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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel's London Operas: Part Two

This post is the second in a series of four covering the rich legacy of George Frideric Handel's London operas, and we begin with the year 1724, 14 years since he first set foot on English soil. His clear intent was to be the major opera composer in London and with his first five operas - Rinaldo, Il Pastor Fido, Teseo, Silla and Amadigi - he threw himself into the fledging Italian opera scene in London as an enthusiastic freelancer.

Greater stability came in 1720 with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music, a joint stock company supported by wealthy patrons (including the King, George I) which was designed to provide the highest quality Italian opera on a sound financial footing. Handel, along with Giovanni Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti, was one of its musical directors and house composers. Between 1720 and 1723, where our last instalment ended, he wrote five operas for the company: Radamisto, the third act of Muzio Scevola, Floridante, Ottone and Flavio.

A caricature of a performance of Handel's Flavio, featuring the castrato Gaetano Berenstadt on the right, Francesca Cuzzoni in the centre and Senesino on the left.

Among the cast of fine (and very expensive) Italian singers the company had lured to England was the mezzo soprano castrato Francesco Bernardi, who sang under the name Senesino, and the female soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Over many years, Handel would eventually write seventeen leading roles for Senesino; one of the most famous and best-known today was the title role in his next opera for the Academy, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, usually known today as just Julius Caesar). [listen]

Nicola Haym, who was one of the Academy's house poets, adapted the text from a Venetian opera libretto of the 1670s. As we saw in Part One, Handel's opera librettos were sometimes spectacularly bad, usually because they were compressed from earlier versions intended for different traditions. Here Haym did an excellent job; the libretto for Julius Caesar is astonishingly good. It's based on history and roughly follows the same story as George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra (or if you prefer, the first half of the film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor).

Senesino and Cuzzoni played Caesar and Cleopatra in the opera's first run, which opened on 20 February, 1724. Both were given sublime music and the double plot - one involving Caesar and Cleopatra, the other concerned with Sesto revenging his father's death at the hands of Tolomeo - is outlined clearly in the text and given stunning musical treatment by Handel. At 39 he had clearly hit a creative high point. This is Cleopatra's aria in the third act expressing joy and relief at her rescue. It was tailor-made for Cuzzoni's voice, which was capable of great agility and which Handel clearly felt worked well in sharp keys such as A major, E major and F sharp minor, which occur regularly in his music for her. [listen]

Francesca Cuzzoni

In Julius Caesar, Handel's orchestra was very large, including four horns (in two pairs, each in a different key), and it had enough players to provide a second orchestra of nine musicians on stage at the start of the second act in Cleopatra's beautiful seduction scene. It's structurally very satisfying and both plots reach a simultaneous climax at the end of the third act. Most unusually there are two deaths on stage - Tolomeo and Achilla - which was almost unheard of in opera seria. All these factors (and many more) make Julius Caesar immensely satisfying, one of the reasons for its continued popularity today. (I've conducted it eighteen times, in three seasons of six performances, all of the famed Francisco Negrin production devised for Opera Australia. I adore the piece beyond words.)

Handel's next opera hit the boards at the King's Theatre a little over eight months after the opening night of Julius Caesar. Like Caesar, Tamerlano was based on history, in this case from the years around 1400. There are two warring conquerors: Timur (or Tamerlane, Tamerlano in Italian), the Tartar from Central Asia, and the Ottoman Turk Bajazet. The story was already well-known and popular as a theatrical subject and Haym based his libretto for Handel on a number of earlier versions.

In Tamerlano Handel created a worthy successor to Julius Caesar. His score shows that he was obsessed with the piece throughout the summer of 1724 and he constantly reworked it even before the premiere on 31 October. The characters of Tamerlano and Bajazet are wonderful creations; Tamerlano might be the title character and the victor in the story, but Bajazet, who dies on stage near the end, is really the opera's tragic hero. Handel stretches the conventions of opera seria to the limit in order to bring the greatest possible dramatic power to the story.

