The libretto of Handel’s only opera on a subject from British history, Riccardo Primo, Re d’Inghilterra
, was adapted by Rolli from Francesco Briani’s Isacio tiranno
(Venice, 1710). The details are, as usual, fictional, but based on the marriage of King Richard I (‘Richard Cœur-de-Lion’) to Princess Berengaria of Navarre on Cyprus in 1191. Handel composed it in the spring of 1727, presumably intending it to be the last opera of the 1726/7 season, but it was postponed until the following season. During the summer of 1727 George I died and the opera, with some revision, could fortuitously be presented as a patriotic tribute to the new King, George II, when it opened on 11 November 1727. In the opera the bride-to-be of Riccardo (Richard) is called Costanza. Before the wedding can take place she is captured by Isacio, the tyrannical ruler of Cyprus. He, knowing that Riccardo and Costanza have never met, tries to trick Riccardo into marrying his daughter Pulcheria so that he can have Costanza for himself. The plan is foiled by Pulcheria’s true lover, the Syrian prince Oronte. The relationship between the two women is never confrontational: the only villain is Isacio, and Pulcheria has to balance her filial duty to him with honourable behaviour to Costanza, to whom she is always sympathetic. In Act III Costanza, still Isacio’s prisoner, looks to death to end her troubles, singing a short melancholy aria with a part for a bass flute. (The range of the part is nevertheless within that of the ordinary flute.) She is comforted by Pulcheria, who offers to go to Riccardo as a hostage to prevent Isacio mistreating Costanza. At this point Handel originally wrote the aria for Pulcheria which is sung here, with its unusual parts for two chalumeaux, early types of clarinet. They were almost certainly intended for the clarinet players Auguste Freudenfeld and Francis Rosenberg, who had been in London for about two years (they had benefit concerts in March 1726 and March 1727). Unfortunately it seems they left London in the summer of 1727, so as part of his pre-performance revisions of the opera Handel had to rewrite the aria, replacing the chalumeaux with oboes. (Rolli also took the opportunity to rewrite the words, eliminating the slightly undignified simile of the bleating lamb.) The attractive original was never performed.
from notes by Anthony Hicks © 1997