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Monday, 27 September 2021

From Rinaldo to Amadigi di Gaula: a look at Handel's highly experimental early London period

Burlington House in 1690s
Burlington House in 1690s, London home of Handel's patron the Earl of Burlington

When Handel came to London in 1710 to compose an opera for the Queen's Theatre, it was certainly not obvious that he would stay in the city until his death, nor that opera and large-scale dramatic oratorio would be his focus. In the early 18th century, opera in England was a somewhat fluid affair and Italian opera was certainly not fully established. It would not be until the 1720s, with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music with its roster of Italian composers (including Handel) that Italian opera would be produced in the capital with any degree of consistency. The operas from Handel's early years in London reflect this fluidity, each was a separate project and there is a fascinating sense of experiment with form. As English Touring Opera presents its new production of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula at the Hackney Empire on 1 October 2021, we look at the operas of Handel's early London period.

The opera that Handel came to London to stage was Rinaldo, based on an episode in Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata with a libretto by the theatre's impresario Aaron Hill. It premiered in early 1711, the first Italian opera to be composed specifically for London. Though Handel's music is something of a patchwork of existing items and the libretto is a poor thing, it wowed London audiences partly because Handel cherry-picked some of his finest music from his Italian sojourn to reuse in the opera. He could probably safely assume that none of his London audiences would have heard any of the Italian music before. As ever, with these early operas, the staging was the thing and Handel's music would have come a poor second to the spectacular sets and transformation scenes.

Marco Ricci - Rehearsal for an opera
Marco Ricci - Rehearsal for an opera (1709)
Ricci was a stage painter at the Queen's Theatre, and this singer is assumed to depict Nicolini, the house's principal castrato.

There was then something of a gap, and Handel's next opera Il pastor fido did not debut until November 1712. The opera is based on Giovanni Battista Guarini's influential play, which was written in the 1580s and published in 1590 and formed an important source for pastoral text and imagery for both operas and madrigals. The opera represents a surprising change for Handel, moving to the pastoral after the heroic, but it may have been Handel's intention to demonstrate his versatility. 

Not for the first time, we come to regret that we have precious little contemporary information about why these particular operas were created. And these are not the only lacunae, there are gaps in Handel's early years in London when we have to assume that he was under the wing of his first patron, the Earl of Burlington. Burlington only came into his estates in 1715 (prior to that he was a minor), but Handel would dedicate both Teseo (1713) and Amadigi di Gaula (1715) to Burlington. Prior to 1715 Burlington had already undertaken a Grand Tour and would undertake further Grand Tours as well as a trip to Paris in 1726, so perhaps it was from him that the somewhat French slant of Teseo and Amadigi di Gaula comes.

Whilst Italian opera was the dominant force in London at this period, the nearest operatic centre was in fact Paris. During the late 17th century there had been unsuccessful attempts to establish French style opera in London and we can see the influence of French opera on Henry Purcell, but the English aristocratic clients, for whom opera was created in London, were more seduced by the wonders of Italian opera presumably experienced as part of the Grand Tour. From the early years of the 18th century, it was Italian opera that was aimed at.

Yet, French opera plays a significant role in Handel's operas of these early years. We do not know whether Handel ever saw a performance of a French opera, but we do know that he had scores of French operas in his library. And his approach to the incorporation of dance into his operas seems to owe something to the French tradition. Both Teseo and Amadigi di Gaula had some sort of dance content, though as the complete autograph scores do not survive were are somewhat frustrated in this matter.

Teseo seems to have been an attempt to marry French and Italian styles. Nicola Haym's libretto is based on that which Philippe Quinault's wrote for Lully's Thésée, which premiered in 1675. Teseo is Handel's only opera to have five acts, in the French fashion, and the placement of the arias owes something to the French original. Whereas Italian opera was focused on the large-scale da capo exit aria (sung just before the character left the stage), French opera was more flexible with shorter arias dotted around the work. In Teseo there are five examples of where the same character has two arias in succession, which sits somewhat uneasily with Handel's writing of large-scale da capo arias. Winton Dean speculates that an older, more experienced Handel would have exerted more control over the placing of these arias. Certainly, Handel never returned to this style again.

But the music he wrote for Teseo has an extraordinary richness, partly because there are fewer borrowings, Teseo was written largely from scratch. The work as handsomely staged in January 1713, and there are tantalising hints that an initial plan might have been to have more dance in the work, again in the French fashion. Unfortunately, after two performances the impresario absconded with the takings!

Next comes Silla which seems to have been written for a private performance in 1713, presented probably by the Earl of Burlington for the French ambassador who was in London for the Treaty of Utrecht. Silla seems to have been a hastily done job, either surviving manuscripts are incomplete or the work is patchy at best, and some would be reused for Amadigi di Gaula.

With Amadigi di Gaula there is another jump in chronology to May 1715. The impetus for the opera may have been the return to London of the castrato Nicolini. Nicolini first visited London in 1708, created the title roles in Rinaldo and in Amadigi di Gaula. This latter opera also returns to a French source, but there is a stronger hand on the adaptation of the French opera into Italian. The source is Antoine Houdar de la Motte's libretto for Amadis de Grece written by Andre Destouches for the Paris Opera in 1699 (and revived during the early years of the 18th century), itself partly inspired by Lully and Quinault's Amadis de Gaule of 1684.

The anonymous Italian librettist compressed the French text into three acts, but included a number of spectacular episodes, akin to those in Rinaldo and Teseo, which might suggest why the subject was chosen. Whilst the aria placing in Amadigi di Gaula is stronger than in Teseo, it completely conforms to neither French nor Italian designs and remains an example of the way Handel and his librettists were exploring the form at this time.

Handel's music, however, largely avoids the more dramatic effects that might be expected and he concentrates on the emotions of the characters. The work has something of a hothouse atmosphere. There are only four main characters (a fifth, Orgando, is relatively minor and dies early on) and all are high voices (no tenors or basses). Whether these decisions were artistic or economic we can no longer tell. 

These operas bring to an end Handel's experimental early period in London and there is another gap in the operatic chronology. And it was not until 1720 that Handel returned to the operatic stage, with Radamisto as part of the more formal establishment of Italian opera in London with the Royal Academy of Music. But in the meantime, Handel was not idle and he wrote works such as the masque, Acis and Galatea (1718) and the oratorio, Esther (1718) for his patron, the Duke of Chandos. These represented a change in direction but the only received private performances at Cannons (the Duke's country house) and disappeared again until the 1730s, but that is another story!

Handel's early years in London are one of those period when we would dearly love to have more background. He was only 30 when Amadigi di Gaula was premiered and it was only when he parted company from the Duke of Chandos and never again worked for a patron, that Handel starts to appear more often in contemporary accounts in his own right.

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - rehearsal at English Touring Opera with Francesca Chiejina and TIm Morgan (Photo Bruno Miles)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - rehearsal at English Touring Opera with Francesca Chiejina and TIm Morgan (Photo Bruno Miles)

English Touring Opera's production of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula opens on 1 October 2021 and tours until 17 November 2021. The production is directed by James Conway, with Jonathan Peter Kenny conducting the Old Street Band. The cast features William Towers and Tim Morgan in the title role and sopranos Francesca Chiejina and Jenny Stafford as the sorceress Melissa, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Amadigi's companion Dardano and Harriet Eyley as Oriana, daughter of the King of the Fortunate Isles.

The opening performances at the Hackney Empire on 1 and 2 October feature William Towers as Amadigi with Melissa shared between Francesca Chiejina (1/10/2021) and Jenny Stafford (2/10/2021). Full details from ETO's website.






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