Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Back to the Future: Exploring Handel’s operatic masterpiece Alcina

This essay was written for the November 16th 2012  Opera Company of Brooklyn performance of Handel's sublime and magisterial opera, Alcina,  at James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary, in New York City. The combined forces of Opera Company of Brooklyn and the Barnard College Chamber Choir were conducted by Maestro Jay Meetze, with the Chorus prepared by choirmaster and internationally acclaimed organist, Gail Archer.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
by Thomas Hudson (c. 1749)

    It is one of those rare and beautiful coincidences of history that three of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, were born in the same year.   Handel (whose baptismal name was Georg Friedrich Handel) came into the world on February 23 of that magical year, 1685, in Halle, Germany, to two parents completely indifferent to music. Thankfully, he was well-schooled in organ and violin, in Halle, and Hanover, Germany, and during a four-year residency in Italy from 1706 to 1710, during which time he already began to show his dramatic genius for both the oratorio form and opera. Handel went back to Hanover in 1712, and began to work for  Duke George, Elector of Hanover, who was soon to become that other George, King George I of England. Handel left for England in 1712, became a naturalized English citizen in 1727, and never looked back.

   We admire Handel today for so many notable compositions, for example, the two large-scale works,  the Water Music Suites and the Music for the Royal Fireworks. We also appreciate his many intimate offerings, such as The Harmonious Blacksmith (the fifth harpsichord suite) and the numerous and felicitous wind concerti. Of course, Handel’s crowning achievement, the great English oratorio of 1741, Messiah, is likely what first comes to mind when we conjure him. Indeed, over the centuries, Handel's twenty-nine oratorios have remained his most popular fare. What is largely unrecognized and even less appreciated, however, is that Handel was also one of the greatest composers of opera in history.

    This oversight is finally being rectified. Indeed, it can be said that we currently live in an age of veritable operatic "Handelmania." Over the last decade, there has been a world-wide resurgence of interest in many of Handel's  forty-two  operas.  His earliest efforts in the genre, Almira and Nero, have German libretti and are rarely performed (though BEMF partly rectified this in June 2013 with its extraordinary performances of Almira), but the rest are in Italian, a more accessible language to convey the emotions and passions inherent in opera, and many of these works have been or are being revived.

G.F. Handel at age 43
by Balthasar Denner (c. 1728)
   Of those forty Italian operas, Handel's thirty-second, Alcina, (HWV 34) from 1735, is arguably the greatest, the prima inter pares. It has that winning combination of a terrific, albeit confusing plot (what else is new? - this opera after all), and a whole bunch of over-the-top arias and ensemble pieces. It even boasts a fully choreographed ballet scene, very rare for an opera not written and produced in France. Alcina is this great and flowing work of art, a tale set in music of a lovelorn sorceress who enchants a noble knight, who is loved by his betrothed, who will do anything to save him. Alcina is an opera about the nature of transience, where nothing is at it seems, and nothing is permanent. It derives from those timeless and enduring legends of the medieval ages, recounted and passed down by an oral tradition through the centuries by bards and troubadours. To fully understand the storyline of Alcina, and it is indeed a complex and intertwined story, it is therefore helpful to take a journey back in time, to the  authors from whose works Handel drew inspiration to fashion this great opera.

Alcina welcomes Ruggiero
Niccolo dell' Abate (c. 1550)
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
     Alcina's plot derived from a libretto by the seventeenth century Neapolitan poet Antonio Fanzaglia, called L’isola d’Alcina (The Island of Alcina). Fanzaglia wrote his libretto for the (Neapolitan) composer Ricardo Broschi,  the brother of the famed castrato Carlo Broschi (known to posterity as  Farinelli).  Broschi took parts of Fanzaglia’s libretto and crafted the eponymous opera, which successully premiered in Rome in 1728.  However, Fanzaglia’s libretto was not his own creation, as ultimately it in turn was based on a much older poem, the much-beloved epic of Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1532).  

Ludovico Ariosto, in a detail by
Vincenzo Catena (1512)
   Ariosto, along with Dante, Petrarch, Tasso and Boccaccio, was one of the great literary figures of the Italian Renaissance. Ariosto borrowed from a poem by the early 15th century poet Matteo Maria Boiardo, entitled Orlando Innamorato, (Orlando in love), which fused stories from both French (Le matier de France) and English (“The Matter of England”) legend. Ariosto added to Boiardo's tale, and  fashioned the result  into his great poem, Orlando Furioso (“Mad” Orlando).

