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)
|G.F. Handel at age 43|
by Balthasar Denner (c. 1728)
|Alcina welcomes Ruggiero|
Niccolo dell' Abate (c. 1550)
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
|Ludovico Ariosto, in a detail by|
Vincenzo Catena (1512)
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
|G.F. Handel, in rare repose|
by Philip Mercier (c 1730)
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:
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
|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