Music Director of Tafelmusik since 1981, violinist Jeanne Lamon has been praised by critics in Europe and North America for her strong musical leadership. In addition to performing with and directing [...]
They spoke about it
Handel was first and foremost a composer of opera. It was his passion for opera which first led him away from his homeland to Italy. His intention was to study with the Italian masters of the form, but the Italian public was quick to notice the natural abilities of the young German and within a year of his arrival his first full-length Italian opera, Rodrigo, was successfully presented at the Cocomero Theatre in Florence.
Handel soon became the darling of Italian opera lovers, and ended his three-year Italian sojourn with a triumphant production of his opera Agrippina in Venice in 1709. It ran for an unprecedented 27 nights, all the more remarkable as the popular Italian composers Gasparini and Lotti were both presenting operas in other Venetian theatres at the same time. As Handel’s biographer Mainwaring wrote: “The audience was so enchanted with this performance, that a stranger who should have seen the manner in which they were affected, would have imagined they had all been distracted. The theatre, at almost every pause, resounded with shouts and acclamations of “Viva il caro Sassone!” [long live the dear Saxon] and other expressions of approbation too extravagant to be mentioned. They were thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity of his style: for never had they known till then all the powers of harmony and modulation so closely arrayed, and so forcibly combined.”
The libretto, by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, was written expressly for Handel. The plot revolves around Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, and her determination to secure the throne for her son Nero. The other female role in the opera is Poppea, a coy young beauty who is at the centre of several romantic intrigues. The selection of arias for this recording opens with an aria sung by Agrippina to Poppea, “Non hò cor che per amarti”. Agrippina has tricked Poppea into believing that her lover, Ottone, has forsaken her. The irony of the text of this aria is evident in the unusually angular accompaniment. Agrippina’s aria “Ogni vento” closes Act II: after many difficulties Agrippina believes that she has finally accomplished her goal. The aria “Vaghe perle” is Poppea’s opening aria, sung as she gazes into her mirror: she is desired by Ottone, Claudio and Nerone and radiates confidence and delight. The aria “Se giunge un dispetto” is sung by Poppea upon being convinced by Agrippina that her one true love, Ottone, has forsaken her for the throne.
To these arias we have added dances from the ballet which is thought to have been performed at the end of Agrippina, and are also associated with Handel’s earlier opera, Rodrigo. Following the great success of Agrippina, Handel left to make his mark in London. The English audiences had been slow to accept Italian opera as a viable entertainment, but with the arrival of Handel were quick to change their minds. For over 20 years Handel regaled London audiences with a steady stream of opera productions at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. By the 1730’s, the passion for opera was starting to wane.
The public was intrigued by the new English oratorio, and increasingly drawn to lighter entertainments such as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Handel met a further challenge with the formation of a second opera company: in 1734 the Nobility Opera took over the Haymarket Theatre, and took with it many of Handel’s best singers. The impresario John Rich came to his rescue, offering him the use of his newly-built theatre at Covent Garden for two nights each week. The theatre was wonderfully well equipped, with a large stage and lavish stage machinery. Rich had also engaged the dancer Marie Sallé and her company for the 1734-35 season.
Handel was inspired to produce five operas in what was to be his most sumptuous season ever, and the audience responded with enthusiasm. The last of these was the opera Alcina, which opened at Covent Garden on April 16, 1735 and ran successfully until July 2. It is often referred to as Handel’s last great opera—although he continued to produce operas until the end of the decade, he devoted ever more time and energy to the composition of oratorios.
The libretto of Alcina is based on that of Riccardo Broschi’s L’Isola d’Alcina, which in turn was inspired by Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. It is a “magical” opera, resplendent with supernatural effects. Alcina herself is a sorceress who entices people to her magic island and transforms them into trees, animals or stones. Her most recent captive is Ruggiero, who has thus far been spared the fate of his predecessors because Alcina has fallen in love with him. Ruggiero’s fiancée Bradamante, disguised as her own brother Ricciardo, is shipwrecked on the island, and is the object of affection of Alcina’s sister, Morgana. Various intrigues embellish the plot, but at the heart of the story is Alcina’s ruin. Ruggiero is persuaded to abandon Alcina and to shatter the urn containing the source of her magical powers, releasing her prisoners to their human form. Alcina’s first aria, “Di, cor mio”, is confident and assured, as she displays the delights of her idyllic island and of her love for Ruggiero to the newly arrived Ricciardo. The delightful aria “Tornami” is sung by Morgana to Ricciardo. The short bravura aria “Barbara” is sung by Oberto, a youth who has come to the island in search of his father, one of Alcina’s captives. (The role of Oberto was originally sung by a boy treble.) The final two arias are sung by Alcina as she begins to lose her magical powers: she summons the spirits to come to her aid, but in vain, and is finally left with nothing but her own tears as her entire dominion falls to ruin around her.
To these arias is added a selection of the dances written to display the talents of Marie Sallé, the foremost dancer of her generation. She inspired Handel to write a wealth of dance music for the operas presented during the 1734/35 season, including the intriguing dream sequence inserted after Alcina’s “Ombre pallide.”
© Charlotte Nediger
Traduction: Jacques-André Houle