   Orlando is the Italianate form of the French name, Roland. The ancient saga of Roland, La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland),  a twelfth century legend which memorialized the wars of Charlemagne's Christian paladins against the Saracen forces who were invading Europe, is the oldest surviving story in French literature. It is an exemplar of the genre of the chanson de geste, the song of the legendary hero.  Ariosto drew from that very legend in setting the action of Orlando Furioso.

Ruggiero, riding the fabled Hippogriff,
 slays the dragon and rescues Angelica,
in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso

   Orlando Furioso remains one of the most important works in European literature. So rich and fertile was the material in the chivalric legend in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso that Handel ended up composing a trilogy of operas based on the story and its characters – Ariodante, Orlando and Alcina. Antonio Vivaldi was also inspired by the poem to compose an eponymously entitled opera, Orlando Furioso, with many of the same characters. Ariosto's poem also served as a literary muse to Edmund Spenser in The Fairie Queene, to Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing, to Cervantes in Don Quixote, and to the works of Italo Calvino in modern times. 

G.F. Handel, in rare repose
by Philip Mercier (c 1730)
    Handel had for years been successfully mounting his operas at the King's Theater, under the patronage of King George II, but he was summarily booted out in 1734 by Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was now funding  The Opera of the Nobility, a rival opera company run by another (Neapolitan) composer, Nicola Porpora, and which featured the aforementioned castrato Farinelli. Handel promptly found a more than suitable alternative, the recently opened Covent Garden Theater in the West End of London, built on land that had once been burial ground for the monks of Westminster Abbey ("Covent" thus stems from "Convent").  Alcina premiered there on April 16, 1735. It was Handel's third opera at Covent Garden, and it proved to be another successful outing in his first season there.

    For the premiere, and despite no longer working at the King's Theater, Handel  was still able to round up his own stable of powerhouse vocal superstars. The principal role of Alcina was sung by the superb and popular Italian soprano, Anna Maria Strada, and Morgana was essayed by the excellent Cecilia Young, soon to become the bride of the composer Thomas Arne. The role of the noble knight, Ruggiero, was sung by the renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini, the great rival of Farinelli.

    The eighteenth-century cultural historian Charles Burney recounted an amusing  anecdote concerning Handel, Carestini and the famous second act aria in Alcina, Ruggiero's Verdi prati (Green meadows). Carestini, in typical, self-serving castrato fashion,  made a big fuss to Handel at rehearsal that the aria was not ornate enough for him. Here is Burney:

Giovanni Carestini
    “The aria Verdi prati, which was constantly encored during the whole run of Alcina, was, at first, sent back to Handel by Carestini, as unfit for him to sing, upon which Handel  went, in a great rage, to Carestini’s house, and in a way which few composers, except Handel, ever ventured to accost a first-singer, cried out to Carestini, "You toc ! Don't I know better than your seluf vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not   sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver !”"
   Perhaps the most well-known aria in Alcina is the pyrotechnic gem  Tornami a vagheggiar (Return to me with yearning) which closes Act I and which has been an operatic recital showpiece since it was first sung by Madame Strada at the opera's premiere, and continually into the modern era (see Sutherland, Joan, and Dessay, Natalie, for starters).  There is a curious sidebar to this aria. In Handel's original score, the aria was to be sung by Alcina herself, the lovelorn, tormented sorceress who enchants men who are marooned on her island, and who is delirious with joy that Ruggiero has come into her life as a new lover. In later essayings of the opera, and virtually always today, the aria is sung not by Alcina, but rather by Morgana, Alcina's younger sister and a sorceress herself, who is delirious with joy that Bradamante has come into her life as a new lover.  Hmmm.

    Well, it does pay to know from the opera's outset  that Oronte loves Morgana who loves Bradamante (who dresses up as Ricciardo) who loves Ruggiero who (forced by Alcina's magic) loves Alcina. Yet even with this skeleton key, it is not completely evident as to why the aria was taken from Alcina and has come into the possession of Morgana. One possible reason may be that Alcina should only get to sing the slow, poignant, sad adagio arias of longing, yearning and unrequited love, as befits her demeanor, her cruelty and her evil and self-serving modus operandi, leaving the other principals in the opera to trumpet the joyous, spirited arias of newfound love.

