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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 8

Handel and Italian Opera

by Pierre Grondines / May 10, 2004

Version française...

Handel's English career was inseparable from the world of Italian opera. The majority of the composer's operas (37 out of 40) were produced in England, and he was the first to write an Italian opera specifically for the London stage (Rinaldo, 1711). In the winter of 1718–1719, Handel and a group of friends from the English nobility founded a company dedicated to the production of Italian operas that, thanks to the King's own decree, received the flattering name of the Royal Academy of Music. The company inaugurated its activities in the spring of 1720 and over the course of the next eight years produced a great quantity of Italian works, of which more than half were Handel's. Although he was German, Handel proved a fierce competitor to Italian composers within the Academy, among them Giovanni Porta, Attilio Ariosti, and Giovanni Bononcini.

The Academy prospered until 1728, when it was dissolved, largely as the result of the incredible popularity of the Beggar's Opera. This work, a genre of comic opera made up of a succession of popular English ballads, delivered a stinging blow to the pretentions of Italian opera in England. Handel's response, against all expectations, was to launch a new Academy in 1729, to which he contributed not only as a composer but also as a producer. Although London's interest in Italian opera had been seriously challenged by the success of English ballad operas, Handel ignored all risk and took on the challenge with characteristically combative brio.

The new Academy experienced as many successes (Poro, Orlando) as it did failures (Lotario, Ezio); moreover, it had to share the market with a new Italian opera company called The Opera of the Nobility, formed in 1733. In the course of the struggle that pitted the two companies against one another, recruitment of star singers proved one of the deadliest weapons. The new company dealt an almost fatal blow to Handel by stealing singers from his troupe and by hiring the celebrated castrato Farinelli (whose real name was Carlo Broschi) for its 1734–1735 season.

It is possible that the fierce, uncompromising rivalry that raged during these years between the two Italian opera companies blinded Handel to the fact that, had he only oriented his efforts toward the English Oratorio, his fortune would have been assured. The success of his Athalia (1733), a work abounding in the kind of choral writing that English audiences relished, had been a frank success, yet Handel persisted in waging battle with his operatic rivals and in struggling to establish his supremacy in the lyric domain. This climate of bitter confrontation obliged the composer to multiply efforts to provide more glitter and glamour to his productions in an attempt to attract a larger share of the skittish London public. Ultimately, however, both companies were forced to close down in 1737 because of insurmountable financial difficulties. Perhaps a small consolation was that Handel's company lasted slightly longer than the Opera of the Nobility. It was in that context of exacerbated, frenzied rivalry between the two companies that Alcina was mounted, in April of 1735.

Alcina conforms to the sub-genre of "magic opera," in which the action takes place in an enchanted realm and where at least one of the protagonists is endowed with supernatural powers. Highly popular during the Baroque era, these operas called for elaborate stage machinery capable of operating rapid and sensational set design changes. Thus in the libretto of Alcina, stage directions stipulate for Act II, scene one, "With lightning and thunder, the mountain crumbles, revealing Alcina's delightful palace." Covent Garden, where Alcina was premiered, boasted the latest in highly efficient machines, and there is no doubt that transformations such as the aforementioned were entirely within the means of the opera house. The press publicity surrounding Alcina certainly didn't fail to attract the public's attention to its marvelous scenic effects.

The libretto is taken straight from Cantos Six and Seven of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso (Orlando Enraged, written in 1532), the celebrated Italian Renaissance epic poem relating, in the manner of Classic Antiquity, the chivalric legend of Charlemagne and the Arab invasion of France. The subject of Alcina also modernized for 18th-century audiences the ancient themes already found in Homer's Odyssey, in which the wily Odysseus is held captive by the sorceress Circe and becomes her lover, but eventually outwits her spells and charms. Ultimately he is restored to his companions, who recover their human form after having been transformed into swine.

Alcina is one of Handel's most accomplished operas. Its instrinsic merits result from the way in which the composer judiciously manipulates affect (emotion) as the opera unfolds. Handel perfectly masters the overarching structure of successive operatic arias, bringing out the climax of the work with immense skill and dramatic flair. A case in point is his preparation for the scene in which the sorceress Alcina discovers, to her despair, that the spell she has cast on Ruggiero, her island-bound prisoner, has ceased to work. In the aria "Ah, Ruggiero crudel" (Act II, scene 13), Alcina's outcry exercises a powerful emotional impact that skilfully contrasts with Ruggiero's preceding number, "Verdi prati" ("Meadows Green"); as the most peaceful aria of the entire opera, "Verdi prati" acts as a brilliant dramatic foil to the slings and arrows of the sorceress's aria. Thus, lulled into comforting thoughts by the pleasant atmosphere of "Verdi prati," the audience is then plunged headlong into the despair, pain, and wrath of "Ruggiero crudel."

Handel put the final touches to Alcina a mere week before its premiere at Covent Garden on 16 April, 1735. The opera ran for a total of 18 performances that, by the standards of that time, represented a moderate success, and the aria "Verdi prati" was encored at every performance. The work was mounted five more times at Covent Garden the following season (1736–37), then performed again at Brunswick in 1738 before it disappeared from the stage until its revival in the 20th century. In 1928, Alcina was performed in Leipzig, followed 31 years later by its definitive revival with the resounding success of the 1957 London production, in which Joan Sutherland held the role of the sorceress.

Saturday Afternoon at the Opera of CBC Radio Two and Les Violons du Roy presents a concert version of Alcina. Bernard Labadie leads Violons du Roy in a mostly Canadian cast including soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo Kristina Szabó, soprano Christine Brandes, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, soprano Shannon Mercer and bass-baritone Nathaniel Watson.

[Translation: Rachelle Taylor]

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