Thursday, 19 November 2009

Handel's Faramondo

This week’s Handel opera on BBC Radio 3 is Faramondo, first performed at the King’s Theatre on 3 January 1738. In the following edited extract from his Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, Winton Dean points out some of the problems surrounding the libretto:

The source of this story is Faramond, ou l’histoire de France, by Gautier de Costes de la Calprenède (1610–63), courtier and author of long-winded pseudo-historical romances. Faramond, reputedly the first King of France (420–28), belongs to the world of Arthurian myth. Apostolo Zeno’s libretto, first set by C. F. Pollarolo for Venice in 1699, abjured the comic and magical elements characteristic of seventeenth-century opera and treated the story seriously as political and military history, crossed as usual by interlocking love intrigues. It was subsequently set by Porpora (Naples, 1719) and Francesco Gasparini (Rome, 1720).

Gasparini’s libretto, Handel’s immediate source, made considerable alterations to Zeno; Handel’s was faithful to Gasparini’s, except in one crucial particular. as was to be expected, he reduced the aria ration of all the characters except Faramondo, Gustavo’s very considerably.

The libretto as it stands is hopelessly obscure. Presumably the intended framework was a contrast between heathen savagery on the one hand and Augustan Enlightenment on the other, and their different conceptions of honour. Gustavo and at first Rosimonda feel bound by their oath, Faramondo by heroic ideals of generosity and forgiveness. But it all rings hollow because their behaviour is simply not credible, even in terms of the operatic stage. The trouble goes back to Gasparini’s libretto. Zeno began logically with Sveno’s death and Rosimonda’s promise to execute ‘orribile vendetta’ on his killer. Gasparini chopped off Zeno’s first six scenes, which introduce most of the characters, leaving the plot squirming like a worm without a head. Handel then made his one major change, the drastic abbreviation of the recitatives. This is common enough in his operas, especially the later ones, but never so crushingly as here. Gasparini’s libretto contains some 1,240 lines of recitative, Handel’s a mere 540. As a result the plot becomes a whirlpool of inconsequence. Deprived of the dialogue that elucidates their motives, the characters behave like ventriloquists’ dummies, jerked into action by some unseen force. Little but violent action is left, much of it off-stage, and so beyond the audience’s grasp.

What is this internecine tribal warfare all about? Why, and where, is Faramondo fighting the Cimbri? What are the walls from which he emerges in act I, and why is he imprisoned by Rosimonda and not by Gustavo? The geography is chaotic. Do Gustavo and Rosimonda inhabit one palace, or two? What is Childerico’s position in the royal household? While it was inevitable that love interest should come to the fore, the two characters not amorously involved but essential to the story – Teobaldo, who started the trouble, and Childerico, who puts an end to it – are under-represented and almost elbowed out. Some of the action might be clearer in the theatre, but nothing could bring the whole contraption to life.

Other details suggest clumsy workmanship, perhaps a rushed job: a string of angry exits in recitative where the situation asks for the release of steam in an aria, and simile pieces at unsuitable moments. It is no surprise that each heroine likens herself to a ship in trouble; but Gernando, Adolfo and Clotilde in turn hold up act III by adducing more or less irrelevant parallels with the natural world. There are signs of botching in act II. ‘Combattuta’ must have been designed originally for Rosimonda – it is she, not Clotilde, who at this point is torn by conflicting emotions – and ‘sol la brama di vendetta’ for Clotilde, whom Gustavo has just insulted. The libretto actually gives this aria to Clotilde, and Rosimonda has the recitative immediately before ‘Combattuta’. All that was necessary to make this change in the libretto was to shift her exit back before the aria, a move that did not reach the English version, where Rosimonda by implication still has the aria. A possible reason for this manoeuvre was that Handel had discovered the gifts of his new prima donna Francesina, whom he cast for Clotilde, and saw in ‘Combattuta’ an opportunity for a brilliant soprano aria, whereas his Rosimonda was a mezzo-soprano.

All this raises a suspicion that Handel’s eye was not consistently on the ball. He may have had his fill of dark age blood-and-thunder melodrama. Berenice and Arminio had been a come-down after the glories of the Ariosto operas, and though Giustino promised a new approach he had not yet found the lighter tone of Serse and Imeneo. Strohm suggests that the libretto of Faramondo may have been chosen by Heidegger, and that Handel set it unwillingly. However that may be, it is a very uneven opera, with half a dozen peaks where some facet set Handel’s genius alight, chiefly in act II, but a good deal of routine matter.

Faramondo will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 19th November and will be available on BBC iPlayer soon after. The above piece is extracted from Winton Dean’s acclaimed
Handel’s Operas 1726-1741. The earlier volume, written with the late John Merrill Knapp, and covering the years from 1704 to 1726, is available again now. Both volumes may be purchased together at a special price. As it’s still only the middle of November we won’t mention anything about perfect Christmas presents for anyone interested in Handel or the history of the opera.

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