Tuesday 14 August 2012

Four of Handel’s Singers – A Miscellany (4)

Part 4 – Antonio Montagnana
 Two years after Anna Strada joined Handel’s company, another remarkable singer appeared. The bass, Antonio Montagnana made his debut in London in 1731 at the Kings Theatre in a revival of Tamerlano. Montagnana first comes to notice in Italy in 1730 singing operas by Porpora of whom he was supposed to be a pupil. For the revival of Tamerlano, as he often did in revivals, Handel trimmed the recitative to the bone but inserted a splendid new aria for the minor bass role of Leone. Though the aria was simply an elaboration of one from Riccardo Primo it enabled Handel to show of his splendid new bass, with a remarkable two octave range. Montagnana would sing 11 roles for Handel over the next two years. Handel took great advantage of Montagnana’s wide range and in revivals expanded the bass parts to suit the singer’s capabilities. 

In Ezio, Montagnana created the role of Varo which included an amazing leap of a 12th and exploited the vocal agility and wide tonal range of the bass voice in a way that Handel had not been able to do since Rinaldo; in his arias for Montagnana, Handel was able to free the solo bass voice from its dependence on the bass line of the aria. This series of performances culminated in the premiere of Orlando in which Montagnana created the role of the magician Zoroastro. For once a bass was not just a father or a general - Zoroastro is the controlling genius of the whole opera and has four fine arias. To do this, Handel and his anonymous librettist jettisoned the sub-plot from the original libretto (L’Orlando ovvera la Gelosa Pazzia which was originally written for Domenico Scarlatti in 1711) and created an entirely new character for Montagnana. The opera was only a modest great success, but one listener reported that Montagnana sang with the voice of a cannon. The original sub-plot had to be removed because it involved a Scottish prince, Zerbino, in love with a princess. Convention prevented a bass like Montagnana from playing a heroic role in an opera seria, which only goes to show how remarkable William Savage’s presence in Imeneo really was.

Montagnana was also another of the singers to whom Handel entrusted roles in his fledgling oratorio. Besides singing on the London performances of Acis and Galatea and Esther, Montagnana created the role of Abner in Athalia, a role Handel wrote specially for him. Though Handel did mount performances of his oratorios in a mixture of English and Italian, Montagnana was one of the singers who did sing in English. Speaking of the performance of Esther sung by the castrato Senesino, Anna Strada, the contralto Francesca Bertolli and Montagnana, one anonymous listener said they ‘made rare work with the English Tongue you would have sworn it had been Welch’.

But this good relationship with Handel was not to last. Montagnana was one of the singers who went off to join the Opera of the Nobility. Any sympathy we might have with Montagnana’s desire to rejoin his old teacher, Porpora, is dispelled by the anonymous pamphlet ‘Harmony in Uproar’ published in 1734, which accuses Montagnana of breaking a formal contract in order to join the Opera of the Nobility. He sang in all their seasons, a total of 15 operas by Porpora, Hasse, Veracini and Bononcini.

Like Merighi, Handel accepted Montagnana back in 1737 when the Opera for the Nobility collapsed. He would sing for Handel for two more seasons creating two more roles; Gustavo in Faramondo and Ariodate in Serse. But by now his fabulous vocal range had diminished. And in 1740 he joined the Royal Chapel in Madrid where he sang for the next 10 years. In Madrid he would be rejoining the castrato Farinelli, an ex-colleague from the Opera of the Nobility. (Farinelli’s task in Madrid was to sing the same arias every night to King Philip V in an unsuccessful bid to cure his madness).

Montagnana’s known career spans just 20 years from 1730 to 1750. As he only comes to notice a year before he joined Handel’s company, the bass who sang so vigorously in those early arias written for him must have been remarkably young. Burney praised Montagnana’s voice’s ‘depth, power, mellowness and peculiar accuracy of intonantion in hitting distant intervals’. When he joined Handel’s company Montagnana had a range of over two octaves from E to f’ but by 1737 this had diminished to G to e flat’.

A notably omission from this miscellany of singers is of course, the castrato. The presence of a castrato or two in an opera company was regarded as essential. But these fascinating beasts are a story in their own right and in this article I wanted to shed light on some of the other singers who worked with Handel in his later operas. Though I have included only four of them, there were of course many more; though quite a few singers passed through his opera company, not all of them had such a strong association with him. But if voice and personality were right, Handel would write striking parts even in operas which are not amongst the first rank. Hopefully this short miscellany gives some idea of the personalities and musical strengths of four of these singers; an indication of the varied characters that Handel worked with in his opera seria.

Four of Handel’s Singers – A Miscellany

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