February 23, 2015. Handel. George Frideric Handel was born on this day in 1685, in Halle. Having spent most of his life in London, he’s considered a British composer, and is famous in our time for his oratorio Messiah, Water Music and other pieces that he wrote for the royalty, as well as his organ concertos. During his lifetime, though, he was at least as famous for his Italian operas. Handel wrote 42 operas altogether. Not just a composer, but also a great manager, he established three opera companies to perform them. One of these companies found a space at the Covent Garden Theater, which till then was a playhouse. Now, of course, it’s Britain’s Royal Opera house. Handel learned the art and craft of the Italian opera mostly while he stayed in the country. He was 21 when he moved from Germany to Italy, first to Florence and shortly after to Rome. By then he had already written at least two operas, Almira and Nero. Very quickly Handel found several patrons, among them the same cardinals Colonna, Pamphili, and Ottoboni who also played important roles in the lives of many other composers, such as Francesco Cavalli, Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli. Handel wrote music for the cardinals’ private orchestras and performed with their musicians. Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili was a noted librettist, and Handel used one of the cardinal’s works to write an oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Truth). In the city of Rome the performance of operas was banned by a papal decree; to circumvent the prohibition, composers wrote oratorios, many of which are operas in all but the name. Il trionfo was one of them. The aria Lascia la spina (Leave the thorn) became famous. Four years later Handel rewrote it into an even more famous aria Lascia ch'io pianga (Leave me to weep) for his opera Rinaldo. Here it is, wonderfully sung by Cecilia Bartoli; Christopher Hogwood conducts the Academy of Ancient Music. In 1707 Handel wrote his first fully Italian opera, Rodrigo. By the early 18th century, opera was a highly developed art, even though it was “invented” just 100 years earlier. Claudio Monteverdi can be considered the father of Italian opera, but many highly talented composers followed, Francesco Cavalli and Alessandro Scarlatti being among more significant practitioners of the genre. Opera became very popular all over the country: by the end of the 17th century, Venice, with the population of about 140,000, had 7 opera houses. Of course most of them were small and they employed tiny orchestras but the number is still very impressive.
In 1709 Handel wrote his second Italian opera, Agrippina; it was premiered in Venice, in Teatro San Giovanni, and was a great success. The opera was revived late in the 20th century, and it has since been staged in major opera houses. The success of Agrippina made Handel famous all over Europe. That eventually brought him to London, with Queen Anne providing him with a stipend. Rinaldo was written in 1711, his first opera for the English stage. Another 34 followed, all premiered in London. Even though most of them were soon forgotten, several remained popular, and many more we resurrected with the revival of the Baroque opera and the ascent of the period instruments in the second half of the 20th century. Giulio Cesare is one of the operas that was staged regularly, and so is Orlando. Here’s the aria Se Pieta, from Giulio Cesare, sung by the French soprano Sandrine Piau with the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques under the baton of Christophe Rousset. And here’s the aria Vaghe pupille from Orlando. Written for a castrato, it’s sung by the Serbian contralto Marijana Mijanovic.
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