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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's London Operas: Part Three

It seems almost indecent to suggest that opera could be a battleground between vested interests but in early 18th century London this is exactly what happened. After the successful importation of Italian opera sung in Italian by Italian singers in the first decade of the century, London became an active centre for this style of opera which was famous and popular across Europe.

One of the earliest participants in this marketplace was Handel - himself an import with much Italian experience - and after establishing himself as a freelance opera composer from 1710, he was appointed - in 1720 - as one of the house composers for a joint stock company called the Royal Academy of Music. This put Italian opera onto a sound financial and artistic footing and over eight seasons Handel provided fourteen new operas for the company.

Grisoni (attr.): A Masquerade at the King's Theatre, Haymarket (c. 1724)

This article, the third in a series of four surveying Handel's London operas, picks up the story in 1729 with the end of the Academy's operations. Although it didn't formally fold, the Academy voted in January 1729 to cease its activities and to allow Handel and John James Heidegger to use its scenery, costumes and props for five years.

Heidegger was Swiss, born Johann Jacob Heidegger, and nearly 20 years older than Handel. He'd had a chequered career but soon showed an aptitude for theatrical management. Now he and Handel proceeded to pick up where the Academy left off, still at the King's Theatre, but they were largely on their own. Heidegger looked after the stage, Handel did almost everything else.

The three star singers who featured in our last instalment - the castrato Senesino and the "rival queens" Cuzzoni and Faustina - were too expensive to be involved in the new venture. In February 1729, less than a month after the Academy ceased operation, Handel left for Italy to find an entirely new cast. In Venice he tried to engage Farinelli, the most famous castrato in the world, but he refused to meet with Handel at all and publicly expressed his unwillingness to go to England.

By the time he returned to London at the end of June, Handel had a new cast. There were two established stars, the alto castrato Antonio Bernacchi and the female contralto Antonia Merighi. The soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò was also in the company, not yet a star but someone in whom Handel saw great potential. Annibale Pio Fabri, a tenor, had an excellent reputation, and Francesca Bertolli was a female contralto who specialised in singing male roles. The cast was rounded out with a German bass, Johann Gottfried Riemenschneider.

Zanetti: Caricature of Antonia Merighi

Handel's first new opera for the new venture (among revivals and pasticcios) was Lotario. This had its first performance on 2 December 1729. The score was designed to impress, full of stunning showpieces, but the public didn't take to it. It wasn't performed again for another 245 years. This is its beautiful overture. [listen]

According to Winton Dean, whose books on the Handel operas were my primary source for these articles, the title role, written for Bernacchi, contains the finest aria in the score, sung at the end of the second act. In an opera full of fireworks and coloratura display, this gentle, searching music in Handel's meditation key of E flat, stands out. [listen]

Antonio Bernacchi

Handel contributed a second new opera to the opening season, Partenope, which opened on 24 February 1730. (The opera's title has the stress on the second syllable.)This was a well-known opera story at the time, based on a well-used libretto, but it was also highly controversial. The title role is female, and prior to this Handel had only once composed an opera for London with a female title role, Rodelinda five years earlier. The story is told entirely from the perspective of the female characters and - even more outrageous - contains humour. Flavio from 1723 had been his only other opera to break out of the unrelenting seriousness expected in opera seria, but in Partenope there is a light touch which is new.

This informed Handel's style overall, which is much lighter and less intensely virtuosic than Lotario. And unlike Lotario, the public seemed to approve. Lotario might have had a longer initial run than Partenope (ten performances as opposed to seven), but Partenope was revived twice, including another short run later the same year.

The title role was written for Strada, whom Handel was grooming for stardom. Her opening aria contains a high C, a note he rarely wrote (and never wrote again for Strada). But the high note is incidental to the main thrust of the piece, which is to establish a carefree character and a light mood for the opera as a whole. [listen]

In 1730, at the end of Handel and Heidegger's first season, they lost their star castrato, Bernacchi. They tried to get his former student Giovanni Carestini, who was now very famous, but he wasn't yet available. Reluctantly they approached the tried-and-true Senesino, who, knowing he had the upper hand in negotiations, pushed them to a rather higher salary than Bernacchi had been getting. But he agreed to return to London and sing for Handel once more.

Handel wrote one new opera for the 1730/31 season, Poro. Based on history - in this case Alexander the Great's dealings with Porus, King of India ("Poro" in Italian) - the story was one of the most popular opera subjects of the 17th and 18th centuries. Handel's setting of it is intense and fast-moving, rich with powerful incidents. There is strong characterisation, especially for the two main characters of Alexander (a tenor role sung by Fabri) and Poro (sung by Senesino).

