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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's London Operas: Part Four

I think it’d be fair to say that with one exception, the eight works I’m going to survey in this post document a rather sad tale: the end of one of the most important careers in the history of music. This is the fourth and final instalment in our exploration of the operas George Frideric Handel composed in London, and Handel was without doubt the greatest composer of Italian opera in the first half of the 18th century. It's especially sad that his career ended with a series of box office failures which didn’t match up to his former triumphs in opera. But as we know all too well today, the end of one career often signals the start of another, and that’s exactly what happened to Handel.

Part Three of our journey ended with Handel starting operations at a new theatre in London’s Covent Garden as a “sole trader” in 1735. The change of venue saw a change of possibilities, with a real chorus and a ballet troupe available on a permanent basis. His first two operas for Covent Garden – Ariodante and Alcina – are among his most magnificent creations, and we ended our last instalment with a discussion of those works.

The interior of the first Covent Garden theatre, before the fire of 1808

The Covent Garden theatre, on the same site as the present Royal Opera House, was quite new when Handel started performing there. Managed by John Rich, an experienced and enterprising leader in London’s theatre scene, it was larger than the King’s Theatre (where Handel had worked since 1711) and had a better acoustic for music. And it was music, and not just opera, that it would host under Handel.

John Rich (c, 1758)

Since 1732 Handel had been trying every trick in the book to make his opera performances stand out from the fare on offer in other theatres. Most radical of all was the introduction of English-language concert works – odes and oratorios – into his Italian opera seasons. Further, these were expanded with instrumental concertos, usually organ concertos displaying Handel’s superb keyboard skills. The English-language works, like Esther, were a novelty at first, but in a climate which saw the popularity of Italian opera waning, audiences started to accept the oratorios and demand more.

By 1736 Handel was regularly incorporating oratorios into his opera seasons. Alexander’s Feast (setting an ode to St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians) was the new attraction at the start of that year, and the weight of the seasons was slowly shifting in favour of this new form of theatrical entertainment. (This transition is explored more fully in Handel's English World, which will be shared on this blog in due course.)

But Handel showed no sign of abandoning opera. In May 1736 he premiered his next Italian work, Atalanta, which was written as part of general celebrations to mark the wedding of Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II. Wedding operas were a common thing in European courts ever since the invention of opera at the start of the 17th century, and even though Handel’s was a commercial enterprise, he too had to match the mood of the times and show due homage to the reigning house.

Lewis: Frederick, Prince of Wales (c. 1735)

Atalanta is based on classical mythology and is in a lighter, pastoral style. And, as was common is such pieces but unheard of in Handel’s operas generally, at the end there is a licenza. This is a finale in which the characters, once the story is resolved and completed, step out of character and address the audience directly, singing the praises of those being honoured on the occasion. Atalanta not only ends with such a passage, singing “long life to the happy couple”, but includes a fireworks display. Knowing that entertainments of this nature in the 18th century did such things goes part of the way to explaining why theatres so frequently burned down. The poet Thomas Gray described the scene in a letter to Horace Walpole:

...(in) the last act...there appears the Temple of Hymen with illuminations; there is a row of blue fires burning in order along the ascent to the temple; a fountain of fire spouts up out of the ground to the ceiling, and two more cross each other obliquely from the sides of the stage; on the top is a wheel that whirls always about, and throws out a shower of gold-colour, silver, and blue fiery rain.

The music Handel wrote to accompany this scene was called his “fireworks music”, not to be confused with the famous Music for the Royal Fireworks composed the following decade. [listen]

Atalanta had eight performances in its opening season and was revived for two more later in the year at the Prince of Wales’ command. (Frederick, despite being Prince of Wales, never became king. He died nine years before his father George II, and on George II’s death in 1760, Frederick’s eldest son became George III.)

