Renowned for her intelligent musicality and great sensitivity, Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne has quickly made a name for herself on the world’s greatest stages. Her repertoire extends from [...]
They spoke about it
HANDEL & PORPORA
The London years
Handel, who proposed alternately operas and oratorios, saw his popularity soar in London, though it was not to be without hurdles. Many would rebel against his hot-tempered personality and others against his omnipresence or his status as favourite Hanoverian, not counting those who wished for him to convert to English operas. At the same time, oppositions to Walpole’s government multiplied between 1728 and 1733 and favoured an explosive atmosphere, on which the war of operas was to be carried on.
In January 1733, wanting to counter Handel’s dominance, a group of nobles (of which Handel’s former patron Lord Burlington, the Count of Delawarr, the Duke of Richmond, most of the members from Walpole’s Whig Opposition and a few Tories) announced the inception of a new opera company. They pulled out all the stops to recruit a prestigious cast of singers and to poach almost all the members of Handel and impresario John James Heidegger’s company, starting with castrato Senesino who confirmed in June that he was switching companies. They took the opportunity to call upon Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora, who was considered as “more modern”, and invited him to be the opera’s musical director. His magnificent reputation spoke for itself. First he was choir master for prince Philip of Hesse- Darmstadt in Naples, then for the ambassador of Portugal, was a music teacher for many famous vocalists, including Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, Uberti (il Porporino), Senesimo, la Molteni, J. A. Hasse and his first librettist Metastasio. (Towards the end of his life, he was also teacher to Joseph Haydn, who considered having learned “the true fundamentals of composition” from Porpora). From 1718 on, his works (about 50 operas upon his death) were performed on every stage in Italy, as well as in Vienna, Munich and Dresden. He was admired for the fluency of his recitatives.
Rival to Handel’s Royal Academy of Music, the Opera of the Nobility at Lincoln’s Inn Fields was partly funded by the Prince of Wales. The royal power came to Handel’s aid by organizing, in July, a festival dedicated to his works, before Handel and Heidegger would recruit new singers. On October 30, the King’s birthday, and two months before their rival’s scheduled premiere performance, Handel fired the first shot with a pasticcio, no doubt in order to outdo Porpora on his own territory. It was followed by a revival of Ottone and another pasticcio. On December 29, the Opera of the Nobility presented its first performance: Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso, with Senesino in the role of Teseo. Handel fired back the following month with his take on the story, Arianna in Creta, equally as successful. The ongoing war between both opera houses, mainly political, was on!
In early summer 1734, rumors about the financial ruin of Handel were circulating, when in fact, the Opera of the Nobility had lost more money than Handel. On August 12, after a health cure at the Turnbridge Wells spa, Handel started composing a new opera, Ariodante. This opera was presented at the new Covent Garden Theatre, while the Opera of the Nobility took over the Haymarket Theatre, gathering many subscriptions and managing to hire the most famous vocalist of the era, Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli.
The stakes were raised: Handel hired Marie Sallé’s famous company to dance in Terpsichore, a prologue to a revision of Il Pastor Fido, from May to July 1734. Her costume (a simple white chiffon dress) created a scandal, but the public’s reaction towards the dance troupe persuaded Handel to incorporate ballet acts to his subsequent operas. He waited for the craziness surrounding Farinelli’s arrival to calm down before premiering, on January 8, 1735, Ariodante, an adaptation of Orlando Furioso, one of his most inventive works. It received nine performances during its first season, and was back for a second. On February 1, Farinelli sung the role of Aci and Senesino that of Ulisse in Porpora’s Polifemo. It was performed again on October 28 for the new season at the Haymarket, before the royal family and the Prince of Modena. Handel had not yet had his final say and presented, on April 8, 1735, what was to be one of the most famous masterpieces from the 18th century, Alcina, a masterpiece of the fantasy opera genre.
The following season proved to be difficult for Handel. He seemed to have lost all inspiration, leaving the door wide open for the Opera of the Nobility, who unfortunately did not make the most of the situation, with audiences that remained rather sparse and finances still unprofitable. On January 24, 1736, Porpora proposed a new version of his Mitridate (produced in Rome in 1730 for the first time), based on the work by Colley Cibber, translated from English to Italian. The two main roles were played by Farinelli and Senesino. Handel broke his silence with Alexander’s Feast in February and Atalanta on May 12 at Covent Garden, an opera that was to be played at the wedding of the Prince of Wales with Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. In a surprise twist a week beforehand, the public was treated to a “circumstance” opera from Porpora, Le feste d’Imeneo. Upon learning of the Prince of Wales preference for Handel’s Atalanta, Porpora was deeply saddened by the news, and therefore left London the following summer.
Bankrupt, the Opera of the Nobility officially closed its doors on June 11, 1737, with the associates losing over 12,000 pounds in the company and Handel losing close to 10,000 pounds. On April 15, 1738, Serse, an opera that was successful for its lighter and funny side, started a five representation only run. It is now one of the most performed operas, perhaps because of Handel’s most famous aria “Ombra mai fu”. The naturalized British composer was to grace the genre only two more times, in 1740 and 1741: the glory days for Italian castrati in London were now over.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Lucie Martin