It's not surprising then that Poro was a hit, running for 16 performances in its initial season (which opened on 2 February, 1731), followed by revivals later that year as well as in 1736. This is the superb duet between Poro and Cleofide (sung by Strada) which closes the first act. [listen]

Verelst: Anna Maria Strada (c. 1732)

The next season, 1731/32, saw the premieres of two new Handel operas (in the midst of revivals and pasticcios). The first of these - Ezio - is one of his most remarkable achievements, although it was a dismal failure in its first season and only ran for five performances. The almost total lack of ensemble singing in the reworked Metastasio libretto he was working with led the composer to focus on exquisite but subtle details of harmony, rhythm and orchestration in order to underline the drama of the story. These details seem to have escaped the attention of the King's Theatre audience, sadly, although Ezio has had a certain currency in modern times, especially in Germany. [listen]

The failure of Ezio forced Handel to rush his next opera into production. Sosarme has a curious history, reflected in the score. For the first two acts, the work was originally called Fernando, with the story set in Portugal and based on historical characters. Then, when he started writing the third act, Handel went back and changed the title to Sosarme, also changing the location and most of the characters' names. He also cut a large amount of the recitative he'd already composed.

Handel scholars have been puzzled as to why he did this, but there is no definitive answer to the question. As it stands, Sosarme is victim to the cuts Handel inflicted on it, with some holes in the story. But from its opening night (on 15 February, 1732, exactly a month after the opening night of Ezio) Sosarme was a hit with the London public. It ran for 11 performances, every one of which was attended by members of the royal family.

Sosarme has been recorded at least twice. The first was in 1955 with Alfred Deller in the cast, and the other in 1993 conducted by Johannes Somary. But in 2005 Alan Curtis recorded a reconstructed version of Fernando, providing the first opportunity for the world to hear the opera as Handel might have originally intended it.

This recording of the final aria of the second act comes from the Curtis recording. It derives its style from the text's reference to the weaving of the turtle dove through the air. Handel never could resist ornithological analogies. [listen]

1732, the year in which both Ezio and Sosarme had their premieres, was a pivotal one in Handel's life. It was only a few days after the premiere of Sosarme that he attended a performance of his small-scale oratorio Esther at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand. This was performed by boys from the Chapel Royal and directed by Bernard Gates, a fine singer and Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. Handel had written Esther nearly 15 years earlier while he was in residence at Cannons in Edgware, estate of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos. Its unexpected return to his life led him to mount a greatly expanded version of the oratorio in his opera season.

For the next ten years Handel presented English oratorios alongside Italian operas in his theatre seasons. It was a fascinating time of experimentation which led to him - by 1741 - abandoning opera entirely and focusing solely on oratorio. (This period will be explored in detail in Handel's English World, which will be shared in this blog in due course.) But in 1733 he was still devoted to opera and looking for new directions in that genre as well.

The one new opera in the 1732/33 season was Orlando. Here Handel took Italian opera in a completely new direction. The libretto, based on operatic treatments of Ariosti's epic poem Orlando furioso, contains ideas and characters which are completely new. The magical element in the story, and the centrality of a great humanitarian figure written for the bass voice, has drawn comparisons with Mozart's The Magic Flute, and such comparisons are appropriate.

There are only five characters in Orlando, and the role of Zoroastro was written for the great Italian bass Antonio Montagnana. Montagnana had sung in Ezio and Sosarme in the previous season, but here Handel had a new role created for him which doesn't appear in earlier versions of the Orlando story. He exerts a Sarastro-like influence on the story of the disturbed Orlando, and Handel gave him some magnificent music.

Inspired by a brilliant story, and with a brilliant cast (including Senesino and Strada), Handel created a masterpiece. Orlando's first mad scene [listen], which closes the second act, has four bars of 5/8 time, used to underline his mental instability. This is the first known use of quintuple meter in western music. Orlando's other music is brilliant and Senesino must have revelled in singing such a glorious part. (I've conducted two productions of Orlando and it really is an extraordinary, exciting work.) [listen]

In June 1733, at the end of the season, Handel told Senesino his services were no longer required. The reasons for this are unclear but money must have been a concern, given his astronomical fee. We don't know if Handel was unhappy with his performances, but as it transpired, Senesino's dismissal fed into the difficulties which lay ahead.

In 1734 Handel and Heidegger suddenly had competition. Other theatrical ventures had been jealous of Handel's success - and his royal connections - for decades, but now a new opera company was formed with the single aim of putting him out of business. The Opera of the Nobility, as it was called, had powerful backing, including the Prince of Wales, who saw this as yet another means of angering his father the king (who supported Handel's company). To make matters worse all of Handel's singers, with the exception of Strada, defected to the new company (including Senesino, a major drawcard, and later joined by Cuzzoni), meaning he had to hastily put together an almost entirely new cast of singers.

In addition to keeping Strada, Handel must have been relieved when he finally managed to secure the services of the castrato Carestini, who would be worthy competition to Senesino. He also employed Margherita Durastanti, a soprano with whom he'd worked many times, both in Italy and in London, as well as the soprano castrato Carlo Scalzi and two sisters (both altos at this stage), Caterina and Rosa Negri. A local bass, Gustavus Waltz, rounded out the ensemble.

Giovanni Carestini

The first opera under these new arrangements, Arianna in Creta (Ariadne in Crete) opened at the King's Theatre on 26 January, 1734. Handel's season had begun months earlier with a revival of Ottone and three pasticcios, holding back the new piece (which had been completed in October) until the Opera of the Nobility had launched their own new opera on the Ariadne legend, Porpora's Arianna in Nasso (Ariadne in Naxos).

On a purely dramatic level, and occasionally even on a musical one, Handel's Arianna is a disappointment after Orlando. There are obvious faults in the libretto but it also seems (as a number of writers both from Handel's time and ours have pointed out) that the composer was almost apologising for the innovations of the previous opera. Arianna's music is good, often excellent, but it hardly breaks the mould or startles in the way Orlando's music does.

This does seem to have pleased the audiences, though, as Arianna had an excellent first run of 16 performances, and was revived for a further five the following season. Theseus (sung by Carestini) gets the best music and the fight with the Minotaur in act three brought from Handel some of his best bravura battle music. [listen]

At the end of their 1733/34 season, Handel and Heidegger reached the end of their five year agreement with the Royal Academy of Music at the King's Theatre. During this season the Opera of the Nobility had performed in the theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Now the board of the Academy was keen to be rid of Handel, and with the expiration of their agreement let the King's Theatre to the Nobility. Heidegger broke off with Handel too, and stayed at the King's Theatre to work for the opposition.

Handel still had his singers, though, and decided to negotiate a lease for London's newest theatre, in Covent Garden. It had been open for less than two years, was larger than the other theatres, and managed by John Rich, an experienced and innovative entrepreneur. (This is not the present-day Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which was built in the mid-19th century, but an earlier theatre on the same site.) The theatre also had a small resident chorus and ballet company. Marie Sallé, a French dancer with an international reputation, performed often in London at this time and she was about to be involved in two of Handel's greatest operas in his new theatre.

Lancret: Marie Sallé (c. 1740)

In addition to their cast largely stolen from Handel, the Opera of the Nobility eventually secured the most famous castrato of them all, Farinelli, for a number of productions. Initially they triumphed, but this venture, too, soon foundered on the rocks of Handel's superior talent and sheer stubbornness.

We'll conclude this article with the first two new operas Handel wrote for Covent Garden, which are among his better-known works: Ariodante and Alcina.

Opening on 8 January, 1735, Ariodante is full of simply stunning music, and as it has very little in the way of subplot, it's dramatically direct and powerful. With Carestini and Strada in the leading roles, Handel introduced two new singers to his cast who were - amazingly - English. The soprano Cecilia Young and the tenor John Beard were clearly adept at singing in the Italian style, judging by the music Handel wrote for them (especially Beard), and casting them as the "second couple" of Dalinda and Lurcanio was inspired. (I conducted the first Australian performances of Ariodante. It's my favourite Handel opera.)

Carestini must have been in fine form; the role of Ariodante is a gift to any singer, and in each of the three acts he has a total show stopper of an aria. Most famous is Dopo notte near the end, in which Handel embraces the new Neopolitan style then sweeping opera across Europe, which in turn would lead to the early classical style. Handel was showing the opposition that he knew what was going on. This is one of the most famous recordings of Dopo notte, sung by Anne Sofie von Otter. [listen]

Making use of the facilities available at Covent Garden, Handel uses a real chorus in Ariodante, in the sense we would think of the term, representing a group of people separate from the principals.

syllable.) This

And Ariodante has ballet. A number of Handel's earlier operas also included ballet sequences - such a thing was far more common than most people realise nowadays - but the Covent Garden ballet troupe was given beautiful ballet music in Ariodante, most notably the ballet of good and bad dreams which accompanies Ginevra's terror at the end of the second act.

So popular was this ballet sequence that Handel immediately found a place for it in his next new opera, Alcina. Alcina returns to the same literary source which inspired Orlando, and like Orlando has a strong magical element to the story. It opened at Covent Garden a little over three months after Ariodante on 16 April, 1735.

Here Handel rewards the faithful Strada with the magnificent title role, requiring not only superb vocal skills but real dramatic prowess. An innovation here was the inclusion of a boy soprano, William Savage, then aged 14 or 15, who sang the small but vital role of Oberto. Savage went on to work for Handel for some years, as a countertenor and later as a bass, in both opera and oratorio. He was also a noted organist and composer.

In opera seria, true ensembles like duets and trios are rare, but Alcina contains a fine trio near the end. We'll end with this glorious music and conclude our survey of Handel's London Operas in part four of this series. [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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