The Magazine

'Messiah' Man

The music of George Frideric Handel 'makes you want to live.'

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Opera can be a hellion's sport, and playing the harpsichord in the orchestra pit for a purported friend's opera became a near-death experience for Handel. In 1704, at a performance in Hamburg of Johann Mattheson's Cleopatra, the opera's composer, who had been conducting from the harpsichord, mounted the stage to sing Antony, and Handel took over for him at the keyboard. After Antony's suicide, Mattheson returned to the harpsichord to finish the opera, but Handel refused to budge. Such a matter of artistic protocol was not to be taken lightly, and to top off the evening's entertainment, the two men drew swords. Mattheson's blade shattered on Handel's large metal coat-button.

The young wizard had an operatic success of his own in 1705, also in Hamburg, with Almira, in which Mattheson was the principal tenor, and Handel followed that in short order with Nero, Florinda, and Daphne, for which the music has been lost. However, the upsurge of Pietism, which frowned on all theatrical spectacle, was making Hamburg inhospitable to opera, and in 1706 he lit out for points south. In Rome he promptly won the regard, and most important the patronage, of leading princes of the church; his being a Lutheran did not prevent cardinals of extravagant aesthetic plumage from honoring his gifts. Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, a scarlet magnifico, actually wrote the libretto for Handel's immensely successful Agrippina, a bitter comedy of lustrous darkness, wicked as Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, and featuring some of the same figures from imperial Rome's decadence. The cardinal's family theater in Venice, reputedly the finest in town, put on the show.

But it would be in London, where Handel landed for good in 1712 after bouncing between England and Germany, that he made his name, both for his day and centuries to come. He had his work cut out for him. The English were slow to cotton to the pleasures of opera, tending to consider it a poor sister of the spoken drama. Opera seria, serious opera, featuring tales of historical grandees or mythological heroes or characters from chivalric romance, posed serious hazards for audience and composer alike. The da capo aria-take it from the top-in a strictly ritualized A-B-A form, the repetition as exorbitant in its embellishments as a Balinese warlord's headdress, was and still is responsible for numerous reported cases of coloratura-induced coma; and in the original performing version of Giulio Cesare, the title character and Cleopatra had eight arias apiece.

The recitativo secco, dry recitative, the speech-like foundation of the drama, or what the singers sing when they are not engaged in their vocal high-wire act, was pitched toward rapid fire inexpressiveness. The plot frequently ran every which way, and its entanglements were unsubtly unknotted by a god from the machine or other wonder-worker. And a night at the opera meant accepting a disquieting moral grotesquerie, for the reigning deities of the stage were the castrati, who had endured the all-but-ultimate sacrifice for the greater glory of-well, themselves, such as they were.

From a noble lady in the throes, the most celebrated of these virile eunuchs received the highest tribute a divo can get: "One God, one Farinelli!"

The Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket was the brainchild of the redoubtable Sir John Vanbrugh, impresario, playwright, architect of Blenheim Palace for the Duke of Marlborough, and at the Queen's, Vanbrugh presented the first Italian opera written specifically for the English stage, Handel's Rinaldo (1711). It was the first of many London hits for the composer. He would make Italian opera seria the most popular ticket in town. For years English-language opera never stood a chance in London: Handel's Italian tunes written for Italian singers were the rage.

The great world took to Handel with warmth and gusto. The 18-year-old Lord Burlington opened his purse and his magnificent Piccadilly house to him, and Handel spent three years as a sort of composer-in-residence. Queen Anne bestowed a generous pension for life on the winning composer, who had turned out a Te Deum and Jubilate very much to her liking for the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
Her successor, George I, became a regular with the royal family at the opera, and commissioned the famous Water Music, originally performed on a barge in the Thames on a July evening in 1717; the king enjoyed the music so much that he had it played three times as he floated downriver.