Despite the occasional complexity of their plots, Handel's best operas have a single dramatic thread which unifies them and keeps the audience involved. In Julius Caesar it's the sexual tension between Caesar and Cleopatra. In Tamerlano we have the devotion of a father (Bajazet) to his daughter (Asteria), one of many occasions where Handel was clearly moved by the father-daughter relationship, a relationship he never experienced in his own life.

Bajazet, most unusually, was written for a tenor and sung by Francesco Borosini. Tenors almost never had principal roles in opera seria and they were usually the last sort of voice to be utilised after sopranos and altos (of both sexes) and basses; if used, tenors nearly always had very small roles, often with no arias at all. Yet in writing the role of Bajazet for Borosini Handel showed yet again how he could adapt opera seria conventions for powerful dramatic ends. Using a tenor made Bajazet stand out; indeed, noting that he was not a castrato, one wit in Mist's Weekly Journal remarked that Borosini was "not cut out" to be a singer. [listen]

Zanetti: Caricature of Francesco Borosini

On 13 February, 1725, Handel's next opera, Rodelinda, had its opening night. Here again Haym adapted an old libretto and here again he provided the composer with an excellent text to work with. Rodelinda is yet another masterpiece - also based on history, this time from the seventh century - and it crowns an amazing trilogy of first-rate operas, all staged within twelve months. Like Julius Caesar and Tamerlano, it was also an immediate success and ran for fourteen performances. Senesino and Cuzzoni were at the head of the cast, as Bertarido and Rodelinda respectively. Following on from the success of Borosini in Tamerlano, the third role in the opera, Grimoaldo was written for him.

The unifying thread which runs throughout Rodelinda is the ability of married love to withstand every assault thrown against it. It's a theme we know most famously, perhaps, from Beethoven's Fidelio, and Rodelinda herself is a wonderful character: noble, strong and defiant in the face of danger. [listen]

It's not an exaggeration to say that Handel's creation of three unrivalled theatrical masterpieces in roughly a year is perhaps unique in the annals of operatic history. (The nearest example in another composer's output that I can think of is Verdi's production of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata in roughly the same time span.) The stability of the Royal Academy and the availability of good librettos and first-rate singers gave Handel the environment he needed to unleash his creativity in a way he'd not been able to before. Julius Caesar, Tamerlano and Rodelinda have long been acknowledged as among the greatest operas he produced, and certainly among the greatest operas of the 18th century.

After these three triumphs, circumstances worked against Handel to some extent. Much publicity had been generated in the press to whip up enthusiasm for a new star soprano, Faustina Bordoni, but her arrival in London was delayed. Handel had intended Alessandro to be his next opera, with a part especially written for the newcomer, but with the delay he had to hastily finish and rehearse Scipione. This had its premiere barely a month after Rodelinda and the librettist wasn't Haym but Paolo Rolli. Rolli had written librettos for Handel before, and in revising an older Italian libretto for Scipione (based on ancient Roman history) he again gave Handel a text which wasn't anywhere near as good the recent texts he'd had from Haym.

The poor libretto and the haste of its composition means that Scipione is not on a par with the three masterpieces which preceded it. There are great moments musically, but the whole work lacks the dramatic unity or power that Handel's audiences would have come to expect after his most recent operas. Still, it had a decent run of thirteen performances, and again, the cast included Senesino and Cuzzoni. This aria from act two was written for Senesino in the role of Lucejo. [listen]

On 5 May, 1726, two months after the opening night of Scipione, Handel premiered the opera he had intended to perform earlier in the year, Alessandro. It was his last offering in the Academy's 1725/26 season, and marks the London debut of the Faustina Bordoni, who was known to the public by her first name. Long before her arrival the press was salivating over the prospects of hearing her in London (The British Journal in September 1725 had described her as "a second Cuzzoni"). At first, though, there was no thought that there would be direct competition between the two as many assumed Cuzzoni would either leave London or retire. As it turned out there was indeed competition, comparison, even scandal; it was these two women who led to the creation of the expression "The Rival Queens".

Alessandro had all three of the Academy's stars in the leading roles: Senesino sang the title role, while Cuzzoni sang Lisaura, and Faustina Rossane. Handel was careful to provide both women with parts of equal stature - they even make their first entrance at the same moment - and he made adjustments to Faustina's part (replacing some of the arias) during the successful initial run of thirteen performances to keep her happy.

