Mr. Handel and His Singers: Program Notes

Despite the glories of his Water Music and Concerti Grossi, no one would deny that George Frideric Handel’s greatest gifts lie in his vocal compositions. For more that a half-century, Handel churned out one masterful da capo aria after another. In his cantatas, operas and eventually in the English oratorios. The pinnacle of this achievement was arguably the bravura arias he supplied--with amazing consistency--to his soprano divas.

The Early Years in London
Handel’s first operatic success in London came in 1711. Rinaldo contains the haunting “Lascia ch’io Pianga,” a soprano air recycled from Handel’s own earlier Almira. Sung by Isabella Girardeau at the premiere, the tune proved so popular the Opera management posted a notice next day: “Whereas by the frequent calling of songs again, the opera has become too tedious . . . the singers are forbidden to sing a song above once!”

Margherita Durastante was Hadel’s first important prima donna. The soprano was a star in Italy in 1700 and sang the young composer’s Resurrezione. He wrote Agrippina for her in Venice and cantatas in three languages (Spanish, French, and Italian). She proved a kindly artist who made little fuss, and worked well in London with the more temperamental alto castrato, Senesino. While he admired Durastante, not everyone shared the opinion. Handel’s own librettist, Rolli: “What a bad choice for England! I shall not venture into her singing merit, but she is really an Elephant.” (The nickname, alas, stuck).

Cuzzoni and Faustina
Durastanti’s lukewarm reception by the London public soon prompted Handel to return to Italy--a practice he observed throughout the 1720’s and 30’s--to hunt for hew divas. Francesca Cuzzoni was a savvy singer who had married her vocal coach--Signor Sardoni supplied the soprano with not only a child in 1728, but dazzling vocal ornaments as well. She agreed to come to London only after the Royal Academy offered L2000 plus the proceeds of a benefit concert. For Cuzzoni’s London debut, (1724) Handel penned the Act I continuo air “Falsa Imagine.” Fearing its simplicity, the soprano refused to sing it. “Madame, you are a devil, but I will make you know that I am Beelzebub, King of the Devils,” exclaimed Handel, advancing on the singer as if to toss her out the window. Cuzzoni relented--her debut was a rousing success, ticket prices for subsequent performances shot up astronomically.

Francesca Cuzzoni thereafter created the roles of Cleopatra and Rodelinda and sang for Handel for five seasons. In her later years, she ran up large debts and was forced to return to London in 1750, “grown old, poor, and almost deprived of voice.” wrote Charles Burney. She gave a concert to raise funds. (Cuzzoni actually spent time in jail for bad debts.) Her efforts failed; Cuzzoni died soon after, employed in Bologna in a button factory.

In 1725, however the Academy was intent on more and more stimulation, for London’s opera audiences. With both Senesino and the fiery Cuzzoni at their vocal and popular heights, they sought yet another diva to add to the mix. But no one realized the extent of the frenzy which the arrival of La Nuova Sirena would generate. Faustina Bordoni (1699-1758) was considered the greatest 18th century soprano, entrancing audiences throughout Italy and much of the rest of Europe. It took much coaxing and an enormous salary-- rumored to be L2,500 per season--to lure the “Songstress of Venice” to the London stage.

The two sopranos appeared together for Handel in Spring 1726 in his new opera, Alessandro, the composer was obliged to supply his divas with equal assignments: each was to enjoy the same number of airs, each a duet with the hero (Senesino) and most delicate of all--a duet with one another containing equally florid, identically difficult lines. Opposing camps for the two stars had already sprung up. a claque would hiss and boo its “enemy.” Pamphlets extolled the virtues of the one singer and detailed the faults of the other.

The Cuzzoni vs. Faustina rivalry ended absurdly, if predictably, in a great Marx Brothers debacle. At the final performance of the 1726 season, both appeared at the Haymarket Theatre in Bononcini’s Astinatte. The British Journal reported: “a great disturbance happened at the Opera, occasioned by the partisans of Two Celebrated Rival Ladies. The contention was at first carried on merely by Hissing and Clapping, but proceeded at length to Catcalls and other Great Indecencies.” Fist fights in the house soon extended to the sopranos on-stage; coiffures were clawed, vulgar words escaped those lips which moments before had ravished the ears with trills and divisions. One uncensored account: “it is certainly a Shame that two such well-bred Ladies should call “Bitch and “Whore” and fight like any Billingates.” After nominal scolding, both were rehired for the following season.

Faustina, unlike Cuzzoni, was a great beauty. Most of those judging her gifts at the time--men-- were unduly influenced. Burney, “her professional perfections were enhanced by a beautiful face, a symmetrical figure.” Handel biographer Weinstock: “a woman of commanding intelligence, proverbially sweet disposition, and compelling character who made Cuzzoni seem the merest sweet-warbling viper.” Faustina was not all sweetness, she did nothing to quiet the furor surrounding her and her rival. She was also, it seems, what would today be called a “lyric mezzo’ her range concentrated in the B-flat below middle C to the G above the next octave.

Handel’s Siroe was one of the several operas composed for both divas. cuzzoni’s fiery Siroe arias really did contrast with Faustina Bordoni’s more delicate traceries. The Act III Faustina aria, “La mia costanza,” moved Burney to exclaim: “she invented a new type of singing with running divisions of a neatness and velocity which astonish all who hear her.”

With the departure of both divas at the end of the 1728 season, Handel was again forced to look for a new soprano, Anna Maria Strada del Po sang in Naples, where the theatre manager married her to avoid paying her fees. Handel was much taken with Strada and engaged her for the 1729 season. She sang many premieres for him, including Orlando, Sosarme, Ezio, Berenice, and Alcina among them. A loyal, but an unglamorous singer, the London public dubbed her “The Pig” “Strada,” reported one wag, “has a voice without exception fine, but her person is very bad, and she makes frightful mouths.” Although Italian, Strada dutifully premiered English works for Handel including his Alexander’s Feast, asking only that he insert an Italian cantata for her between the acts. When she announced plans to retire after the 1736-37 season, Handel was again without a soprano diva.

Elisabeta Du Parc (1698-1778) was born in France but trained in Italy and was therefore known as “la Francesina” She arrived in London in 1736; Handel wrote his final Italian operas for her and she enjoyed her greatest successes in the English works of the early 1740’s--Semele and Hercules among them. Du Parc’s “natural warble and agility of voice which Handel seems to have great pleasure in displaying.” (Burney) were exhibited with great success in Semele’s Myself I shall adore. Yet it is the continuo air “O Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” where Handel affords the soprano the most sublime writing.

In 1747 Handel was on good terms with the Haymarket’s management, and was able to coax several of its stars to sing his English works. For soprano Giulia Frasi, Handel--at age 63--composed the buoyant airs in his new oratorio Joshua. “Oh Had I Jubal’s Lyre” is among Handel’s finest tunes. John Ostendorf