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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's London Operas: Part One

During my later years with the ABC I had the privilege of indulging my passion for the life and work of Handel on a number of occasions. In 2014 I was asked to make a six-part series which we called Handel’s English World. This was presented as a special series, separate from Keys To Music. It focused on Handel’s transformation from a German composer of Italian opera to an English institution over the period 1710-59, and surveyed his English language works.

In 2015 I followed this up with a series of four Keys To Music programs called Handel’s London Operas. This surveyed all of Handel’s Italian operas written after his arrival in London in 1710.

Then I completed the “trilogy” in 2016 with a three-part Keys To Music series called Handel Before England. This looked at Handel’s first 25 years, before his arrival in London, a vital but often ignored period which is essential to an understanding of the man we all think we know.

I’ve decided to share the scripts for all these programs in this blog, but will do so in their chronological order of content rather than in the order I presented them on air. The three parts of Handel Before England were posted recently and they included discussions of Handel's first operas, from Almira to Agrippina, which were written in Hamburg, Florence and Venice. Handel's London Operas, which starts here, surveys Handel's remaining works in this form, which were all written for performance in London.


This post is the first in a series of four in which I'm going to survey an extraordinary body of work: the 36 operas written for performance in London by George Frideric Handel.

In 1710 Handel turned 25. He was an ambitious young man with the talent to back it up. He already had an international reputation as a virtuoso keyboard player, and the nearly four years he spent in Italy from 1706 to 1710 saw him transformed from a keen but inexperienced composer of vocal music to a master of the Italian vocal style. His final triumph in Italy had been the opera Agrippina, which had been the standout success of the season in Venice at the end of 1709.

Having triumphed at the heart of Italian opera, and secured the post of Kapellmeister at the court of the Elector Georg in Hanover, he now went to London, which, as far as Italian opera was concerned, was a wasteland. In Italy he was the apprentice; here he was the master. (The background to Handel's relationship with the Hanover court and his first visits to London will be explored in Part One of Handel's English World, which will be posted here in due course.)

English theatrical taste in the late 17th century was for spoken plays (which might contain a few musical numbers) or for a form later known as "semiopera", in which substantial musical scenes or masques followed each act of a purely spoken drama. And all these sorts of entertainment had one thing in common: they were in English.

In the decade before Handel's arrival there was a huge variety of theatrical fare on offer in London: opera in English, semioperas in the older style, plays with music and, from 1705 onwards, attempts to interest the English in all-sung opera in Italian, using imported singers in pasticcio operas. (A pasticcio opera is one cobbled together using pre-existing arias to make a new piece, and in the early days of Italian opera in London these were the only ones offered to the public.)

The two main theatres in London at the time - Drury Lane and Lincoln's Inn Fields - were joined by a new venue in 1705 with the construction of the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket. Built - and for a time managed - by John (later Sir John) Vanbrugh, the Queen's Theatre had an acoustic more designed for music than for speech. Vanbrugh was more concerned at the time with one of his more famous creations, Blenheim Palace. He soon gave up the Queen's Theatre and after some years of chaotic managerial comings and goings, Aaron Hill was in charge when the famous Mr Handel was invited to compose a new Italian opera for the theatre.

Capon: The Italian Opera House, built by John Vanbrugh, at the Haymarket before it was destroyed by a fire on 17 June 1789 (1783)

The result - Rinaldo - was a daring experiment. It was the first completely new Italian opera composed for London, setting a completely new libretto devised by Hill and translated into Italian verse by Giacomo Rossi; and it was a tryout of a completely new opera composer, untried on the fickle English public. All the singers were Italian imports, including the famous castrato Nicolo Grimaldi in the title role. It was an enormous risk, and it was a hit. [listen]

Rinaldo - which was premiered on 24 February, 1711 - is a very strange piece, though. Hill's scenario is hardly perfect and there are scenes and situations which are intensely undramatic. The plot is a bit of a mish-mash and draws on elements from Tasso's Jerusalem Liberated, as well as classical mythology and fairy tales.

