill at the hunt and unfeminine interest in weapons of war betrays his identity. Lightly treated gender confusion is indeed one of the opera’s main attractions. In the finale Achilles leaves for Troy and Deidamia is heartbroken. In her third-act aria she berates Ulysses, whose courtship she took seriously, for having ruined her life; at this late stage Handel was adapting da capo form, and instead of ABA we have ABAB; largo followed by allegro with both repeated and decorated. Deidamia’s reference to an ‘unfaithful heart’ is indeed ironic: Ulysses’s wife was the constant Penelope.
Giulio Cesare (1724)
Giulio Cesare in Egitto, to give it its full title, was one of Handel’s greatest successes, much revived in his lifetime, performed in Germany and France as well as London, and still the most popular of his operas worldwide today. One reason is the character of Cleopatra, whose ‘infinite variety’—she has eight arias—is conjured up in music utterly worthy of Shakespeare. She starts as a skittish teenager, matures as a skilled seductress, turns into a skilled politician, takes adversity in her stride, and ends in triumph as the second-most powerful ruler in the Mediterranean world. In the third-act ‘Piangerò’, one of Handel’s most heart-stoppingly beautiful arias, her fortunes are at their lowest ebb: defeated in battle and imprisoned by her devious brother Ptolemy, she faces death with stoicism, but the fast middle section reminds us of the spirited young woman we met earlier on.
Lotario was the first opera of the so-called ‘Second Academy’ period; the original Academy had broken up, and Handel had to assemble an entirely new roster of singers for the venture, including Strada, who sang Adelaide. It was a fair success but never revived, and Handel cannibalized the score for later works. For the plot he returned to early Italian history, already treated in Ottone and Flavio. The action is impenetrably convoluted even by the standards of opera seria. Adelaide, widowed Queen of Pavia, is besieged both physically and amorously by the family of Berengario, the rival King of Milan, and finally rescued by Lotario, King of Germany (in fact Otto, renamed to avoid confusion with the earlier opera). By the end of the first act Adelaide has been imprisoned by Berengario, and responds with a textbook ‘simile aria’: whatever threatens her, she will never give in.
Just as it is hard to find a bad opera amongst the thirty-six Handel wrote (Silla, perhaps, though it may never have been performed, at least not in public), so is it impossible to decide which is the best, but Rodelinda is definitely amongst the top half-dozen, one of a group of astonishing masterpieces from the first Academy period. As a hymn to conjugal love it ranks with Beethoven’s Fidelio, and the protagonist is one of opera’s great heroines. The plot is drawn from Italian history. Rodelinda’s husband, Bertarido King of Lombardy, has been deposed and has fled abroad, putting it about that he is dead. For most of the first act Rodelinda believes this to be true, but rejects the advances of the usurper Grimoaldo. She sings ‘Ombre, piante, urne funeste!’ as a memorial to her supposedly deceased spouse. But Bertarido returns and the bliss of their reunion is shattered by his imprisonment. In a dungeon scene foreshadowing Fidelio, Rodelinda finds bloodstained garments, and assumes that her rescue attempt has failed and ended in Bertarido’s death. The effect of her heart-rending lament ‘Se’l mio duol non è sì forte’ is sharpened by the audience’s knowledge that she is mistaken and that the happy end is in sight.
Scipione was written in great haste to open the season following Rodelinda; the planned new opera, Alessandro, had to be postponed pending the arrival of the new prima donna, Faustina. Closely based on history as retold by Livy, it tells of the Roman general Scipio’s conquest of the Spanish port of Cartagena and his love for the captive Princess Berenice. But she, less historically, loves Lucejo, and so impressed is Scipio by her constancy that he surrenders her. The evident haste shows in an uneven score, but Berenice’s gentle arioso ‘Tutta raccolta ancor’, sung in prison while awaiting a fraught interview with Scipio, shows Handel at his simplest, his most eloquent and indeed his greatest.
Ariodante was the first opera Handel wrote for John Rich’s new and well-appointed Covent Garden Theatre; his old stamping ground, the King’s, had been taken over by the rival Opera of the Nobility, to whom many of his singers defected. Rich soon recruited a new team and incorporated Marie Sallé’s dance troupe into one of his richest scores. Ariodante, too, has to be in Handel’s top ten, if not half-dozen. The plot, taken from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, is lucid and well worked-out. In the opening scene Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, dismisses the rashly ardent Duke Polinesso with extreme, not to say insulting haughtiness (Tesifone was a notoriously ugly Fury), so much so that you feel she needs taking down a peg. Polinesso’s revenge takes her down to the very depths of despair, falsely accused of fornication and disowned by her father. Not even the jauntiness of this aria deserves that.
Rinaldo was the first opera Handel wrote for London, and he was out to impress, re-using some of the best music from his Italian period and setting a libretto by Aaron Hill drawn from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata that gave many opportunities for stage spectacle. It was a huge success, and much revived in the composer’s lifetime. It also introduced Armida, the first of Handel’s sorceress power-women and forerunner of Melissa, Medea and Alcina. Inevitably, this Syrian enchantress falls in love with her intended victim, the crusader knight Rinaldo, and in ‘Ah, crudel’ prays that he take pity on her, with bassoon adding its own air of aching melancholy. The fast and furious middle section gives due warning of Rinaldo’s fate should he remain obdurate.
1719 saw of the foundation of the Royal Academy of Music and the start of one of Handel’s most fertile periods. Radamisto was the first of the operas he wrote for the company, and one of his most successful, frequently revived. The plot, based at some remove on Tacitus’s Annals, is extremely complex, but revolves around events in Asia Minor in the first century AD. Tiridate, King of Armenia and a ruthless tyrant, persecutes Radamisto, Prince of Thrace, whose wife Zenobia Tiridate desires. Perhaps the most interesting character is Tiridate’s wife Polinessa, who launches the opera with the sombre arioso ‘Sommi dei’. Her heart grieves not least because of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelities. A faithful wife, she sticks by him, at one point even saving him from assassination, but by the third act she has had enough, hurling ‘Barbaro, partirò’ at him and leaving to help incite the rebellion of his own troops that will lead to his downfall. At curtain-fall they are none too convincingly reconciled, and return to rule Armenia as if nothing had happened.
Rodney Blumer © 2005