Nazari: Faustina Bordoni (c. 1730)

Rolli again adapted the libretto from earlier versions - the Alessandro of the title is Alexander the Great - and again he seems to have done a great deal of damage to the dramatic potential of the story. Handel's music is in his best "Academy style" as he knew he was writing for three of the greatest singers of the age. Faustina's first aria - her first on a London stage and therefore hugely anticipated by all present - is a jolly number which was one of the arias replaced during the run, although it's hard to know what she should could have found wrong with this. Winton Dean suggests it was perhaps more Cuzzoni's style than hers... [listen]

The directors of the Academy were divided in their loyalties between their two star sopranos. Some saw Faustina's arrival as an affront to Cuzzoni, towards whom they felt a great deal of loyalty. Without doubt, Cuzzoni would have seen Faustina as an unwelcome rival. But others regarded having her on their stage as an enormous coup, perhaps swayed by the fact that she had a reputation as a great beauty. All contemporary reports support the notion that on physical appearance alone, Cuzzoni could not compare with the newcomer.

As singers, though, they were very different. Looking at the great deal which was written about them, both in the press and in private letters, and by looking at music Handel and Bononcini wrote for them, it's clear that they had similar ranges (if anything Cuzzoni's was a tone or so higher than Faustina's) but different styles. Faustina was famed for her brilliance and virtuosity, while Cuzzoni - who also had great virtuosity when required - was more famous for her ability to touch an audience emotionally.

Tensions between the two singers surfaced publicly, though, in late 1726. There are reports that when they were both onstage, one would pull faces while the other was singing. Opera audiences were notoriously noisy in the 18th century, but cheers and hissing - normal practice - got worse, and insults were often shouted by the supporters of one singer when their rival was mid-aria. By the end of the year, all London society was divided down the middle. You were either a Cuzzonist or a Faustinian. Football was never so viciously partisan.

The following year, 1727, is famous for many reasons. Handel's next opera, Admeto, opened on 31 January. There had been considerable goings on behind the scenes, though, with both sopranos unhappy about their parts, but a truce was declared in December of the previous year in the interests of keeping the season going, and once the opera hit the boards it was a great success. It's most likely that Haym revised the decades-old libretto for Handel, and again the three stars were in the three main roles. The two women - Faustina as Alceste and Cuzzoni as Antigona - were given magnificent roles, both musically and dramatically. Cuzzoni was given the perfect vehicle to display her ability to move an audience in the continuo aria she sings in the third act. It wasn't always fireworks and vocal pyrotechnics. [listen]

Denner: George Frideric Handel (c. 1727)

In February 1727, during the run of Admeto, the bill authorising Handel's naturalisation as a British subject went through both houses of Parliament with unusual speed. The application was submitted on the 13th and Royal Assent granted a week later. Shortly after - and this is no coincidence - he started work on an opera with a patriotic subject, Riccardo Primo (Richard I).

In April, during the seventeenth performance of Admeto, the rivalry between Cuzzoni and Faustina started to get ugly. When members of the Royal Family attended the opera, barracking for your favourite singer was taboo, but the rules were broken on this occasion when each singer was shouted down by supporters of the other. Faustina conveniently became ill soon after, and Handel had to hastily revive older operas to fill the gaps. Then Cuzzoni became unwell. The papers had a field day.

Eventually the women were both well enough to sing and they appeared together in Astianatte, an opera by Bononcini. Tensions between the divas exploded during the ninth performance on 6 June, all the more awkward because Caroline, Princess of Wales was present. The audience went into factional meltdown, with clapping, hissing, catcalls and even obscenities being shouted whenever one or other of them tried to sing. The performance eventually stopped and was never resumed. The debacle brought the season to a premature close, but the death of George I five days later would have caused the season to end anyway as theatres were always required to close on the death of a sovereign.

