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Pirro Fleur Barron mezzo-soprano
Caio Fabbricio Morgan Pearse bass
Sestia Miriam Allan soprano
Volusio Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie soprano
Bircenna Hannah Poulsom mezzo-soprano
Turio Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano
Cinea Jess Dandy alto
Drawing heavily on the eponymous opera by Johann Adolf Hasse, and incorporating arias by Leonardo Vinci, Carlo Francesco Pollarolo, Francisco Courcelle, Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni, Giuseppe Sellito, Leonardo Leo and Francesco Ciampi, Handel's Caio Fabbricio is a merry romp to the popular libretto by Apostolo Zeno, with its familiar themes of love, honour and intrigue.
In the first part of the 18th century Handel played an important role in firmly establishing opera in London, through which he brought the music of Johann Adolf Hasse to public attention by his actions as Master of the Orchestra for the Royal Academy of Music—the first major opera company in the capital.
Despite receiving criticism for borrowing music by other composers, Handel chose to direct and perform nine pasticcio operas with the Royal Academy rather than rely entirely on his own compositions. These pasticcios contained music by composers who wrote in the modern, innovative Neapolitan lyrical style, which was melody-led rather than driven by counterpoint. Such composers included, besides Leonardo Vinci and Leonardo Leo, the German-born Johann Adolf Hasse, 14 years younger than Handel, who had been trained in Italy, married the singer Faustina Bordoni—(see the album booklet for)—and quickly rose to become the most widely admired composer of opera seria in the middle decades of the 18th century. This new Neapolitan musical language combined with Handel’s own more contrapuntal working methods forms the unique stylistic mixture that permeates his own later compositions.
Handel premiered Caio Fabbricio with the Royal Academy at the King’s Theatre, London, on 4 December 1733. Although he had used several of Hasse’s arias before, this was the first occasion, he structured a pasticcio performance around an entire Hasse opera. Hasse had introduced his Cajo Fabricio in Rome in January 1732, and Handel had acquired a songbook of the arias in it from his friend and favoured librettist Charles Jennens, who had earlier received it from the traveller Edward Holdsworth. This Handel used as the framework for his new pasticcio opera, into which he introduced several substitute arias besides adding shorter, more dramatic recitatives.
Caio Fabbricio had been set even earlier (1729) by Antonio Caldara in Vienna. Its libretto by Apostolo Zeno, which is contained in the latter’s Poesie Drammatiche (Venice, 1744), was revised by the Roman poet Nicolò Coluzzi for Hasse’s 1732 version. The plot is based on the story of the incorruptible Roman ambassador Caio Fabbricio, who was sent from Rome to Tarento, a city on the southern coast of Italy, to restore peace and order between republican Rome and the Greeks under the leadership of the warlike King of Epirus and Macedonia Pyrrhus (Pirro) in the wake of the latter’s self-damaging ‘Pyrrhic’ victory in 280BC
The figurative expression, a Pyrrhic victory, when it is not possible to build upon a win, stems from this short lived victory as the Greeks suffered considerable losses and were weakened for years before finally losing the Pyrrhic War. By using this libretto, Handel reminded his audience of a familiar episode from the history of ancient Rome—one taking place on the territory of Italy itself, a perennial centre of attention for art and music collectors that stirred up memories of Grand Tours and places visited.
Handel’s pasticcio operas have in the past been greatly overlooked and undervalued. London Early Opera, a UK charity, raised funds to digitize Handel’s conducting score of Caio Fabbricio at the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Hamburg in 2019 and create this world premiere recording, containing as it does Handel’s expert selection of some of the best Neapolitan music available at the time. London Early Opera’s pioneering performing edition of Caio Fabbricio has been thoroughly researched, resulting in a full knowledge of the diverse provenance of its arias that builds on the work of the scholars Hans Dieter Clausen, Reinhold Strohm, Raffaele Mellace and John Roberts.