Later in 1736, Handel worked on three new operas for his next season, which as usual ran during the autumn and winter, ending before Lent. Arminio and Giustino were complete by late October and Berenice was finished by the end of January. As he composed and performed simultaneously, the sheer amount of creative work he undertook is staggering. In writing these three operas Handel created some eight hours’ worth of music, quite apart from performing two or three times a week (and all the rehearsals that entailed). His team of copyists must have been working frantically at times like this, not only copying out vocal and instrumental parts but also making clean copies of scores and assisting in making all the alterations required when arias were changed or new versions of operas were mounted.

The first of these operas to be performed was Arminio, which premiered at Covent Garden on 12 January, 1737. As usual, it was based on an older libretto, but in this case, the original was decimated to make the version that Handel set; a thousand lines of recitative were reduced to around 300, which made many aspects of the plot – drawn from Roman history – completely unintelligible.

Old, stock Italian opera situations just didn't seem to be firing Handel’s imagination any more, and the fact that he was ill during this time wouldn't have helped. As usual, there are gems among the arias, but Arminio lacks the power and cohesion of his best operas. Despite the presence of a new star castrato in the cast – Domenico Annibali - and the Prince of Wales in the audience, it only ran for six performances. [listen]

Mengs: Domenico Annibali (1750)

The subject matter of Handel’s operas (and those of his contemporaries) can strike us today as completely unimportant, especially when we realise the violence done to the librettos for the sake of expediency. But the audiences of the day were attuned to the subjects of the operas they saw and the ways in which they paralleled current events; opera subjects were chosen (or avoided) for this very reason.

Arminio is a good example. It tells a story from ancient times of a German prince who defeats Roman aggression. The parallel between this and the Protestant House of Hanover – Britain’s new German-born dynasty – standing firm against [Roman] Catholic Europe would have been obvious to all. Giustino, Handel’s next opera, tells of a character who rises to the heights of fame despite a lowly birth, and regardless of the nobility of the Hanoverians, this would also have been taken as a parable praising the present royal family, who came from relative obscurity in the line of succession to reign over Britain.

Giustino opened at Covent Garden a month after Arminio, and didn’t fare much better at the box office. By early 1737 Handel was very ill – and had been for some time – and it’s likely he didn’t conduct the later performances of Giustino, which ran for nine nights. In cases such as this John Christopher Smith, Handel’s assistant, took over, and Smith was to be increasingly important to Handel and his work for the rest of the composer’s life.

Domenico Annibali again sang the title role in Giustino and Handel gave him this jolly aria near the end of the third act. [listen]

If Handel didn’t conduct the later performances of Giustino due to ill health, then it’s likely he didn’t conduct any of the performances of Berenice, which opened on 18 May, 1737 and ran for only four performances. In fact none of the operas I'm covering in this post had more than ten performances during Handel’s lifetime, and in virtually every case had to wait until the 20th century to be revived. Berenice remained in the musical consciousness to some extent as the second movement of the overture and one or two of its arias became concert favourites.

But this is not to decry Berenice as a whole, which shows Handel grappling with the burning issue of the day: how to adapt Italian opera seria to the taste of the times while remaining true to its conventions and structure. As a truly pragmatic musician, he was exploring more than one option career-wise, and this is part of what ensured his survival. Other companies – such as the Opera of the Nobility which was in fierce competition with Handel but experiencing similar problems – failed because they had only one mode of operation: they performed Italian opera in the traditional way and threw huge amounts of money after an artform that was, in their hands, becoming irrelevant before their eyes.

Handel on the other hand moulded and adapted opera into a lighter, more modern form of entertainment, and this was just one of the paths he explored. The other – English oratorio – was just as actively explored at this time, and he would soon make the decision as to which form would win his complete attention. I think we can read between the lines that even in 1737 he probably knew the answer.

This is an example of the lighter touch we see in Berenice, a duet from the third act. [listen]

In late 1737 Handel’s season at Covent Garden closed and his arrangement with John Rich came to an end. The Opera of the Nobility threw in the towel and London seemed to have turned its back on Italian opera. Yet Handel never seems to have considered retiring from the theatre, or leaving London. The popularity of the oratorios in tandem with the operas had not only given him an edge over the competition, but had provided a possible way forward. But even now, in dire financial straits and dealing with illness, he still wanted to perform operas.

