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The Crown

Heroic arias for Senesino
Randall Scotting (countertenor), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: October 2021
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Cox & Tom Lewington
Release date: September 2022
Total duration: 74 minutes 23 seconds

Francesco Bernardi—universally known by the moniker 'Senesino', after his place of birth—was Handel's leading male star for over a decade, owning many of the finest castrato roles. But this new album delves into the astonishing wealth of material composed for him by rather less well known composers: Giovanni Antonio Giay, Attilio Ariosti, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, Giovanni Alberto Ristori, Giovanni Bononcini, Geminiano Giacomelli and Antonio Lotti. Needless to say, this is music which has not been heard for centuries.

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Senesino was everything that the public believed a diva should be; arrogant, short-tempered, thin-skinned, and vain. One report, from the composer Quantz, suggests that his quarrels brought about the dissolution of Antonio Lotti’s Dresden opera company in 1719; his own dismissal from it occurred after he refused to sing one of his arias in Flavio Crispo and tore up soprano castrato Matteo Berselli’s score. Another story, this time from the librettist Paulo Rolli, detailed a disagreement with Handel soon after Senesino’s arrival in London in 1720; the composer labelled him a ‘damned fool’ when the two of them were working, and the historian Mainwaring commented that ‘the one was perfectly refractory; the other was equally outrageous’. Several years later, in 1724, while the London subscribers were attending a rehearsal, Senesino, playing opposite Anastasia Robinson, offered her an insult. By report, it was a pointed (and probably lewd) reference to the contralto’s relationship with Lord Peterborough who, although not yet married to Robinson, attended her to the theatre where their conduct was reported to be overly familiar. She complained to Peterborough about the matter, whereupon the offended Lord dragged Senesino ‘behind the scenes, where he publicly and violently caned him, as long as he was able’. These stories—entertaining, and probably with a grain of truth—circulated vigorously in a way that would not have been possible were Senesino not, above all, an astonishing singer whose vocal skills brought him fame and fortune, and an international career that lasted for over thirty years. And despite the quarrelling, he was hugely successful, artistically, financially, and with the public.

The best description of Senesino’s voice and performing style is that penned by Quantz, after hearing him sing in Lotti’s Teofane at Dresden in 1719:

He had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with a perfect intonation and an excellent shake. His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled. Though he never loaded Adagios with too many ornaments, yet he delivered the original and essential notes with the utmost refinement. He sang Allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner. His countenance was well adapted to the stage, and his action was natural and noble. To these qualities he joined a majestic figure.

So, we learn that his voice was not just sweet, but was powerful, it had not just a clear sound, but one that was even, all traits which were topped off by the obvious skill and refinement of his performance, and above all, by his taste in ornamentation. Quantz appears to have been stretching the truth somewhat, given that Senesino’s figure seems to have been full, and his acting poor, but these are perhaps pardonable exaggerations made in the aftermath of excellent performances. Born in Sienna, Senesino’s career took him to theatres throughout Italy, including Bologna, Genoa, Rome, and Vicenza, before being engaged for Dresden in 1717 singing in operas by Lotti until he was sacked in 1720. He was then hired by Handel for the Royal Academy, joining it for its second season in September 1720. He remained with the company until its demise in 1728, singing in all the operas the Academy produced. After periods in Paris, Venice, and Rome, he was back in London in 1732 hired by Handel for the Second Academy but he left to join the rival company, the Opera of the Nobility, in 1734 under the composer Nicola Porpora. Our last glimpse of him is from the malicious eye of Horace Walpole who spied him as he returned to Sienna in 1740; he recounted that, as they tried to deal with conveyance problems, ‘a chaise came by with a person in a red cloak, a white handkerchief on its head, and a black hat’. As the chaise neared them, he thought it contained ‘a fat old woman’, but when it drew level with them the figure ‘spoke in a shrill little pipe’ and as the conversation proceeded, ‘proved itself to be Senesini’. Walpole’s sharp eye has, however, noted a ruined voice and physical deformities, aspects of the fate of many castrati who suffered a range of health problems as they got older.

The music in this collection spans almost the entirety of Senesino’s opera career. This began with his debut in Venice, performing the role of Tancredi in 1707 in Giovanni Ruggieri’s Armida Abbandonata, and ended—as far as we know—with the role of Turno in Nicola Porpora’s Il trionfo di Camilla at the Teatro San Carlo in 1740. On this album, we first catch sound of Senesino singing ‘Non può quest’alma in sen’ in Lotti’s Ascanio in Dresden in 1718, and hear him last in Ristori’s Adriano in Siria in Naples in 1739 with ‘Son sventurato’. The composers whose works Senesino performed have many things in common. They wrote mainly opera seria, during Senesino’s lifetime usually called ‘dramma per musica’, with only a few comedies being composed. The structure of the operas was recitative-aria, with emphasis on the composition and performance of the aria, which was regarded not just as the main vehicle of dramatic expression, but as the form which tried and tested the singers; their reputations were built on their ability to perform and ornament these pieces for an audience that returned night after night to hear the results of their efforts. And it is also the case that the music of these composers sank into obscurity at the end of their lifetimes, reflecting the 18th-century predilection to see works on the stage that were new, and abandoning works they consider ‘ancient’, even when the music was scarcely a few years old. Much music has been lost—many of Ristori’s scores were, for example, ruined in a combination of the shelling of Dresden in 1760 and bombing during World War II—and in some cases, all that survives of the works are the arias.

Of the seven composers represented on the album only one has a reputation that has survived to this day, that of Giovanni Battista Bononcini (1670-1747). His notoriety as an opera composer was made by the composition of Il trionfo di Camilla, written on a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia and staged in Naples in 1696; by 1710, it had been performed in many Italian cities, and in London, where it was sung in English until about 1717. The composer and theorist Geminiani claimed that Camilla ‘astonished the musical world by its departure from the dry, flat melody to which their ears had until then been accustomed’. Bononcini’s career took him to Bologna, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Venice, Paris, and London, where he was employed as one of the composers at the Royal Academy, but the fight between the opposing supporters of the prima donnas Cuzzoni and Faustina at performances of Astianatte in 1728 effectively ended his opera career, and he departed some years later, never to return.

Among the other composers is the fascinating Turin-born Giovanni Antonio Giaj (1690-1764), from whose opera Eumene two of the arias on this album are taken. Giaj spent much of his life in Turin, being recorded elsewhere only in Rome (to study as a young man) and in Malta in 1728 to attend performances of his two serenades, which were sung ‘nella Piazza di Palazzo’. His first opera, Il trionfo d’Amore ossia La fillide, was staged in 1715 and written in collaboration with Andrea Stefano Fiorè, and he went on to develop a Europe-wide reputation with his works being performed in Milan, Rome, and Venice. An important moment for him was the commission of Fetonte sulle rive del Po for the marriage of Vittorio Amedeo and Maria Antonia Ferdinanda of Spain; performed in Madrid in 1750, it seems likely that he would have been in attendance for such an event.

The Florentine composer Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760) launched his operatic career with a setting of a version of Apostolo Zeno’s libretto, Artaserse, in 1706 at the Teatro San Sebastiano in Livorno. He was a regular producer of operas after this date, his works were first performed in Florence, Genoa, Mantua, Naples, and Rome. And while he seems to have had few Venetian connections, his popularity (or notoriety) landed him on the front cover of Benedetto Marcello’s 1720 theatrical satire, Il teatro alla moda. By that time, however, he was resident in Bologna until 1731 when he seems to have returned to Florence, where his later operas—including Adelaide (1729) and Olimpiade (1737)—were performed. One of his intermezzi—small all-sung inter-act operas—is thought to be one of the most popular pieces of theatre music in the 18th century; Bacocco e Serpilla uses a simple style with syllabic word settings, short, lively tunes, and smaller forms than were to be found in his larger opera seria.

The (probably) Bolognese composer Giovanni Alberto Ristori (1692-1753) was the son of an actor, musician, and the director of a travelling company of comedians. His first opera, Pallade trionfante in Arcadia, came early, having its première at the Teatro degli Obizzi, Padua, in the summer of 1713. Giovanni travelled with his father’s company to the Saxon Court at Dresden and continued writing operas for the rest of his career, with works performed in London Warsaw, and Naples. A stand-out in Ristori’s output is the comic opera Calandro, thought to be the first Italian opera buffa written in Germany. When it was revived in the Carnival of 1728, the future Frederick the Great attended a performance and requested a copy of the score; a further revival on 11 December 1731 in Moscow was a performance thought to be the first of an Italian opera in Russia.

Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729), who had spent some years as a monk before leaving the order to take up composition, had his first opera performed in Venice in 1697. After periods in Berlin and Vienna, he went to London, where from 1722 he worked for the Royal Academy encountering, of course, Senesino who was already singing with the company. The period was a glittering one for Italian opera in London, with Handel and Bononcini also employed as composers and the company including not only Senesino, but also Faustina and Cuzzoni. Indeed, in 1727, the directors decided to commission operas from all three composers, so that they would be able to show ‘three different Stiles of composing’; the theatre already had ‘the three best Voices in Europe, and the best Instruments’. His surviving music drew Burney’s comment that it included ‘all the furbelows, flounces, and vocal fopperies of the time’; these were, of course, the very characteristics that made the music exciting for singers to perform.

Geminiano Giacomelli (1692-1740) was born in Piacenza and began writing operas in 1724; his first was a setting of Antonio Salvi’s Ipermestra, which was performed at the San Giovanni Grisostomo theatre in the carnival that year. His works were performed in numerous Italian cities, including Milan, Parma, Rome, and Turin. The majority of his operas were settings of texts by Metastasio; the opera here is the 1736 Demetrio, a relatively new libretto first set by Antonio Caldara in 1731. Giacomelli wrote few works outside the theatre, and despite his contemporaries’ admiration, many of his operas are lost.

The Venetian-born Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) spent his early years in Church circles as organist at San Marco but graduated to opera with his Il trionfo dell’innocenza staged during the 1693 Carnival. A productive and successful opera composer, in 1717 he was granted leave of absence by the basilica to write opera in Dresden, and he left Venice taking a group of singers with him, a group that included Senesino. His Dresden years included the new Ascanio, ovvero Gli odi delusi dal sangue at the Redoutensaal in February 1718, the staging of the 1717 Giove in Argo, revived in 1719 for the opening of the Hoftheater, and Li quattro elementi at the festa teatrale for the wedding of the Saxon Elector, Friedrich August to Maria Gioseffa of Austria. His return to Venice that year also saw his return to the arms of the church, never again to write opera.

Michael Burden © 2022

The legacy of the celebrity castrato Senesino has endured for centuries. He is known to us today primarily as Handel’s leading man for 13 seasons in London, and he was recognised the world over for his moving dramatic interpretations, fiery singing, and singular, over-the-top divo personality. Yet, Handel’s music for Senesino only shows us a fraction of the numerous virtuosic roles written for the castrato. Here, for the first time, are arias by seven overlooked composers who also wrote showpieces for the (in)famous Senesino. All but one of the arias on this album are modern-day premieres and heard together, they illuminate the talents of an 18th-century operatic icon.

Each of the composers on this album was a genuine musical talent, greatly admired for the refinement and skill of their compositions, but they are almost entirely forgotten today. What a fascinating bunch! One was a part-time spy for the future King of France, another a workaholic recluse, one was accused of plagiarism and banished from London entirely, and another worked a side-gig composing music for Italian comedians.

I can think of no better group of colleagues than Laurence Cummings and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with which to perform this music after it has spent nearly 300 years in the shadows. I am filled with gratitude for their deeply moving and committed contribution to this project which is the culmination of seven years of research and work.

Why ‘The Crown’, you may wonder? Nearly every aria on this album was composed for a regal character: impassioned kings, noble heroes on the battlefield, royal lovers, and renowned conquerors. These were the roles that Senesino loved to portray on stage, perceiving a reflection of himself in their valiant power. The impression that remains after hearing this array of remarkable music is that Senesino was a truly robust and versatile singer whose abilities and range far exceeded what we have known … until now.

Senesino behaving badly
Although Senesino was a musician of the highest order, throughout his life he was simply unable to stop himself from provoking scandal. Many sources in England tell the story of Senesino as distinguished, clever, and vibrant, and the singer’s friend, the librettist Paolo Antonio Rolli, reported that he was ‘well-mannered, well-read, extremely kind and endowed with the noblest sentiments’. The 18th-century music historian Charles Burney found there to be ‘dignity and spirit in Senesino’s style of performing’, and the Earl of Egmont imagined Senesino ‘to be a Man of excellent Sense’ based on his stage persona. In reality, when joining London’s Royal Academy of Music in 1720, Senesino had intentionally set out to fashion this favourable public image to contradict the malicious gossip that preceded his arrival in England. Based on these glowing descriptions, he had clearly succeeded in winning over many admirers.

Earlier accounts from Italy reveal that Senesino had a polarising personality and an abrasive disposition. Already in 1706, the 20-year-old singer brought charges against an impresario after his Venetian debut for failing to provide a theatre box as part of his fee. In 1715, he had been venomously regarded as an arrogant ‘conceited eunuch’ with ‘no respect for anyone’ by the impresario Count Zambeccari, who deplored the singer. And in 1719, Senesino drew negative attention in Dresden when he tore a score to pieces in a hot-headed rage and threw it at the feet of the Kappelmeister.

Concerned with his imminent reception in London and hoping to combat unfavourable perceptions of his off-stage personality, Senesino manufactured the roles he portrayed on stage to reflect dignified attributes of personal character. Having been engaged by the Royal Academy for his consummate musical ability and accompanying celebrity, Senesino wielded influence to alter libretti, add additional arias, and thereby enhance his characters’ prestige, especially in the London operas of Giovanni Bononcini.

Things were going well, but in 1724 Senesino’s efforts to win favourable public opinion were upset by his inability to contain his emotions and respect his colleagues. A magnet for behind-the-scenes intrigue, Senesino found himself part of a scandal related to his castmate, the contralto Anastasia Robinson. During a rehearsal, the castrato fanned the flames of rumour when he ‘acted as if he believed her to be a woman of easy morality’. While no further details are given as to what he might have said or done, it was likely very offensive as the castrato found himself caned and humiliated by Robinson’s (secret) husband, Lord Peterborough, in front of an audience. This incident opened a scandalous Pandora’s box and was the initial fodder for a sequence of satirical printed leaflets, circulating for 12 years in London, that touched on topics ranging from sexually deviant behavior, luxurious excess and elitism, misogyny, and the corruption of British moral fibre and national identity. Repeatedly, Senesino found himself to be the eye of a swirling storm of gossip.

Testimony to his infamous vanity, in 1735, under the nose of George Frideric Handel—who had composed 14 leading roles for the singer—Senesino founded a competing opera company with the expressed desire of bankrupting Handel. Instead, this rival outfit was itself out of money within four years. Even in the twilight of his 40-year career, when his voice was said to be noticeably ‘worn’, Senesino continued to view himself as a primo uomo, in league with the most celebrated performers of the day. This self-perception as a sought-after superstar clearly had not waned when he angered the King of Naples with protracted negotiations over his fee for the 1739-40 season (which would be his last). In his final performance on the operatic stage, in Porpora’s Camilla, Senesino was still up to his old antics when he chided his colleagues by declaring, ‘the singers are inferior, especially the women, who compete to see who sings most out of tune’.

It is difficult to truly establish if Senesino remained capable of performing the varied and challenging arias composed for him during his final years on the stage. In his own mind at least, he remained practically peerless. After retiring from the stage, Senesino continued to wield some power; no longer over the composers with whom he collaborated or in scheming to influence public perception, but rather, at one of the institutions where his musical life had begun as a child, the Accademia dei Rozzi. Senesino was named head of this academy for artistic training in 1738 and the mature castrato continued to live out his life in public view. A narcissist until the end, he traveled about town dressed in opulent garments including gold-embroidered tiger skins, with a servant in tow and a parrot and monkey upon his shoulders. Senesino would again become engrossed in legal battles, this time with members of his own family who mocked him and, he felt, did not understand or appreciate what he had accomplished abroad. As a result, Senesino largely disinherited them, and he died amidst a fit of rage directed at his nephew. During Senesino’s final years, it seems that he strained to assert the mythical and heroic (though delusional) grandeur to which he had become accustomed from a life on the operatic stage.

Randall Scotting © 2022

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