Saturday 4 August 2012

Four of Handel’s Singers – A Miscellany (1)

Part 1 – William Savage
George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner
In 1740, Handel produced his penultimate opera, Imeneo, at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It is a slightly artificial pastoral, which needs only small forces and much of it is in the lighter, more melodic vein that Handel employed in many of his later operas (the London Daily Post announced it as an operetta). It ran for a meagre two performances, this was a period when internecine disputes had not only weakened the opera companies but had temporarily tired out the appetite of the rather small operatic audience. Though it is not a grand opera, it is by no means a weak work and when Handel presented in Dublin (in concert form as a serenata) it went down a storm. The story concerns the heroine, Rosmira’s problems trying to decide between two suitors, Tirinto (mezzo-soprano) and Imeneo (baritone).

The main curiosity of the opera is that, in the end, the baritone gets the girl. This was virtually unheard of in opera seria. When he did have strong bass or tenor soloists, Handel could and did write strong parts for them. The bass Antonio Montagnana created to part of the magician Zoroastro in Orlando and the tenor Francesco Borosini had the part of Bajazet in Tamerlano specially extended for him, including the dramatic on-stage death scene. But no matter how big the roles are, they are still in the fathers, generals, magicians and villains categories. If Handel wanted a young lover then he wrote for castrato or female mezzo-soprano. This even applied at the end of his life when in Solomon, the title role is a contralto part and in Theodora, the role of Didymus was written for an alto voice.

But the title role of Imeneo was sung by William Savage (1720 – 1789). Five years earlier, in 1735 as a treble, he had sung the role of Oberto in Alcina. As a child, Savage must have been a remarkable singer. He first comes to notice in the 1735 performances of Athalia, singing Joas. These were the first London performances following its premiere in 1733 in Oxford. Whilst Joas is an important role, it is by no means extensive; the London Daily Post reported on 3 April that ‘the youth (a new voice) who was introduced in the Oratorio of Athalia last night ... met with universal applause’. Something in Savage must have impressed Handel, because he proceeded to insert four new scenes for him into his new opera, Alcina. Handel had more or less completed Alcina and the new character of Oberto does not occur in the opera on which Handel’s is based (Broschi’s L’Isola d’Alcina, Rome 1728). These four scenes for Savage are quite significant, involving not just recitative but a sequence of strong da capo arias. The effect is to add a second sub-plot to the opera making Alcina one of the most multi-layered of any of Handel’s mature operas.

Savage was about 14 when he performed Oberto so he was only 19 when he sang Imeneo. We can presume he had a personable stage presence, making him suitable for playing a young, romantic hero even if his voice was not quite the type expected. We can almost see Savage’s voice settling down during the extended composition of Imeneo as the earlier parts of the role are notated in the tenor clef whilst the later parts are notated in the bass clef. We can presume that when he sang the title role, Savage had a light, lyric baritone; a type of voice that we don’t really see in Handel’s opera seria. It has to be said that Handel obviously didn’t trust Savage that much, because despite getting the girl at the end, the character’s arias are very few in number. In fact, the way Handel and his librettist build up Tirinto as a major character and then don’t give him the girl has almost a satirical edge to it.

Savage was by this time, an experienced stage performer and was probably substantially trained by Handel. He had taken part in the 1736 revival of Alcina, Giustino in 1737 (singing the significant role of La Fortuna), Faramondo in 1738 (the small role of Childerico) and Israel in Egypt in 1739. In this latter he probably sang as an alto. In fact, what is remarkable is that he kept on singing throughout his voice change. We can presume that his voice dropped in or around 1738 as his role of Childerico is a small one. But there is some confusion about what exactly what voice Savage sang; soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts are all ascribed to him. In all probability he sang alto from 1735 to 1739 and then descended to bass and, as we have seen, passing through the tenor register briefly. He was undoubtedly versatile as Childerico is a high alto part, but Savage also sang the tenor part in the final ensemble.

Savage continued to sing for Handel, as a bass including singing Manoa in the first performance of Samson in 1743 and in the first London performances of Messiah that same year. After the date he does not seem to have sung for Handel again though he could be regarded as a friend. In 1744 he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and in 1748 the Master of the Choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He wrote anthems and services as well as the catches and rounds which were the fruits of his membership of the Gentleman’s Catch Club and the Beefsteak Club. Perhaps his most curious composition is the Hallelujah of 1770 which was ‘written in imitation of the singing of the Jews Synagogue on Dukes Place’.

The historian Charles Burney, who was six years younger than Savage, described his adult voice as ‘powerful and not unpleasant’. So Savage would seem to be one of that unfortunate breed of outstanding trebles who develop into merely adequate adult singers. But his connection with Handel has two interesting codas.

In 1757 his ‘boy’ sang the soprano part in Messiah at the Foundling Hospital performance. ‘Mr. Savage’s celebrated boy’ is also referred to as appearing in performances of Esther and L’Allegro in Oxford; so it looks as if Savage would seem was succeeded by his equally talented son.

On his death, in 1789 Savage left a significant collection of Handel manuscripts to his pupil RJ Stevens. Stevens went on to leave them to the Royal Academy on his death in 1837. The volumes are principally presentation manuscripts; they unfortunately do not seem to be Savage’s working copies, so we must put aside all ideas of pencilled marginalia in a Messiah copy, ‘Mr. Handel said….’. (When he performed the bass solos in Messiah at the foundling Hospital, Savage probably used one of the standard chorus copies.) But bound into the group is the manuscript of the Gloria setting which was recently re-attributed to Handel.

Further feature articles on Handel

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