Rinaldo was written quickly, but Rossi's assertion that Handel wrote the music in two weeks is clearly an exaggeration. The overture and about two-thirds of the arias are recycled from earlier works he wrote in Italy. In fact Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp in their seminal study of the Handel operas - the principal source for these articles - describe it as "an anthology culled from the best works of his Italian period".

Aaron Hill

And we mustn't forget that Hill staged Rinaldo with spectacular stage effects, combining the virtuosity of Italian singing with the spectacle of the English masque. The visual effects were as much a reason for Rinaldo's success as the music. And Handel wasn't above providing a bit musical limelight for himself at the harpsichord... [listen]

In some respects, Rinaldo was a one-off. In June of 1711, after the opera had had a decent run of fifteen performances, Handel returned to his employer in Hanover. The Elector gave him more leave, and a little over a year later he was back in London, arriving in October 1712. The following month, on 22 November, his second London opera had its premiere.

Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd) could hardly be more different to Rinaldo. Giacomo Rossi fashioned a three-act opera libretto from a famous five-act pastoral play by Giovanni Battista Guarini from the 1580s.

Handel could make really interesting work out of the pastoral tradition. His Italian cantata Apollo and Daphne, written in Venice a few years before, and his Acis and Galatea, which would appear a few years later, prove this. But the libretto of ll pastor fido seems to have defeated him, notwithstanding the beauty of many of its arias. It's just that as a whole, we find ourselves not terribly interested in Mirtillo, Amarilli, Eurilla or the others. Il pastor fido does contain an element often overlooked in discussions of Handel's operas and that's ballet. Dance was often incorporated into Italian opera and Handel's operas were no exception. There's an extended sequence of dances at the end of each act of Il pastor fido.

The musical style for this opera overall, though, is light, and again Handel draws on his Italian works to recycle material for many moments in the score. Perhaps more interestingly, there are parts of this opera which he reused (always with adaptation and development) in his much later English oratorios. [listen]

French connections abound in Handel's third London opera, Teseo (Theseus), which premiered at the Queen's Theatre on 10 January 1713, less than two months after Il pastor fido. This time the librettist was Nicola Haym, famous not only for his literary gifts but also as a composer, cellist and theatre manager. (He was also a highly-respected numismatist, writing the first work on ancient coins held in the British Museum.)

In writing the text for Teseo, Haym adapted a French libretto, Thesée, which had been set to music by Lully in 1675. This provided many headaches for the Haym, not the least of which was the completely different conventions in French and Italian operas regarding the function of an aria. In Italian operas of the period, the aria provides a discharge for the emotion of the moment, enabling the character to summarise the situation without the plot advancing, after which - essentially - the characters exits. The exit convention was de rigeur in Italian opera of the Baroque.

In French opera of the period the aria had a very different function. It usually acted as a point of lyrical expression in the the middle of an unfolding scene, and it was never automatically connected to an exit. Also, French grand operas were almost always in five acts, and unusually Haym didn't alter this structure; Teseo is unique in Handel's operas in having five acts rather than three.

Teseo provided Handel with a much more dramatic libretto than Il pastor fido and the fact that the new piece contains far fewer borrowings from earlier works is clear indication of how the text inspired him. The character of Medea, in particular, enabled him to write one of his greatest sorceress roles. Her incantation scene at the end of the third act is a foretaste of Alcina's greatest moments more than 20 years later. [listen]

Thornhill: George Frideric Handel (the "Chandos Portrait") (c. 1720)

After a successful experiment like Teseo, Handel's next opera, Silla, raises more questions than it answers. Giacomo Rossi again provided the composer with the libretto although it is, to quote Dean and Knapp, "the worst libretto Handel ever set". Based on Plutarch's history of the Roman Consul Sulla, Handel must have found it deeply uni

To make matters more complex, Silla was written to commemorate the arrival in London of the new French Ambassador, the Duke D'Aumont, marking the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Britain and France after the War of the Spanish Succession. The story of a repulsive leader like Sulla seems like an odd subject for such an occasion. And to complicate matters even more, there is no firm evidence that the work was actually performed. It seems a performance was planned for 2 June, 1713, but whether it actually happened is not certain. For all these reasons, Silla - one of Handel's shortest operas - is largely forgotten nowadays, despite the quality of some of the music. This exquisite, tiny duet - only 14 bars long - sung by husband and wife, Lepidus and Flavia, as they are taken away by soldiers, is a gem. [listen]

1713 was a crucial year for Handel professionally. Around the middle of the year, when Silla may have been performed, he was officially dismissed from his post in Hanover. At the end of the year, given his success with works commissioned for royal occasions (most notably the "Utrecht" canticles performed in St Paul's Cathedral in July of that year), he received an annual pension from Queen Anne of £200. London was now his base, and would be for the rest of his life.

In the middle of 1714, the dynastic wheels suddenly shifted. In June, the Dowager Electress Sophia of Hanover, heir to the British throne, died, leaving her son, the Elector Georg (Handel's former employer), next in line. The following month Queen Anne died after years of ill health, bringing the Stuart dynasty to an end. The remainder of 1714 saw Handel involved in political manoeuvring - along with the rest of British society at every level - while the new King, George I, established his court. It wasn't until May 1715 that a new Handel opera hit the boards at what now became known as the King's Theatre.

Kneller: George I of Great Britain (c. 1714)

Handel was given a better libretto for his next opera, Amadigi, which like Teseo was based on a French model. Amadigi is full of magic episodes and transformations but they don't seem to have interested him all that much. As usual, he was far more interested in the characters, their emotions and their relationships. And here again we have another sorceress, Melissa, whose motivations (and love) seem to have particularly stirred Handel's creativity. Her death scene in the final act is magnificent. [listen]

Amadigi had revivals in 1716 and 1717 and there were also revivals of Rinaldo throughout the same period. But between 1717 and 1720, a period in which there was little operatic activity in London, Handel's attention was elsewhere. From late summer of 1717 he took up residence at Cannons Park in Edgware, outside the main city of London. He remained there for a couple of years, employed by James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos. (This period, too, will be explored in more depth in Handel's English World.)

His circumstances changed in 1719 with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music. This was not the educational institution known by that name today, but rather a securely funded and well-managed opera company. Legends about the Academy's alleged waste and foolhardiness started early but the facts speak otherwise. Dean and Knapp describe it as, "the most comprehensive attempt in the 18th century to establish high quality opera in London".

Handel was employed by the company as a house composer, musical director and contractor. He was sent to the Continent to secure the services of the best-available singers for the venture, and he was one of a number of composers contracted to the company. Handel's operas written for the Royal Academy of Music - between 1720 and 1728 - are usually referred to as his "Academy operas" and they represent the most formal and elegant stage of his opera composing career. He worked strictly within the conventions of opera seria and the results are grand, imposing, virtuosic and elegant.

It was probably Nicola Haym who adapted an older Venetian libretto for Handel to set for his first Academy opera, Radamisto. Here we have one of the best opera librettos he ever set, a formal, well-balanced, dramatic piece of work. Radamisto was premiered at the King's Theatre on 27 April, 1720 and had ten performances during its initial run. It was revised and performed many times in subsequent years. [listen]

In March 1721 Handel put the finishing touches to the third act of his next opera, Muzio Scevola. This was a curious affair because he only wrote the third act. The first was written by Filippo Amadei, better known for being a cellist than a composer, while the second was written by Handel's principal rival in London at the time, Giovanni Bononcini (also a house composer for the Academy). Handel's early biographer Johann Mattheson began the story that Handel and Bononcini were pitted against each other by the Academy's directors as a public "duel" to whip up publicity and ticket sales. Whether or not this is true, comparisons would certainly have been made between the two famous imported composers, each of whom had their supporters and detractors. The premiere of Muzio Scevola took place at the King's Theatre on 27 April 1720. While public opinion seems to have favoured Handel's act, there is much to recommend Bononcini's contribution; he had a superb gift for melody and for knowing how to show the cast to the best advantage.

Schoojans: Giovanni Bononcini

Among the cast of vocal luminaries was the bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi. For him Handel wrote this superb aria with an independent middle line in the orchestra featuring the violas and bassoons, a Handel speciality. [listen]

Handel's next opera for the Academy was Floridante, with a text by Paolo Rolli based on a Venetian libretto of the 1690s. Rolli provided him with a libretto sadly typical of the period; it has flaws in its dramatic line which not even a master composer like Handel could paper over. These flaws, though, didn't seem to matter to the London public, who just wanted to hear great singers singing great music.

Why Handel tolerated bad librettos is another question entirely. Did he assume the public wouldn't care, or was he only concerned with the way his music could enhance the drama as it was? Did he ever argue with his opera librettists as we know he later did with those who provided texts for the oratorios? There's a lot we don't know.

Given the rising star of Bononcini in London (despite the fact that Bononcini was 15 years his senior), Handel clearly felt the need to meet the Italian on his own ground. The grand heroic style of the earlier Academy operas was abandoned in Floridante in favour of a lighter, more tuneful approach. Handel's music for Floridante is still delightful, but it didn't stop the public clamouring more for Bononcini's work than his. [listen]

Similar problems with the clumsy compression of an earlier libretto into one intended for Handel, such as we saw in Floridante, are encountered in his next Academy opera, Ottone. Like many opera seria texts, Ottone was based on history, in this case the reigns of two Holy Roman Emperors: Otho the Great and Otho II in the late tenth century. But also like many opera seria texts, the version given to Handel was a travesty of the original from which it was culled. Dean and Knapp put it this way: "In Handel's greatest operas the structural stresses between the articulation of the plot and the development of the characters are perfectly reconciled. This is not the case with Ottone..."

In no way is this a criticism of Handel's music; he had a job to do and he clearly loved doing it, if his commitment to Italian opera in London is anything to go by. He set the text as best he could and moved on. Ottone opened at the King's Theatre on 12 January 1723 and had an initial run of 14 performances. It was clearly a success because it had substantial revival seasons later that year as well as in 1726, 1727 and 1733.

Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino

The title role of Ottone was written for the famous alto castrato Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino), for whom Handel would eventually write seventeen leading roles; he'd already created the title roles in Muzio Scevola and Floridante. But Ottone provided the first chance for Handel to present his newest imported star, the female soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Cuzzoni's role, Teofane, contains little of the vocal pyrotechnics for which she was famous and clearly she expected more of this in her part. The sublime continuo aria, Falsa imagine, she deemed too simple and refused to sing it. Only when Handel picked her up and threatened to throw her out a window did she come to see the merits of his side of the argument. [listen]

Ghezzi: Caricature of Francesca Cuzzoni (1720s)

We end this first instalment of Handel's London Operas with a vastly underrated work, Flavio, which had its first performance at the King's Theatre on 14 May, 1723, four months after that of Ottone. Haym's adaptation of a 1696 Roman libretto is patchy, requiring a lot of cuts to suit the London taste and thereby sacrificing a lot of helpful explanation as to the character's motivations. But what remains is still fascinating and best described as an anti-heroic comedy with tragic undertones. As such it immediately suggests a connection with da Ponte's libretto for Mozart's Don Giovanni and the comparison is a fair one. Flavio has been ignored because it doesn't seem to fit the consistently serious tone assumed to be essential for opera seria. When viewed on its merits, though, Flavio can be seen to be one of Handel's finest theatrical works.

I'll end with one of the arias from this opera composed for Francesca Cuzzoni in the role of Emilia. She doesn't seem to had any arguments with Handel's music this time around. [listen]

Hogarth: The bad taste of the town (1724)

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

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