The 18th-century wag who described opera as “the most expensive of human endeavors, save war” was painting only half the picture. Like war, opera was often politics by other means. French intelligentsia of the ancien regime were not free to criticize the government, but they could let their views be guessed by frequenting Italian opera. In England, political factions aligned behind singers and composers, who found themselves thrust, willingly or not, into rivalries that were the stuff of news reports, gossip, and machinations behind the scenes.
Nothing in opera seria itself showed much relevance to current events. It dealt with things long ago and, usually, far away. Its stories came from classical mythology (Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a favorite source), or fanciful non-historical tales about the romantic doings of the knights of Charlemagne (from Ariosto’s 1532 epic Orlando Furioso) and the Crusades (from Tasso’s 1580 epic Gerusalemme Liberata). There were wagonloads of intrigue, sorcery, love triangles, and emotional upheaval, but not much stage action, or even drama in the sense that audiences now think of it.
Each scene began with a singer or singers entering an uninhabited stage. After they advanced the plot in recitative monologue or dialogue, one of them would sing an aria, and then everyone would exit. An opera would thus rarely go more than a few minutes without a pause for applause, something that reinforced a pervasive star system. An aria itself was a pause of a sort, holding up the plot to reflect on the situation without mentioning it specifically. It was not even necessary that the audience know exactly what the aria lyrics were. The printed libretto booklets given to Handel’s London audiences contained word-for-word translations of the recitatives, but one-sentence summations of the arias. Because one “rage” aria, or “will she choose me or him?” aria, or “I’m undecided about what to do” aria could be substituted for another without changing the dramatic flow, singers would bring favorite “baggage arias” and substitute them for the ones composed for the opera. This made some sense in an art form that depended so much on singers sounding impressive, and it would take a composer with lots of clout to impose his will on star singers.
No opera composer had more clout than George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), who parlayed his own stardom as a composer into success, and occasional failure, as an impresario. He was the managing partner in his opera companies, hiring singers and deciding which of his works were performed. He became such a colossus in the London theater that newspapers could run satirical pieces about “Handel” and “the opera” that were understood as allegories about the prime minister and Parliament. Because Handel enjoyed the favor of George I and (after 1727) George II, he would earn the enmity of the political party opposed to the king, which often included the Prince of Wales, since the Hanovers never liked each other.
In 1733, the gloves came off in London operatic proxy politics when a group of well-connected backers formed a rival opera company and hired away most of Handel’s star singers, so that, as one of them put it, “Handel must fling up.” The backers included an earl and two dukes, which is why it has come to be called the “Opera of the Nobility,” although nobody used that name while it existed.
The composer who was brought in as Handel’s rival was the Neapolitan Nicola Porpora (1686-1768), famous as both a composer and the leading singing teacher of the age. His most famous student was the castrato Carlo Broschi (1705-1782), known professionally as Farinelli. Between 1733 and 1736, Porpora composed five operas in competition with Handel. One of them is represented on this program – Polifemo, which premiered in 1735. (He had composed Arianna e Teseo in 1727 and Semiramide riconosciuta in 1729, both for Venice productions starring Farinelli. Il Germanico, also known as Germanico in Germania, was composed in 1732 for the Teatro Capranica in Rome.) By 1735 the Opera of the Nobility had dangled enough money before Farinelli to lure him to London, where he created a pop-star sensation. In Polifemo he sang the role of Acis, a gentle shepherd whose love for the semi-divine nymph Galatea causes the Cyclops Polyphemus to kill him in a jealous rage. Galatea then invokes the aid of Jove to make Acis immortal as a star, or river, depending on who is telling the story. Handel had already set the story twice: in Italian when he was in Italy in 1708, and in English (with unrelated music) in 1717. The English Acis and Galatea was Handel’s most consistently popular work, so Porpora’s opera may have been seen as a direct challenge to it, whether Porpora knew it or not.
An opera company needed a castrato star, so in 1733 Handel engaged Giovanni Carestini (1704 – c. 1760), who sang in Alcina, Oreste, and Ariodante. According to one well-circulated story, Carestini learned the limits of the star system when he told Handel that an aria in Alcina (not either of the ones on this program) wasn’t right for him. “You toc [dog]!” Handel shouted back, and forcefully let him know that Handel knew best what suited singers, and Carestini could do as he was told or not get paid. Handel delivered the tirade in his heavily German-accented English, so Carestini may not have understood much of it.
But if Farinelli was the nobility’s ultimate weapon, Handel’s was not Carestini, but Handel himself, who was capable of working fast and adapting his musical offerings to the market. He began to offer English oratorios as well as operas, and used his own legendary reputation as a performer as a drawing card by playing organ concertos between acts, a practice he continued to the end of his career.
Not surprisingly, the battle to the death between two opera companies ended with both companies dead. It nearly killed Handel as well. Stress and overwork doubtless contributed to a stroke in April 1737 that rendered his right hand useless. The seriousness of his ailment was hushed up so as not to encourage the Opera of the Nobility. Farinelli left London two months later. King Philip V of Spain, who suffered from what these days would be called depression, offered him an enormous pension to live at the royal court in Madrid and sing to him in the evening (the same four songs every night, goes the story). Porpora and Carestini had already left London. The Opera of the Nobility shut down, weary of hemorrhaging money.
Handel recovered, but over the next decade he gradually withdrew from the Italian opera business, and turned increasingly to English oratorio.
Unlike Handel, who became a national institution in England, Porpora never found a permanent home. In the early 1750s he alighted for a few years in Vienna, where a young Joseph Haydn became his student, valet, and accompanist for voice lessons. Haydn later said he learned the “true fundamentals of composition” from Porpora.
Handel’s Opus 6, “Twelve Grand Concerto’s, in Seven Parts, for four Violins, a Tenor [viola], a Violoncello, with a Thorough-Bass for the Harpsichord,” was in some ways a result of the opera wars. He began composing them at the end of September 1739, and finished them by the end of October, at which time the publisher, John Walsh, advertised them by subscription. 128 sets of parts were ordered before they were printed.
Their immediate function was to be played between acts of his oratorios in the coming theater season. But their sale to the public also put a crimp in the market for pirated or spurious Handel concertos put out by London publishers eager to capitalize on his name. Indeed, the Walsh family was one of the biggest pirates. John Walsh senior had recently put out the six concertos of Opus 3, pastiches assembled from unrelated Handel works, without Handel’s consent. Having John Walsh junior print the new concertos was a practical move to recruit a prominent publisher into the anti-pirating camp.
The concertos are in the mold of the Corellian concerto grosso (an expanded trio sonata for two violins, cello, and continuo, with parts for two ripieno violins and viola), but Handel was always loose about form. The concertos bear Handel’s own theatrical stamp, and indeed some movements are reworkings of numbers from vocal works.