This opera drew over all the best singers from the other houses. Among the foremost of these was the famous Vittoria, who a little before Handel’s removal to Venice had obtained permission of the grand Duke to sing in one of the houses there. At Agrippina her inclinations gave new lustre to her talents. Handel seemed almost as great and majestic as Apollo, and it was far from the lady’s intention to be so cruel and obstinate as Daphne.
Mainwaring’s anecdotal account is confused and contradicted by documentary sources. Victoria Tarquini was the favourite soprano (and mistress) of Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici in Florence, where she might have first met Handel in 1707 at around the time of his opera Rodrigo (in which she did not take part). She was not employed by any of Venice’s theatres during the 1709–10 carnival season, is not known to have travelled to the city, and is not mentioned in the cast list in the printed libretto of Agrippina. Nevertheless, Mainwaring’s analogy to the myth of (the god of music) Apollo’s ill-fated amorous pursuit of the beautiful but unrelenting nymph Daphne is an intriguing coincidence. Before Handel left Venice in early 1710, he had started setting to music the dramatic cantata La terra è liberata, known nowadays by its popular nickname Apollo e Dafne.
The anonymous libretto is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses as retold by Petrarch in Canzoniere. Apollo has just defeated the monstrous Python and liberated the people of Delphi and the cantata commences with his arrogant boasting: he has delivered the earth from terror with his bow (‘Pende il ben dell’universo, da quest’arco salutar’); he brags that his skills as an archer are superior to Cupid’s, and that he can never be vanquished by any opponent (the flamboyant ‘Spezza l’arco e getta l’armi’). Cupid gains his revenge instantly when the blissful nymph Daphne enters the scene, singing her gorgeous aria ‘Felicissima quest’alma / ch’ama sol la libertà’ (accompanied by pizzicato strings and a murmuring solo oboe—the instrument is a distinctive feature in all three of her arias). Instantly smitten by her voice and beauty, the enraptured Apollo tries to seduce Daphne in vain; she rejects him resolutely, professing that she is devoted only to Apollo’s sister Diana (‘Ardi, adori, e preghi in vano’; this time the solo oboe conveys anguish). They are depicted at loggerheads in a scampering duet that shows their opposition intensifying (‘Una guerra ho dentro il seno’). Sensing his abject failure, Apollo tries another tactic, and speaks seductively (‘Come rosa in su la spina’), with gently rustling strings and rapturous cello obbligato, but she spurns him again in a plaintive lament (‘Come in ciel benigna stella’), an eloquent dialogue with oboe. Apollo’s melancholic lyricism and Daphne’s scornful irritation are astutely characterized in a confrontational duet (‘Deh! lascia addolcire’). Eventually, Apollo’s amorous failures lead inexorably to sexual frustration, and he runs after her with rapacious intent (‘Mie piante correte’—florid concertante violin and bassoon parts convey the sense of the chase)—but this is suddenly interrupted by his shocked reaction when Daphne escapes his pursuit by metamorphosing into a laurel tree. The guilty god is astonished, disappointed and chastened; he promises that from henceforth all heroes shall wear a crown of laurels in Daphne’s honour (‘Cara pianta’), with spellbinding trio passages for two oboes and bassoon.
Handel initially wrote the music on the same unusual paper-type that he had used in the autograph manuscript of Agrippina, which means that he must have taken the unfinished cantata with him to Hanover where the score was revised and the remainder of the music completed sometime later in 1710. A considerable amount of the finished score is written on a unique paper-type not evident in any of Handel’s other autograph manuscripts, but which has been identified in manuscripts prepared by a Hanover copyist for the electoral court library of operas by Agostino Steffani (the court Kapellmeister from 1688–1703).
from notes by David Vickers © 2016
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