The form of theatrical entertainment that is now known as opera seria ruled the theaters of Europe (outside France) throughout the course of the 18th century. Known at the time generally as “dramma per musica”, it referred to opera, sung in Italian, with a plot on a heroic or tragic subject. Musically and dramatically, the action in these works played out through passages of recitative with a speech-like melodic line, usually accompanied sparsely by basso continuo. When a dramatic situation reached a point of crisis, the action stopped and one character pours out their emotional reaction to the situation in an aria. These arias were usually in two parts; the end of the second part very often bore the indication “Da capo” (literally “from the head”) and so the first part would be repeated. Today we know these as “Da capo” arias. Often, the singer would improvise florid ornaments on the repeated section.
These operas became virtuoso showpieces for the singers, and especially for a particular class of singer: the castrato. This was a male who had been surgically altered before puberty to prevent their voice from changing. Because they kept the vocal apparatus of a child, but developed the larger lung capacity and bone structure of a full-grown man, they were capable of producing a high-pitched vocal tone of great power and agility. Cast in the leading roles in opera seria, the greatest of these singers enjoyed pop-star status, earning both enormous fees for their services and continent-wide fame.
Because of the great prestige of opera seria, and the sizable budgets associated with it, many of the greatest composers of the 18th century wrote for the genre. But in the absence of castrati in the modern world, how are we to hear these works? This already began to become a problem in the later 18th century as the supply of worthy castrati declined. Women, both altos and sopranos, usually took their place. When the operas of Handel and Gluck were first revived in the early 20th century, gender-appropriate casting was valued more highly than musical integrity, and the male roles for sopranos and altos were re-written for tenors and basses. Later in the century, countertenors (male singers with normal vocal mechanisms who develop their head range, or falsetto voice) began to take up these roles, giving us Orfeos and Tolomeos who are not only men but also sing in the proper range!
The most recent generation of countertenors continues to develop their technical and expressive abilities to levels that give us a glimpse of the experience of 18th-century listeners; but an exact reproduction of that sound is probably beyond our reach. To quote Martha Feldman’s insightful book, The Castrato, from University of California Press:
"[The castrato possessed] a voice not just of volume and peal but one that ideally had finesse, nuance, breath, and line, the kind of control capable of inhabiting his listeners. The ideal voice we might imagine has a lustrous surface, potentially powerful, potentially majestic, potentially brilliant, potentially silvery or metallic, potentially liquid, yet never necessarily any and certainly not all of those things. Perhaps too all those voices had something unique, something not shared by the voices of women or uncastrated men, as observers over a long period of time often remarked."
ARIAS BY GLUCK
Before settling in Vienna in 1752, Christoph Willibald Gluck spent more than a decade as an itinerant musician, working in a number of European capitals. He began his travels in Milan, where he composed four operas for the Teatro Regio Ducal, all settings of libretti by Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio’s dramas were the epitome of the opera seria genre; some of them were set by dozens of composers throughout the 18th century.
The second of these operas was Demofoönte, first performed on January 6, 1743. Its complicated plot—typical of Metastasio—revolves around dramatic features like mistaken identity, hidden paternity, and unrealistic resolutions of the sort that Gluck was later to reject. It hero is Timante, believed to be the son of Demofoönte, King of Thrace. Gluck wrote the role for the great alto castrato Giovanni Carestini, who had previously worked for Handel in London. In the middle of Act I, Timante, learns that his father has arranged a marriage for him with the daughter of a foreign prince; yet Timante has already wed another woman in secret. In the soliloquy “Sperai vicino il lido” he expresses his consternation using the analogy of a shipwreck, which is one of Metastasio’s favorite poetic devises.
Demofoönte was one of Gluck’s early successes. The first modern performance of the opera took place in Vienna on November 23, 2014 under the direction of Alan Curtis and featured Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in the role of Timante.
Gluck’s masterpiece, Orfeo ed Euridice, was first performed at the Burgtheater (“palace theater”) in Vienna on October 5, 1762. With this work, Gluck attempted to strip away decades of stale habits that had accreted to opera seria. He and his librettist, Ranieri de' Calzabigi, wanted to introduce classical simplicity into serious opera. Many of the changes they made were borrowed from the French genre of tragédie lirique, especially the work of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Their endeavor included simplifying the action by pruning away sub-plots and deceptions, shortening the amount of recitative, and reducing the number of “da capo” arias.