In the second half of 1737 Handel went to take the waters at Aix-la-Chapelle (now known as Aachen in western Germany, near the Belgian border), a place renowned for its curative powers. It seemed to do him a great deal of good, if for no other reason than it gave him the chance to rest. The talk around London was that his best days were behind him and that he was a spent force, but on his return – reinvigorated and ready for the next challenge – he set out to prove his critics wrong.

Back in London – having leased his old haunt, the King’s Theatre, for a new season – he started work on a new opera, Faramondo, on 15 November. Work on this was interrupted to write the sublime funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, but despite this the opera was still finished on 24 December. Then taking one day off for Christmas, he began his next opera, Serse, on 26 December. It was finished by mid-February. Faramondo was premiered at the King’s Theatre on 3 January 1738, meaning that - as was common for him - he was performing one opera while composing another.

Queen Caroline, consort of George II (1730)

The adaptation of the old libretto for Faramondo was undertaken by someone unknown to us but the result is, to quote Winton Dean, “hopelessly obscure”. The recitatives were cut from 1,240 lines to 540 leading to what Dean describes as “a whirlpool of inconsequence”. For an artform which was renowned for complicated plots, this one really takes the cake. Handel’s music is strong but the plot is so convoluted that it takes an enormous amount of hard work to work out what’s going on, and even then you can’t really be sure.

The title role was written for another famous castrato, Gaetano Majorano, who performed under the name Caffarelli. He only performed in London for one season but this season included not only Faramondo but also Serse, (more about this shortly). Despite its tangled plot, Faramondo gave Caffarelli some great moments, including this aria from act three. [listen]

Gaetano Majorano, known as Caffarelli

Faramondo initially had a good reception which must have cheered Handel no end, but even then it only had eight performances before being forgotten for two centuries.

Part and parcel of any Italian opera company at the time was the performance of pasticcio operas. Literally meaning a pie or pasty, pasticcio came to mean an opera made up of pre-existing arias. As most opera seria arias are designed to meditate on an emotional state rather than advance the plot, it was relatively easy to string a number of arias together to create a new opera. All that was required was the creation of new recitatives to link them together and hey presto, instant opera.

In the days before copyright this was often done using arias by composers who were unaware that their music was being used in this way, and a pasticcio could contain arias by more than one composer. For his part Handel was involved at various points in his career in the creation of pasticcios, but there were only three which he put together that were made up entirely of his own music. The first of these was Oreste, which had three performances back at Covent Garden in late 1734. But now in his final years as an opera composer he created two more, and one of these, Alessandro Severo, had the first of its six performances on 25 February, 1738. All the arias are by Handel, taken from earlier works. Only the recitatives and the overture are new.

Then on 15 April came the opening night of Serse. Sometimes known by its English title of Xerxes, this extraordinary work is often called Handel’s only comic opera. It's nothing of the sort, actually, being just one of a number of his operas in which lighthearted moments sit alongside more serious ones; Flavio and Partenope are in a similar vein. Handel’s famous London competitor, Giovanni Bononcini, had set the libretto in Rome in 1694 and it’s clear that Handel knew that version of Serse well, as his own setting shows many clear references to it. But Handel’s score is one of his most modern and most radical operas; Dean describes it as “the most backward-looking and most forward-looking of Handel’s operas” as well as calling it a masterpiece. Serse has been staged frequently in recent decades, often in productions which send up rather than enhance the conventions of the period, and in ways which obscure rather than clarify the plot (a sad description which could be applied to the way most directors approach Handel operas these days). Yet the Persian king’s song in praise of his plane tree, heard right at the start of the first act, is without doubt one of the composer’s most famous tunes, even if it is usually arranged and rearranged beyond all recognition. [listen]

But Handel’s public didn’t care about the innovations, the delights and the new spirit of Serse. It disappeared after only five performances.