The press regarded all this as manna from heaven, and apart from mocking the antics of the singers and their supporters, started to ask more serious questions about the appropriateness of supporting a foreign artform with foreign singers in a foreign language at such incredible expense. Not only were the sopranos lampooned, but Senesino - as a castrato - was an easy target. Jokes about what he could and could not perform were thinly veiled attacks on his masculinity. It was in this context that there were reports that at the performance of Astianatte, Cuzzoni and Faustina had attacked each other on stage physically, pulling each other's hair; other sources suggest that the violence, such as it was, was limited to the spectators.

The next season turned out to be the Academy's last. The details of why the company collapsed are not clear. Simplistic explanations have all too readily been accepted as fact, but while there was a considerable turn away from Italian opera towards English-language theatre, even in the mid-1720s, this alone doesn't explain the demise of the venture.

The season opened in September 1727. Handel's contribution included revisions of three old operas (Admeto, Alessandro and Radamisto), but his attention was briefly diverted by George II's coronation in October, for which he wrote his famous coronation anthems (including Zadok the Priest).

Handel went on to provide three more new operas for the Academy. His next was Riccardo Primo, which he hastily updated to reflect the accession of the new king. It opened on 11 November 1727.

Senesino, Cuzzoni and Faustina all had roles, and the women promised to be better behaved. What their supporters might do was anyone's guess. In the title role Senesino was given a bravura part - loud, fast, but with not much emotional depth - designed to keep him happy and gratify the new king. [listen]

Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino (c. 1720)

Sometime in late 1727 Handel began work on an opera called Genserico, but for reasons unknown to us now he abandoned it midway through the first act. Never one to waste music, though, he used what he'd written in his next two operas, his last for the Academy before its collapse.

The first of these, Siroe, was written even faster than usual for Handel, who normally worked quickly; the score was finished on 5 February, 1728 and it premiered at the King's Theatre twelve days later. The three big stars were again involved, with another alto castrato from the company, Antonio Baldi, given an important role as well. Most unusually, Haym adapted the libretto from a contemporary opera text, by the most famous of all opera librettists of the period, Metastasio. The Royal Family attended the premiere as well as six further performances in the very respectable run of eighteen. But the conjunction of the greatest opera librettist with the greatest opera composer of the period was not fortuitous. As usual, there is much beautiful music in Siroe, but ultimately the text is simply a vehicle for conventional emotions expressed in a conventional form and Handel's hands to a large extent were tied. The opera is lifted, though, into the realm of near-greatness in the middle of the third act in Siroe's prison scene. Time and again we see Handel responding to prison scenes - of the innocent unjustly treated and fearing the worst - with music of enormous power in both the operas and oratorios. (One could again cite Beethoven as having a similar insight in Fidelio.) Cleopatra's prison scene in Julius Caesar and Theodora's imprisonment in his second last oratorio are just two examples; Siroe contains another. [listen]

While he was performing Siroe, Handel was hard at work writing Tolomeo, which he finished on 19 April and premiered at the end of the same month. Haym provided the libretto, adapting an older model, and he attempted to give Cuzzoni and Faustina equal parts, while keeping Senesino happy with his in the title role. Even the talented Haym couldn't keep all those balls in the air while shortening the libretto to a manageable length and making sense of it all.

Ricci: Nicola Francesco Haym at harpsichord, the singer is assumed Nicolo Grimaldi, known as Nicolini (c. 1709)

For his part, Handel doesn't seem to have been terribly interested in what falls midway between a pastoral story and a dynastic one, and his music doesn't uniformly rise to the heights of his earlier operas.

The Royal Academy of Music, the joint stock opera company which had employed Handel since 1720, wound up in 1728, leaving the composer, and his colleagues, temporarily unemployed. The reasons for the company's collapse are still disputed by historians, but there can be no doubt that the fourteen operas Handel wrote for the venture contain some of his greatest creations, most notably Julius Caesar, Tamerlano and Rodelinda. It wasn't long before he managed to reorganise his life and start writing and performing operas once more. We'll pick up the story of Handel's London Operas from that point in Part Three of this series.

For now, though, we'll end Part Two with an aria from the final act of Tolomeo, written for Faustina Bordoni. [listen]

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

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