Act 3 of the opera begins as the two lovers make their way out of the Underworld back to Earth. To uphold his part of the bargain that he made with Amore, Orfeo refrains from looking at Euridice, or even from touching her. This causes Euridice such anguish that Orfeo feels compelled to turn and gaze upon his beloved Euridice—only to see her perish once more. The accompanied recitative “Ahimè! Dove trascorsi” and the aria "Che farò senza Euridice" follow immediately upon the horrible sight. Spoiler alert: in contrast to the traditional ancient Greek telling of the story, Calzabigi’s ending has Amore take pity on Orfeo and restores Euridice to life, allowing the lovers to celebrate a happy ending.
ARIAS BY HANDEL
Though born a Saxon and a subject of His Most Britannic Majesty for most of his life, Georg Friedrich (or George Frideric) Handel was one of the greatest composers of Italian opera. Handel was bitten by the opera bug early in his career. In the first few years of the 18th century, he played second violin and harpsichord in the orchestra of the Hamburg Opera House and composed at least four works for that stage. In 1706 he left Hamburg for Italy where he spent three years. Most of that time he worked in Rome, where opera was forbidden by papal decree, but he learned much about Italian style especially with regard to composing for the voice. Before leaving the country for London, though, he composed the opera Agrippina for Venice which had its first performance at the end of 1709. It is considered by many to be the young composer’s first operatic masterpiece (even though it followed contemporary convention by borrowing much of its music from other works).
Agrippina was the wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the mother of Nero. The opera’s satirical plot follows her twisted plan to oust her husband and place her son on the throne. Claudius intends that his military commander, Ottone, succeed him; yet Agrippina’s scheming succeeds in turning Claudius against him. Ottone—originally sung by a female alto—expresses his shock and despair in the dramatic recitative “Otton, qual portentoso fulmine” and aria “Voi che udite il mio lamento.”
After his Venetian triumph with Agrippina, Handel left Italy, working his way northward. In 1710 he arrived in Hannover, where he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Electoral court. Soon after, Handel was on his way to London. There (aside from a few brief intervals on the Continent) he was to remain for the rest of his life. In 1719, the newly formed Royal Academy of Music engaged Handel as Master of the Orchestra with the aim of securing a steady supply of Italian opera for London. His duties included hiring singers and finding new operatic repertoire; much of the latter, of course, he would compose himself.
Rodelinda, regina de' Longobardi ("Rodelinda, Queen of the Longobards") was Handel’s seventh work for the company. Nicola Francesco Haym adapted the text from an earlier libretto. Haym was to provide the texts for a half-dozen of Handel’s London operas. Rodelinda received its first performance on February 13, 1725, in the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London. It was one of Handel’s most successful operas: The first production ran to 14 performances, and enjoyed revivals at the end of 1725 and in 1731. This is another tale of an overthrown monarch in hiding, marital fidelity put to the test, and attempted assassination—all ending with the King of Lombardy, Bertrarido, back on his throne reunited with his beloved wife (Rodelinda) and the obligatory general rejoicing.
Handel wrote Bertarido for the renowned contralto castrato, Francesco Bernardi (known as “Senesino”) for whom Handel created 17 leading roles. In Act I, scene vi he comes across his own memorial urn (he is thought to be dead). He describes his feelings in the accompanied recitative “Pompe vane di morte!” In a remarkable stroke, the accompaniment falls silent as he reads the inscription out loud. That is followed by the poignant aria “Dove sei, amato bene!” This aria was not part of Haym’s original text, but was added before the first performance. In a further sign of the fluid nature of 18th-century opera scores, Handel added the two-word link between the recitative and the aria after the initial run of the opera—then changed his mind about it later.
In Act III, scene viii, Bertarido confronts his usurper, but magnanimously spares his life. In “Vivi tiranno!” (another first-revival addition) our hero explains to his enemy that his reluctance to take revenge proves the nobility of his heart. This spectacular aria not only affords plenty of the vocal fireworks that castrati were famous for, but also allows room for rich ornamentation on the repetition of the opening section—another castrato specialty.