By the end of the 1737/38 season Handel was giving many more performances of English-language works than Italian operas. In early 1739 he performed two colossal new oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, and his only new opera that year – if it could be called that – was another pasticcio, his last, called Giove in Argo or Jupiter in Argos. Very little is known about this piece, and it had only two performances.

At the end of the 1739 season Handel quit the King’s Theatre and moved to the third main theatre in London, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here he continued to perform oratorios, and by 1740 this repertoire included Esther, Deborah, Athalia, Alexander’s Feast, the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, and L’Allegro, as well as Saul and Israel in Egypt. Expanded with organ concertos and, from 1739, the opus 6 concerti grossi, these were proving major attractions, part of a seismic shift in London’s theatre-going world.

But Handel still wanted to test the waters for opera. His tenacity is remarkable but given his love for the artform, the fact that he knew he was the best opera composer in the world, and the simple fact that he’d been an opera composer for more than thirty years, this tenacity is perhaps understandable.

From 1738 he’d been working on Imeneo, a name which translates as Hymen, the Greek god of marriage. This had twice undergone major rewrites as Handel’s casts and circumstances changed, but he didn’t perform it until November 1740, having completed the final revision the month before. Compared to almost every other opera he wrote, Imeneo is smaller and lighter in nearly very way. Reflecting its status as one of his shortest operas, Handel himself called it an “operetta”, perhaps the first use of that term; on other occasions it was called a “serenata”, a term which usually indicated an unstaged concert performance. It has little spectacle, a simple plot, and requires only a single set for all three acts.

It’s clear that whatever Handel’s reason for writing it – and it’s possible he was holding it in store for another royal wedding – Imeneo reflects yet again his move away from the conventions of opera seria. Winton Dean astutely points out that, like Serse, it plumbs emotional depth beneath a comic surface, reflecting “the Mozartian side of Handel’s creative personality”.

The public clearly didn’t think much of it, though. Three performances were scheduled but the third was cancelled due to the illness of one of the singers. Apart from two concert performances in Dublin two years later, Handel never revived it. [listen]

As soon as he’d finished the final version of Imeneo – in October 1740 – Handel started work on Deidamia, and finished it in less than a month. Deidamia is famous as being Handel’s last opera, and it would be fascinating to know what his state of mind was when he wrote it.

Winton Dean describes the piece this way: "Despite half a dozen beautiful arias a good deal of the music sounds tired...the notes come spinning out, but the governing brain seems preoccupied, as if Handel, having glimpsed in Saul the measureless possibilities of the dramatic oratorio, found the routine of opera seria more bother than it was worth to transcend."

These are harsh words, but they ring true. As our tendency to compartmentalise means that we see Deidamia as an end, it was really symptomatic of a new beginning. Handel had already found his new career and his final opera seems to prove it. [listen]

Deidamia opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 10 January, 1741 and had only two performances. Handel gave a single performance the following month in the Little Theatre in the Haymarket – the only time he performed there – but the reasons for this are obscure. That performance, on 10 February, 1741, was the last time Handel performed an Italian opera in London, but by this date his creative life was almost totally devoted to English oratorio, and after this date English oratorio became his new career.

Mercier: George Frideric Handel (c. 1730)

I said at the beginning of this article that the end of Handel’s opera career was sad, marked as it was by a series of box office failures which, it must be admitted, don’t stand up to his earlier masterpieces in the form. Yet this only really applies if you look at the operas out of their context in Handel’s life. Yes, his last eight operas contain only one real triumph – Serse – but they are part of a much larger journey which the composer experienced. This journey saw him try and try again to adapt Italian opera to the tastes of his audience, only to find that his other work – in English oratorio – was what they actually connected with. Only when he realised his heart wasn’t in opera any more, after he’d proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was better at it than anybody else, did he part company with the artform. And oratorio was already established, so much so that his public barely noticed the change.

Six months after the last performance of Deidamia, Handel started work on Messiah.

The only music we can finish with is the final chorus of Deidamia, a simple little piece encouraging lovers to make hay while the sun shines and not to let opportunity pass by. It’s what Handel did his whole life. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2015.

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