Handel presented Caio Fabbricio at the end of 1733—a tumultuous year both for him and for the Royal Academy. Against a background of political factionalism, high ticket prices, cancelled performances, arguments with singers and negative press reports concerning Handel’s dominance of the London operatic scene, a new, rival company was formed. Directed by the Italian composer Nicola Porpora, this soon became known unofficially as the Opera of the Nobility. Tensions with Handel persuaded the castrato Senesino to leave the Academy’s camp and join a whole cohort of Handel’s singers who likewise defected to the Opera of the Nobility.
These included Antonio Montagnana, Francesca Bertolli, Celeste Gismondi (Celestina) and, later, the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni—see the album booklet for. In consequence, the 1732/3 season had ended, somewhat unusually, not with an opera by Handel himself, as was traditional, but instead with his direction of Giovanni Bononcini’s Griselda, set to a venerable Italian libretto similarly by Apostolo Zeno.
After the summer break, London eagerly awaited the new opera season scheduled for the Autumn of 1733 and the arrival of William IV, Prince of Orange, for his forthcoming wedding to Princess Anne, who was acquainted with several opera singers and had been taught the harpsichord by Handel. Although Handel had planned this autumn operatic season in advance, the new, unusual situation and the imminent threat of rivalry with the Opera of the Nobility demanded that Handel and the impresario Heidegger put together a new troupe and repertoire in great haste.
The revised line-up of singers comprised Margherita Durastanti, now turned mezzo-soprano, who more than three decades earlier in Italy had been Handel’s prima donna, two new castrati, Carlo Scalzi and Giovanni Carestini, the bass Gustav Waltz and the two Negri sisters Maria Caterina and Maria Rosa. Anna Maria Strada del Pò remained loyal to Handel and could still be contractually engaged to complete this cast. Meanwhile, the public were inescapably drawn to Senesino, now starring in the rival company.
Handel had previously shared the workload of developing a whole new opera season with other composers, who included Giovanni Porta, Filippo Amadei and Attilio Ariosti, but was now solely responsible for providing the repertoire for each season’s programme. He had to produce more operas than he had done in the years immediately preceding on account of the underlying rivalries and politics, augmented by increasingly fierce competition with Senesino’s Opera of the Nobility. The two companies, each boasting singers of international standing, both needed to recruit experienced orchestral musicians and obtain a sufficiency of patronage and advance subscriptions, plus the financial support of London’s opera-going public, in order to fund their continued operation.
In view of the almost complete change of his vocal ensemble, Handel had very little time to prepare for the new season, which he opened with the pasticcio Semiramide riconosciuta (HWVA8, a work also including music by Hasse, Leo and Vinci) on 30 October 1733, the birthday of King George II (a day customarily celebrated with a princely ball at St James’s Palace). Beginning two months ahead of his competitors, Handel may originally have planned to present Caio Fabbricio first, but the singer of the title role, Gustav Waltz, was at the time unavailable. Nevertheless, royalty, nobility and the entire audience were keen to hear Carestini and the new line-up of singers Handel was busy rehearsing.
Handel had prepared music for the royal wedding on 12 November 1733. Unfortunately, the Prince of Orange fell ill, resulting in a postponement of that ceremony until the spring of 1734. The following day, Handel directed a revival of his own opera Ottone (HWV15). In December 1733 he presented four performances of Caio Fabbricio, stealing a march on the Opera of the Nobility’s opening performance, on 1 January 1734, of Arianna in Nasso. Handel then produced Arbace (HWVA10), his third pasticcio opera of the season, on 5 January, followed by an all too overt competitor to the rival company in the shape of his new opera Arianna in Creta (HWV32).
Rather than putting on further revivals of his own operas from previous seasons, Handel chose to produce yet more pasticcios employing older librettos in new, Neapolitan-style musical settings, which were rapidly gaining favour in London, in order to mount a challenge to the rival company similarly engaged in presenting music of this modern kind. To complete the opera season’s calendar in the limited time available, it was quicker and simpler for Handel to assemble pasticcio operas than to compose new operas, especially when he was paid the same for a pasticcio as for a new opera that would take considerably longer and require more effort to materialize.
