By Gabrielle Oliveira Guyon
Handel, one of the most brilliant composers in the history of music, was born in Halle in 1685 (J. S. Bach was born the same year). His rst opera, Almira, already showing his true nature as a man of the theatre, was premièred in Hamburg in January 1705, when he was not yet twenty years old. Wishing to learn his trade at the fount of opera, Italy, he travelled there at his own expense the following year; we know that between 1706 and 1710 he spent time in Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice broadening his experience and obtaining further training and new sources of inspiration. The importance he gave to the text and his fondness for an opulent, sensuous style were to make him a master in the eld of Italian opera. His works follow the Italian tradition, with its alternation of recitative (declamatory speech-like singing with accompaniment provided by a small instrumental ensemble) and virtuosic arias. In 1712 he settled in London, which (as he had discovered during an earlier stay there in 1710-1711) was by then ripe for Italian opera.
A few months later, in 1713, he completed his eighth opera, Teseo (Theseus) to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, with whom he was to work regularly after that. The libretto was inspired by Philippe Quinault’s Thésée, which explains why it is the only Handel opera in ve acts – unusual for an opera seria but typical of French stage works of that time. In tragic mode Handel used a mixture of genres, with love and magic, epic features and a vigorous plot. The two arias presented here are sung by King Egeo (Aegeus), Teseo’s father, who like his son is in love with the princess Agilea. Mad with jealousy, he orders the sorceress Medea (in love with Theseus) to intervene on his behalf. He will stop at nothing to eliminate his rival in the hope of obtaining the princess (“Serenatevi, o luci belle”). At the beginning of Act IV he learns that Medea has betrayed him and swears revenge in the aria “Voglio stragi, e voglio morte”, whose fast tempo and frenzied rhythms convey his fury.
Jealousy and the desire for revenge feature prominently in Amadigi di Gaula (1715), particularly in the character of Dardano, Prince of Thrace. This opera (libretto by Haym, after A. H. de la Motte, Amadis de Grèce) is based on an old Spanish knighterrantry epic, while conciliating the French and Italian styles in its drama. In the aria “Agitato il cor mi sento”, Dardano, in love with Oriana, daughter of the king of the Fortunate Isles, beseeches the witch Melissa to help him. His long vocalises accompanied by the orchestra convey the agitation of his heart. Oriana prefers Amadigi in her affections and Dardano is determined to destroy her love for the latter and win her for himself. In Act II, Handel gives Dardano a wonderful saraband including solo parts for the oboe and the bassoon, in which he expresses his deep sorrow (“Pena tiranna”), thus proving that revenge can spare no one the sufferings of unrequited love.
The libretto of Ottone, rè di Germania (Haym, after Pallavicino’s Teofane), a work rst perfor- med on 12 January 1723, is based on the true story of the marriage of Otto II of Germany to Princess Theofano in Rome in the year 972. Its psychological tensions keep the drama constantly on the boil. The two arias Xavier Sabata has chosen are sung by the unscrupu- lous Adalberto (son of Berengario, a “tyrant in Italy”), who intends to pose as his enemy Ottone in order to usurp the throne and also win Ottone’s betrothed, Teofane. In Act I he sings to her of his love in a poignant aria, “Bel labbro formato”, beautifully accompanied by the orchestra. In the Act III aria “D’innalzar i utti al ciel” the strings provide exquisite accompa- niment, further enhancing the delicate, angelic quality of the melody. Adelberto hopes that once the storm is over Teofane will pity him in his plight.
In 1724 Handel composed two of his great masterpieces, Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano. At that time he was musical director of the Royal Academy of Music, an opera syndicate launched by members of the aristocracy, under the patronage of the king, to establish Italian opera in London on a long-term basis and secure a constant supply of opere serie for performance at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket.
Tamerlano (libretto Haym, after A. Piovene, Tamerlano & Il Bajazete, after N. Pradon, Tamerlan) has a historical theme, its main character being the Central Asian conqueror Timur or Tamerlane (1336-1405). Love and honour play an important part in this work. Tamerlano is in love with Asteria (daughter of the Turkish sultan Bajazet), who is due to wed the Greek prince Andronico. Despite a desire for peace at the beginning (“Vo’ dar pace a un’ alma altiera”), he later shows a lust for power and chooses humiliation as a means of revenge.
In his most famous opera, Giulio Cesare (libretto Haym, after G. F. Bussani), Handel presents the odious Tolomeo, brother of Cleopatra, who dreams of marrying Cornelia, the widow of Pompey, whom he has murdered to please Caesar. Thus, in Act II, he tries to win her with a wellrounded aria, “Belle dèe di questo core”, discreetly accompanied by small orchestral forces. In “Domerò la tua erezza” (Act III) Tolomeo rejoices at now having his proud sister in his power. Tolomeo is nevertheless capable of being touching, notably because of the purity of the arias Handel wrote for him.
Ten years later, in 1734, Handel began work on Ariodante, his twenty-ninth opera seria (libretto anonymous, after A. Salvi’s Ginevra, principessa di Scozia, in turn inspired by Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso), which was premièred at the Covent Garden Theatre in London on 8 January 1735. Jealous of Ariodante’s love for Ginevra (daughter of the king of Scotland), to whom the prince is betrothed, Polinesso, Duke of Albany, does his utmost to dishonour the princess and have her sentenced to death. For this criminal role Handel composed some ne pieces in which Polinesso expresses his duplicity. His two evil arias, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” (Act II) and “Dover, giustizia, amor” (Act III), show the sadistic enjoyment that makes him such a formidable adversary.