Skip to page content

The four arias on tonight's program span nearly two decades in Handel's output and come from both opera and oratorio. All four arias are in the ternary form typical of music of Handel's period, beginning with an A section, which is followed by a contrasting B section and then a repeat of the A section, either in its entirety or without its opening orchestral passage, or ritornello.

The first aria, "Falsa imagine," comes from the opera Ottone, which premiered at London's King's Theatre in the Haymarket on January 12, 1723. Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel's prima donna at the time, argued with Handel over the aria during rehearsals. John Mainwaring, Handel's first biographer, relates the scene as follows: "Having one day some words with Cuzzoni on her refusing to sing 'Falsa imagine' in Ottone; Oh! Madame (said he) I know well that you are a veritable devil: but you should know that I am Beelzebub, the ruler of the devils. With this he took her up by the waist, and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window." Handel, of course, knew what he was doing, and the aria made Cuzzoni's reputation in London as "an expressive and pathetic singer," according to the 18th-century music historian Charles Burney.

In the opera, the Greek princess Teofane has come to Rome to marry Ottone, the king of Germany. With only a miniature portrait to recognize him, she instead meets Ottone's enemy Adelberto, confuses him for Ottone, and curses the misleading picture (apparently, Adelberto is no Ottone). The aria is unique in that the singer is accompanied only by the continuo until the closing ritornello. It is a magnificent example of Handel's skill as a melodist.

Giulio Cesare first appeared during Handel's next season at the King's Theatre, premiering on February 20, 1724. The opera retells one of antiquity's most legendary love stories, that of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and Julius Caesar. Cleopatra is among the most finely drawn characters in any Handel opera. Her eight numbers run the gamut from joy and sensuality to lament and despair, creating a rich, multi-faceted portrayal. Her aria "Se pietà" falls near the close of Act II, when Caesar has learned that a band of conspirators loyal to his rival Ptolemy plans to assassinate him. Cleopatra advises him to flee, but he resolves to face the assassins instead. In the aria, Cleopatra laments his decision, fearing that Caesar might die. The aria is one of Handel's outstanding laments, with the close writing for strings and voice heightening the expressive effect.

The Royal Academy of Music, which had thus far produced Handel's operas in London, disbanded in January 1729 as a result of financial problems. This was the first sign of opera's declining popularity in London; just over a decade later, Handel abandoned the genre altogether. Partenope was one of the operas featured in the first season of a reconfigured "Second Academy"; the opera was premiered at the King's Theatre on February 24, 1730. Handel combined a lighter subject with the forms of Italian serious opera (much as Rameau would combine the comic and the serious in Les Paladins nearly three decades later), and with the mixture produced one of his most memorable operatic creations.

Queen Partenope, the legendary founder of Naples, is being pursued by four suitors, including Arsace, Prince of Corinth, and someone she believes to be Eurimene, an Armenian prince. She has pledged herself to Arsace, but there's a slight complication - Eurimene is actually Rosmira, Arsace's true love, disguised as a man. Partenope's aria "Voglio amare" comes as Rosmira, disguised as Eurimene, tries to win the queen away from Arsace. The tender tone of the aria, with its luminous writing for violins and oboes, underlines Partenope's sentiments and her constancy. In the end, though, Partenope comes to recognize the feelings between Arsace and Rosmira and accepts another suitor in place of the Corinthian prince.

Ten years later, opera was at death's door in London. A dwindling audience, coupled with the increasing popularity of English-language oratorio, contributed to the decline. Handel himself had introduced two new English-language works, both with sacred subjects, during the 1738/39 season: Saul and Israel in Egypt. Their success encouraged him to compose two further works for his 1739/40 season: the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day and L'allegro, il penseroso, ed il moderato. This latter work was an adaptation of John Milton's two poems, L'allegro (The Cheerful) and Il penseroso (The Thoughtful) by Handel's frequent collaborator Charles Jennens, who added his own Il moderato (The Moderate) to resolve the two conflicting temperaments.

Handel composed L'allegro in 17 days during the winter of 1740, which was, by all accounts, a miserably cold one in London. "Sweet Bird," a full-fledged da capo aria with a lovely flute obbligato reflecting the penseroso temperament, certainly contradicted the freezing temperatures outside. The oratorio's success helped encourage Handel down a road that eventually led to some of his greatest masterpieces, among them, Messiah (1741), the work that has secured his place as an icon of Western culture.

- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator