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In this standard cantata setting of two arias and recitatives for bass, two violins and continuo, Handel shows a mastery of the cantata form influenced by dramatic arias. That the influence flows from opera to cantata demonstrates how the latter could be regarded as a serious form in themselves and not just short try outs for opera as is often assumed. Here, Handel’s word setting is delicately poised: the text ‘An unforeseen dark cloud may cover the sky’ tells us of a lover, who with a single dark look from the object of his desire, feels like a ship tossed about on the ocean. Images of nature serve as a metaphor for suffering and the text blends elements from classical mythology with nature to create subtle meanings and allusions beyond modern recognition.
The scene takes place in a tempest off the coast of Naples and commences with an introductory Accompagnato—a recitative portraying violent gusts of wind, churning waves, thunder and lightening. The figure of the ‘tridentato Dio’ emerges from the Ocean, depicting Neptune with his trident. The first aria depicts the stormy sea through wild triplet figures and disjunctive chords whilst the voice is forced to surmount gruelling triplets, coloratura and gigantic leaps throughout all registers. In the second recitative, a shepherd reveals that the ungracious glances and haughty words of his beloved are like thunder and lightning. In the final aria, he pleads for mercy from his enraged lover, demonstrating the refined Italian baroque method of resolving a relationship crisis.
As a musical painter of action, and emotion, especially in enormous tableaux, Handel was unmatched in his depictions of God as a creator and destroyer and of heaping up the waters of the sea. And here, as elsewhere, when Handel trembled and blew the musical world felt both the joy and terror of his music.
As Handel’s friend Alexander Pope wrote in the Dunciad:
“Giant Handel stands,
Like bold Briareus,
With a hundred hands,
To stir, to rouse,
To shake the soul he comes.”
from notes by Bridget Cunningham © 2015