George Frideric Handel is now recognized as one of the great opera composers, but trying to gain an overview of his roughly 40 operas is not easy. Conditioned on Verdi and Wagner, we expect to find a pattern of stylistic development‹first, youthful works with signs of both inexperience and genius, then the great accomplishments of maturity, and finally the gems of old age. But we look in vain for such a progression in Handel, and not just because he stopped writing operas before he reached old age. His best operas seem randomly scattered throughout his career. One of the most brilliant and popular is Rinaldo, his very first opera for London, the city in which virtually his entire career played out. Conversely, some of the least familiar titles come late chronologically. And, at roughly the midpoint, stand three masterpieces that premiered within less than 12 months of each other‹Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda. Winton Dean and J. Merrill Knapp called their creation "an achievement without parallel in the history of opera."
The explanation is not that Handel had an abnormal burst of inspiration; rather, it has to do with the circumstances under which he worked, including the singers he wrote for. The brisk pace of 18th-century operatic life rarely afforded composers the luxury to perfect masterpieces. And the situation was especially volatile in London, where Italian opera was not institutionalized as it was in the principal Continental centers. Indeed, Rinaldo (1711) was the first Italian opera specifically composed for London, but imported operas had already gotten most of the attention, largely because audiences were fascinated by Italian singers, including castrati.
Three, possibly four, Handel operas soon followed the success of Rinaldo at the Queen's (later King's) Theatre in the Haymarket, but he also wrote the enchanting English masque Acis and Galatea and the dramatic oratorio Esther. For a couple of seasons Italian opera disappeared from the London stage entirely, and Handel's eventual shift in creative activity from Italian opera to English oratorio might have occurred sooner had not a group of aristocrats resolved to put Italian opera on a firm footing. The result was the Royal Academy of Music, formed in 1719 with the goal of providing Italian opera on a par with anything on the Continent. With Handel serving as "Master of the Orchester" [sic] as well as principal composer, that goal was reached.
The Academy took the legal form of a joint-stock corporation established for 21 years under letters patent issued by the king. In reality, the founders were financing entertainment for themselves, with additional royal support. But the Academy was organized as a profit-making venture, and the subscription documents proclaimed that "the Undertakers will be Gainers at least five and twenty percent upon twenty percent of the Stock," an astonishing forecast given opera's perennial ability to lose money. Sixty-three people initially subscribed for shares and undertook to make additional investments as needed.
With the aim of attracting the finest vocal talent, Handel was directed to go to the Continent to engage singers, above all the alto castrato known as Senesino. In the fall of 1719 Handel visited Dresden's flourishing Italian opera community, and signed up several singers, including the soprano Margherita Durastanti and Senesino himself. Only Durastanti came in time for the opening production on April 2, 1720, of Giovanni Porta's Numitore. Before the month was over Handel's Radamisto had its premiere. Already the atmosphere brought out the best in Handel. The commentator Charles Burney called Radamisto "more solid, ingenious and full of fire than any drama which Handel had yet produced." Senesino made his debut the following fall in an opera by Francesco Bononcini and soon appeared in Radamisto in a version revised, in accordance with 18th-century practice, to reflect his particular vocal attributes. The main event of the next two seasons was the arrival of the renowned soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, who made a sensational debut in 1723 in a new Handel opera, Ottone. A month later the Academy paid a dividend of seven percent. It was the only dividend they ever paid.
With the next opera, the Academy's period of greatest glory began. Giulio Cesare, which premiered in February 1724, was written in comparative leisure and its quality shows in its sumptuous melodies and sensuous treatment of sexual passion. It also offered the most rewarding music yet for the Academy's orchestra. Senesino sang the title role and Cuzzoni was Cleopatra. For Handel's next opera, Tamerlano, seen in October 1724, the two stars were joined by the outstanding tenor, Francesco Borosini, who took the compelling role of the doomed Ottoman emperor, Bajazet. Some were surprised that so important a role would go to a tenor rather than a castrato; one journalist couldn't resist saying that Borosini was not "cut out" for a singer. Borosini's involvement in the compositional process of Tamerlano went beyond simply providing vocal characteristics around which to tailor the music. He persuaded Handel to modify the ending by having Bajazet's suicide take place on stage; earlier, the emphasis was on the reaction of Bajazet's daughter to his death, in an aria. Borosini thus had a direct role in shaping the climax of Handel's most powerfully tragic opera.