Although he originally intended to take the arias wholesale from Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio, the recasting of roles and special requests from the singers caused Handel to retain only 13 out of Hasse’s 21 arias in the pasticcio. The remaining arias and chorus, all on texts not contained in Zeno’s original libretto, come from various other operas. This was necessitated in particular by late changes to the cast of singers that forced Handel to find alternative material for his available voice types. As a by-product of this situation, singers won opportunities to perform their favourite party pieces, the so-called ‘suitcase arias’ (arie di baule) that they transported from production to production. Such arias often needed to be transposed when they were transferred from one context or singer to another, sometimes also acquiring new words.
None of Handel’s seven singers had sung in Hasse’s original version in Rome (it was the Opera of the Nobility that had the benefit of Handel’s former, highly experienced troupe). The title role, that of Caio Fabbricio, which had originally been sung in Rome by the castrato Domenico Annibali, had to make do with a single aria for the sake of the vocally not very agile bass, Gustav Waltz, who had just emerged from illness; his second aria had to be cut altogether on account of its earlier insertion into Semiramide.
At an early stage the roles of Bircenna and Turio, assigned respectively to Margherita Durastanti and Maria Caterina Negri, were exchanged, following Durastanti’s refusal to sing the dramatically less important role of Turio. Even so, the arias in her new role were reduced to only three, while Negri received a mere two. It was Carestini, the primo uomo, who was granted the privilege of the opera’s final aria, with ‘Vorrei da lacci sciogliere’. The Sinfonia has survived in the director’s score prepared by Handel only in the form of a basso continuo line of unknown provenance. To fill the gap, Hasse’s Concerto No 2 in D major has been inserted. This is in the same key as the original Sinfonia and is written for similar forces, the horns blending in triumphantly.
Bridget Cunningham © 2022
Attempting to conquer all the Greek-speaking city-states in southern Italy, the Romans waged war against Tarentum (Taranto). The leader of the Tarentines, whom Zeno names Turius (Turio), enlisted the help of Pyrrhus, who invaded Italy, defeating the Romans at Heraclea (280BC). During this battle a Roman soldier disguised as a Macedonian, whom Zeno names Volusius (Volusio), reportedly killed Pyrrhus’s friend Megacles (Megacle), mistaking him for the King.
Pyrrhus, who had antagonized the Tarentines by attempting to curb their Saturnalian festival, sent an ambassador, Cineas (Cinea), to Rome offering peace terms. Reciprocating, Rome sent Caius Fabricius to Tarentum. Fabricius refused Pyrrhus’s terms but offered alternative ones. Resisting an attempt by Pyrrhus to bribe him, he warned the King of a conspiracy to poison him, both actions winning him great respect.
To provide romantic interest, Zeno adds two female characters: Sextia (Sestia), an invented daughter of Fabricius enslaved by Pyrrhus, who intends to make her his queen, and Byrcenna (Bircenna), daughter of King Glaucias (Glaucia) of Illyria, who has been promised in marriage to Pyrrhus. Byrcenna, in Tarentum under the feigned name of Glaucilla, seeks to discover whether Pyrrhus’s infatuation with Sextia is true. Also in Tarentum is Volusius, Sextia’s lover, who plans to kill Pyrrhus.
Pirro berates the Tarentines for their unwarlike disposition. Turio proclaims the need to observe the Saturnalian festival. As a concession, Pirro allows their Saturnalian revels to proceed.
Fabbricio arrives, making counter proposals for peace, which are rejected. Pirro pours out his secret love for Sestia and lets Fabbricio see her. Fabbricio tells his daughter of Volusio’s reported death. She weeps.
Turio and Glaucilla (Bircenna in disguise) discuss a statue of King Pirro, mentioning his love for Sestia. Overhearing them, Sestia identifies herself and insists that she firmly rejects his love. Turio offers to assist Bircenna, who promises to reward him for helping her take revenge on Pirro.