The Royal Academy lasted until 1729; Handel’s 13th and final opera for the group was Tolomeo, re d’Egitto ("Ptolemy, King of Egypt"). It premiered at the King’s Theatre on April 30, 1728. Once again, Haym supplied the libretto, adapting it from Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s play Tolomeo et Alessandro. Senesino again took the title role. The story is based loosely on the life of Ptolemy IX Lathyros, king of Egypt around 100 B.C. Once again, we have a usurper: Tolomeo’s mother, Cleopatra III, tries to depose him in favor of his brother, Alessandro (who did actually rule Egypt for a while as Ptolemy X Alexander I). Ptolemy is shipwrecked, goes into hiding under an assumed name; a local princess (Elisa) falls in love with him; Alessandro falls in love with her; Tolomeo’s wife arrives, also using an alias.
Eventually, Elisa convinces Tolomeo to drink poison to prove his love for his wife. All of his heartbreak and frustration come pouring out in a dramatic soliloquy from Act III which takes the form of simple recitative “Che più si tarda omai” just before swallowing the bitter liquid and building to accompanied recitative “Inumano fratel” and culminating in the deeply affecting aria of resignation “Stille amare”. But don’t worry, it was only a sleeping draught after all! Ptolemy awakes and is reunited with his wife, and the opera ends with reconciliation and celebration.
In addition to composing large quantities of church music, over 500 concertos for a variety of instruments, and directing the music at a large orphanage in Venice, Antonio Vivaldi had a significant career in opera. Near the end of his life, he claimed to have produced 94 operas (though probably only half of those were his own compositions). Most of these works opened with brief orchestral works in three movements (in the pattern fast-slow-fast). These early 18th-century Sinfonie generally bore scant musical connection with the opera that followed, but they are important historically because they are the direct ancestors of the great symphonies of the Classical and Romantic eras.
The two overtures heard here belong to operas that Vivaldi composed for the Teatro Sant’Angelo in Venice, where he served as impresario beginning in 1714. He wrote La Verità in Cimento ("Truth in Contention") for the 1720 Carnival season. It was the composer’s 13th opera, even though he had written his first only 7 years before [something more about the sinfonia]. Vivaldi premiered Farnace in 1727, and quickly became one of Vivaldi’s most successful operas, as shown by a 1730 revival in Prague.
VIVALDI: STABAT MATER
As luck would have it, about a year before Vivaldi assumed the post as maestro di coro at the Pietà, the Oratorian order’s church of Santa Maria della Pace in Brescia had commissioned him to compose a setting of the Stabat Mater to be performed for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary (the Friday before Palm Sunday) on 18 March 1712. The work constitutes Vivaldi’s first sacred composition; no earlier opus has been found among his possessions. Scored discretely for strings and basso continuo (plus voice), its structure was strictly dictated by the Oratorian commissioners: only the first half of the text was to be set to music, as a hymn to be sung during the service for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows (verses 11 to 14 being reserved for Matins, and verses 15 to 20 for Lauds); the setting had to be thematically economical and adhere as much as possible to homotonality; the music for movements IV to VI should be almost identical to that for movements I to III; and the music should vary from one movement to another, but the tempos should be kept moderate.
Vivaldi used the first eight verses of the Stabat Mater sequence, which depict the drama and suffering of Christ’s mother at the scene of the crucifixion. The mood of the music is almost oppressive, centering more or less constantly on the dark keys of F minor and C minor. Only at the last moment—the final F major chord of the work—is there a reward for her suffering, a reward for the faithful. Later he would revisit the dramatic material of the story of the Virgin in his settings of the Salve Regina, again scored for the dark, low contralto (countertenor) voice.
AMERICAN BACH SOLOISTS
performing on period instruments
JEFFREY THOMAS, conductor
ARYEH NUSSBAUM COHEN
visit his web site
This recording was made possible by the generous support of
James R. Meehan and Don Scott Carpenter.
Producer: Chris Landen
Assistant Producer: Steven Lehning
Recording Engineer: Andrés Villalta
Production Logistics: John Jaworski
Cover Art: Photography by Dario Acosta
Recorded January 2-4 2019 at St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California