Cuzzoni, Senesino, and Borosini were on hand for the January 1725 premiere of Rodelinda, the last of the great trio of Academy operas. Like many operas from the early 18th-century, it derives from a French classical drama, in this case Pierre Corneille's Perthorixe, roi des Lombards. As usual, the story reached Handel via an Italian libretto, Antonio Salvi's Rodelinda from 1710, which was modified for Handel by his regular collaborator, Nicolà Haym. One of Haym's accomplishments was to give greater prominence to the central couple, the ousted Lombard king, Bertarido, and his devoted wife, Rodelinda, sung by Senesino and Cuzzoni. By so doing, he at once gave the singers their due and strengthened the plot.
The deeply expressive nature of Rodelinda's music owes much to Cuzzoni's celebrated ability to express pathos and melancholy. It was a talent Handel exploited especially in her three laments but also in the beguiling love song in siciliano rhythm, "Ritorna, o caro." The treatise writer Johann Joachim Quantz said Cuzzoni had a "beautiful trillo," which Handel allowed her to display in the lament "Ombre piante." Quantz also noted that "the passagien in the allegros were not done with the greatest facility, but she sang them very fully and pleasantly." Handel did not really test Cuzzoni's facility in Rodelinda; even in the ecstatic "Mio caro bene," heard at the opera's close, coloratura passages are restrained.
Senesino, though, was renowned for his coloratura, an ability Handel took advantage of especially in Bertarido's aria of triumph (from the first revival), "Vivi tirano," sung after he has saved the tyrant Grimoaldo's life. Like Rodelinda, Bertarido has highly expressive slow arias; indeed, Burney said Senesino's best style was "pathetic, or majestic." According to Quantz, Senesino "never loaded Adagios with too many ornaments, yet he delivered the original and essential notes with the utmost refinement." One can imagine the magic worked by Bertarido's disarmingly simple entrance aria, "Dove sei," and the enchanting siciliano, "Con rauco mormorio." Burney called the prison scene's "Chi di voi" "one of the finest pathetic airs that can be found in all [Handel's] works."
The emotionally wide-ranging arias that Handel gave Borosini, as Grimoaldo, confirm the dramatic gift the tenor had demonstrated in Tamerlano. Sometimes Grimoaldo appears to be a clear-cut villain, scorning his betrothed Eduige in "Io già t'amai" or denouncing Rodelinda in "Tuo drudo è mio rivale" when he finds her with Bertarido; each calls for the forceful declamation Borosini was known for. But in the lovely "Prigioniera hò l'alma" he shows a tender side, and in his final aria the vacillating ruler sings of his inability to find peace. From the quality of their arias, it is apparent that the other members of the cast, the alto castrato Andrea Pacini (Unulfo), contralto Anna Vincenza Dotti (Eduige) and the bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi (Garibaldo), were all worthy colleagues.
Not content with one famous prima donna, the Academy courted the legendary Faustina Bordoni and soon had perhaps the world's two most preeminent female singers on its roster. Faustina made her debut alongside Cuzzoni in 1726 in Handel's Alessandro, which treated them with scrupulous evenhandedness in vocal importance. But their rivalry escalated until they came to blows on stage a year later. The scandal aggravated the Academy's deepening financial woes. In contrast to the one dividend the Academy paid, it made many calls on subscribers for additional capital, and besides that, the novelty of the venture was wearing off. The 1727-28 season boasted three new operas by Handel, but the directors agreed in 1729 to suspend activity.
Handel's opera career persisted for an additional 12 turbulent years. On disbanding, the Academy directors granted him a five-year term to continue giving operas in the King's Theatre, the so-called Second Academy, which enjoyed stepped-up royal support. Later, he faced competition from a group known as the Opera of the Nobility, which stole his singers and even took over the King's Theatre. But he persevered in the new theater at Covent Garden, later returning to the King's Theatre after the Opera of the Nobility disbanded. The post-Academy years saw a number of splendid operas, including two of his greatest, Alcina and Ariodante, both given at Covent Garden in 1735. But never again was his working environment as propitious and stable as it was during the early years of the Academy. And we have the remarkable trio of operas from 1724-25 to show for it.