Volusio explains his mission to save Sestia and kill Pirro, saying how his anger and love feed one another. Hearing voices, he leaves. Pirro enters with Fabbricio, revealing his love for Sestia to the astounded consul. Fabbricio and Sestia debate what to do about Pirro’s infatuation. Her father gives Sestia a dagger to defend her honour. Reluctant to use it against Pirro, Sestia becomes aghast when Fabbricio tells her that it is for using on herself as a last resort.
While Sestia is contemplating the dagger in her hand, Volusio snatches it away, declaring that no further defence is needed when he is at her side. She is amazed that he is still alive. To conclude the act she sings a heart-warming aria, ‘Caro sposo, amato oggetto’, expressing her love for Volusio and impatience for his return.
Bircenna vents her indignation, begging to speak to Pirro. Fabbricio tells Pirro that his offered terms are unacceptable. Overhearing Pirro’s remark that Sestia is his intended bride, Bircenna reproaches him for his infidelity, unleashing her fury in a vengeance aria, ‘Amore a lei giurasti’.
Cinea likens the love-struck Pirro to a tame lion. After much self-pity Pirro leaves, while Sestia bewails her failure to find Volusio.
Turio asks Fabbricio to support the conspiracy to kill Pirro. Fearing that Volusio’s impetuosity will disrupt his diplomatic mission, Fabbricio tells Sestia to convey to him an order to return immediately to Rome. She again laments Volusio’s absence, only to be surprised by his sudden arrival. Disappointed by Fabbricio’s instruction to abandon Sestia and return to Rome, Volusio responds with the plaintive aria ‘Troppo fiere, disdegnose’. Pirro begs Sestia not to grieve over Volusio’s death.
Turio and Bircenna approach, accompanied by an archer. They prepare an ambush. Pirro pleads with Sestia to ignore Bircenna’s prior claims on him. Bircenna confronts him in person. He fends off her accusations. She signals to the archer to launch his arrow. Volusio spots him in time to protect Pirro with his shield. He informs the King that he had come to kill him, instead of which he has saved his life. Shocked to learn of Volusio’s intention, Pirro accuses Sestia of hiding it from him. Turio persuades Volusio and Sestia to take flight immediately. Sestia vows constancy to Volusio, who brings the act to an optimistic close with a bravura aria, ‘Nocchier che teme assorto’.
Bircenna offers her hand to a gleeful Turio. She is joined by Pirro, who learns of Sestia’s flight to Rome and reflects bitterly on her ungrateful behaviour. Suddenly, Fabbricio leads Sestia into Pirro’s presence, having intercepted her in the act of flight. Pirro is deeply impressed by the consul’s action.
Accompanied by guards, Cinea leads in the prisoner Volusio, who is unrepentant, confessing to having killed Megacle. He refuses to explain his motivation, whereupon Pirro threatens him with torture.
As Pirro starts to write Volusio’s death warrant, he is visited by Fabbricio, who asks him not to be swayed by private passions. Pirro tears up the warrant, asking Fabbricio to act as judge in his place.
Sestia pleads with her father to intercede for Volusio. Fabbricio promises to do what he can. Volusio is reconciled to being put to death. Sestia finds this unbearable, cursing fate in a highly agitated aria, ‘Lo sposo va a morte’, while Volusio imagines his calm entry into Hades in the aria ‘Varcherò le flebil onde’.
Fabbricio delivers his verdict. After asserting the need to balance justice and mercy, he takes Pirro to task for being unable to distinguish friend from foe, handing over Turio’s written description of his plot. Pirro’s shock leads him to halt the sentencing. He orders the release from captivity of his Roman prisoners. Everyone is delighted except Bircenna, whom Pirro placates by announcing that he will indeed marry her—eventually. In a closing aria he asks to be released from his own bonds (of love for Sestia), and the opera ends with a brief, celebratory chorus, ‘Con la Pace, le Grazie e il Piacere’.
Bridget Cunningham © 2022