Tuesday 7 August 2012

Four of Handel’s Singers – A Miscellany (2)

Antonia Maria Merighi
Antonia Maria Merighi

Part 2 – Antonia Maria Merighi
When William Savage sang Childerico in Faramondo, the role of Gernando was sung by Antonia Maria Merighi. This was to be her last season singing for Handel and though she had arrived in 1729, she had only sung with him for two or three seasons. But her voice type was one that is important in Handelian opera seria. We tend to associate Handel operas with high voiced prima donnas, the castrati and the sopranos. Undoubtedly these were the stars and any cast need them to draw in the public. But there was another group of singers who were important, the mezzo-sopranos/contraltos who specialised in travesty roles. Castrati never sang female roles for Handel, though castratos did take female roles in Italy. So the presence in his company of women who could sing either a male or a female part gave him excellent flexibility. Their legacy is a series of low coloratura contralto roles which serve to add variety and depth to the operas.

In 1729, after the collapse of the Royal Academy, Handel travelled to Italy to collect a new batch of singers. He visited Rome and Naples where he made contact with a number of singers, including the soprano Anna Strada who would become his leading lady. In Naples he found a group of singers embroiled in the sort of dispute with which he must have been familiar. The court opera contained two distinguished castrati, Bernacchi and Carestini. The Viceroy was keen for Bernacchi to renew his contract, but Bernacchi would only do so if Carestini was dismissed. The singers split into two camps those supporting Bernacchi and those supporting Carestini. Amongst Bernacchi’s supporters in the company was Antonia Maria Merighi; rumoured to be Bernacchi’s mistress in some sense. If Handel wanted Bernacchi, he would have to take the pair.

In fact this was a good bargain as Merighi was a fine singing actress. When she first arrived in London, the Daily Journal reported her as ‘Signora Merighi, a woman of very fine presence, an excellent actress and a very good singer – a counter tenor’. Prior to her appearances in London she had specialised in singing male roles, because of her remarkable low tessitura. But Handel had also acquired another mezzo-soprano, Francesca Bertolli in Rome who specialised in travesty roles. So in the first opera for the new company, Lotario, Merighi sang Queen Matilde; a most rewarding role as the character is scheming and vengeful.

A passionate singing actress, Merighi was also strong minded off stage. In a letter, Lord Hervey reported that Merighi and Strada were in dispute over whose name should come first in the libretto and Merighi threatened to go to parliament. Disputes notwithstanding, both singers were popular with the public. For the next few seasons, Merighi went on to create Rosmira in Partenope and Erissenna in Poro. The size and quality of these roles gives some indication of Handel’s regard for her. In revivals she sang Cornelia in Giulo Cesare, Armida in Rinaldo and in revivals of Scipione. Another pointer to Handel’s regard is that in some revivals, he refashioned soprano roles for her. Regarding her putative partner, Bernacchi, he was less successful; he survived for a single season before leaving England for good.

But singing for Handel had its limitations. He rarely put on major works by major composers other than himself; he does not seem to have been able to bear a seriously talented composer to be working alongside him. This was limiting for singers, who always had one eye on their international career. So it is not surprising that, when the rival Opera of the Nobility was started up in 1733 by the Prince of Wales, most of Handel’s singers should take the opportunity of decamping to his rivals – Merighi amongst them. They would, after all, be working with the composer Nicola Porpora (1686 – 1768). Merighi did sing with the Opera of the Nobility, but she was also spread her wings by singing in Italy during this period. She was back in London by 1737, when the Opera of the Nobility collapsed.

When this happened, Handel took a number of singers back including Merighi and the bass Motagnana. Merighi, though, would only last another season, singing in a revival of Partenope, in Faramondo and creating the role of Amastre in Serse. She is last heard of in 1740, singing in Munich during the carnival season.

Handel never did write any male roles for her but it is interesting that he wrote roles of Amastre and Rosmira in which she is called upon to disguise herself as a man. It would be nice to think that this was some reflection of Merighi’s character. Realistically, such roles are part of the stock in trade of opera seria and we cannot read too much in to it.

Charles Burney was quite dismissive of her voice, but Handel’s friend Mrs Pendarves was more enthusiastic: ‘her voice is not extraordinarily good or bad… she sings easily and agreeably’. Over the years the compass of her voice seems to have narrowed from a flat to f’’ in Lotario to c’ to d’’ in Serse.

Four of Handel's Singers - A Miscellany

Further feature articles on Handel

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