    Oronte is a minor character in Alcina, but the part was written for the 21 year old phenomenon John Beard, who would inspire Handel to write several major tenor roles in his English oratorios. The role of Oberto was only created right before the premiere; in fact the libretto from Broschi which Handel used  did not contain the character. Oberto was only conceived and added by Handel after he heard the remarkable boy soprano William Savage (who would  grow to become an impressive baritone for Handel's later operas). The role of Oberto is usually sung by a female soprano, as it will be this evening.

   Alcina is composed in a musical genre called opera seria. This operatic form almost invariably has a mythological or ancient historical storyline, an Italian libretto, and contains many august, stately and noble arias.  The arias are almost always in A-B-A form, so-called da capo arias, because the return to the A theme (the "da capo" or "to the head, to the top") allows the singer, in those days often a castrato of immense vocal power and popularity for several of the roles, to ornament the aria with florid vocal filigrees around the melody. Gluck, Hasse, Alessandro Scarlatti, Porpora and Mozart wrote operas in this genre of opera seria, some examples of which are Gluck's Orpheus, and Mozart's Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito.  Over time, however, the opera seria style became stale and repetitive, and it lost favor with its audience. However, Handel miraculously found a way to keep this operatic genre fresh and vital, by continually exploring, through his characters' arias, their inherent emotions, doubts, and paradoxes.  Indeed, what distinguishes Alcina is that it demonstrates Handel's brilliance as a composer of drama and interpersonal relationships, remarkable creations from someone who, despite years of celebrity status in London, had no known love affairs in his life.

Handel in the guise of Orpheus
by Louis Francois Roubiliac 1738
Victoria and Albert Museum

   Handel was to have another fifteen years of glory at Covent Garden, then back at the  King's Theatre and the Theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields, composing ten more operas for those venues.  In 1751, at the age of 66, Handel began noticing changes in his eyesight. It is difficult to know exactly  what specific disorder may have caused his  visual loss. Some scholars still insist that Handel had cataracts, because there is evidence that he had these putative “cataracts” couched (that is, lanced to push them out of the central pupillary axis) on several occasions, by the itinerant charlatan surgeon, the Chevalier John Taylor. A closer reading of Handel’s precise correspondence makes it clear, however, that the visual loss he sustained was not only first monocular, then binocular, but in both eyes, his loss of sight was abrupt.

   The rapid loss of sight implies that Handel likely did not suffer from cataracts, which never cause sudden visual loss. Therefore, despite the bombastic pronouncements and rodomontade by the Chevalier Taylor that Handel had "cataracts," it is much more likely that he (Handel) sustained a stroke to the ophthalmic artery of each eye, an entity called anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (AION). This stroke of the major blood vessel serving the anterior part, or head, of the optic nerve, caused that tissue to infarct from lack of blood flow,and die off. AION can be associated with other systemic illnesses, such as headaches, myalgias, arthralgias and anorexia.  Handel's age of 66 years at that time is consistent with case studies of AION, whereas it would be a bit young for someone to have significant visual loss from cataracts. It is also of note that AION is more common in those with Scandinavian or German heritage. Handel,  born in Germany, fit this demographic risk factor as well. On August 5, 1752, The General Advertiser of London did report: “We hear that George-Frederick Handel, Esq., the celebrated Composer of Musick, was seized a few Days ago with a Paralytick Disorder of the Head, which has deprived him  of Sight.”

Statue and Memorial of G.F. Handel  with
"I know my Redeemer Liveth" from Messiah
by Louis Francois Roubiliac
Westminister Abbey  unveiled in 1762)
    After he lost his vision, Handel's general health inexorably declined  through the last eight years of his life. He became more religious, more introspective, and  retreated into a cocoon of  solitude and silence. Although he still played the organ and acceded to conduct the occasional Messiah, Handel's overall compositional style changed. He went on to complete the oratorio Jephtha in 1752, but that was to be his last work in the genre.  Handel's days as a composer of opera were long past as well; his last opera, Deidamia, premiered in 1741. He died on April 14, 1759, a justly famous and widely admired cultural icon, having never married, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left his estate  to his niece, Johanna, and also, as per four separate codicils, to his friends, his servants and several charities.

   Posterity has also been a most grateful beneficiary of the works of  "Mr. Handel." His remarkably rich musical output, both  in its remarkable quantity and its extraordinary quality, is no better exemplified than in the glorious opera you will hear this evening,  Alcina.

© Vincent P. de Luise M.D.  2012

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