Thursday, 10 December 2009

Handel’s Deidamia

BBC Radio 3’s Handel opera season draws to a close. Here we post the last of our excerpts from Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, where author Winton Dean offers some background to the opera broadcast on December 10th and 11th, Deidamia:

The post-Homeric story of Achilles in Scyros was popular with librettists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Settings by Legrenzi and Draghi appeared in 1663, in Ferrara and Vienna respectively, and Metastasio’s version, written for Caldara in 1736, was subsequently set by other composers. The opportunities for transvestist disguise and sexual innuendo had a natural attraction for practitioners of opera seria with its dependence on soprano or alto heroes, and Rolli was not slow to exploit them.

Rolli’s source was not Bentivoglio’s libretto for Legrenzi, nor Metastasio, who approaches the subject with his usual high seriousness, nor Gay’s posthumous ballad opera Achilles (1733), which later formed the basis of Arne’s Achilles in Petticoats (1773). In Gay’s version Lycomedes is unaware of Pyrrha’s identity and tries to rape her, with predictable results; Deidamia does not appear till half way through the opera and is pregnant by Achilles, who has been itching to get to Troy from the first and uses the arrival of Ulysses with his gifts (late in Act III) as a convenient means of circumventing his mother’s precautions.

Rolli treats the story as a sophisticated ironical comedy which only the sufferings of the heroine redeem from outright cynicism. Apart from Deidamia and her father, none of the characters evinces any emotion beyond a superficial level. Achille is a thoughtless boy, Ulisse a self-confessed politician, the secondary lovers more than usually conventional. Yet the libretto is a skilful and consistent piece of work, free from involutions of plot and language. Its equivocal tone, seasoned with wit, is never offensive (Gay’s is much coarser). The parallel between hunting and war in act II is neatly turned and gives some backbone to the plot. The element of parody is not disguised; Achille’s opinion that Calchas faked the oracle, as Dent remarks, would have horrified Metastasio. Levity at the expense of classical and historical figures had of course been a commonplace of Venetian opera; Rolli follows the method of Agrippina in placing them in undignified postures rather than the earlier tradition by which their servants mock them in asides to the audience. He also employs an amusing brand of literary irony by appealing to the audience’s knowledge of future events. Achille’s destiny at Troy is an obvious example; more subtle is the hint that Ulisse’s wanderings on the way back to Ithaca (in fact the entire action of the Odyssey) are the product of Deidamia’s curse.

In its compound of flippancy and serious emotion, its ‘off-beat’ flavour and the light bantering tone of most of the dialogue, the libretto seems a natural successor to Serse and Imeneo, and may have been deliberately framed as such. It should have suited Handel down to the ground. Yet Deidamia is a disappointing opera, a sad culmination to his long and glorious career in the theatre. Despite half a dozen beautiful arias a good deal of the music sounds tired, wanting in tension and marred by long stretches of mechanical sequences and accompaniment figures. The notes come spinning out, but the governing brain seems preoccupied, as if Handel, having glimpsed in Saul the measureless possibilities of the dramatic oratorio, found the routine of opera seria more bother than it was worth to transcend.

If this is the explanation, we cannot be surprised. But the nature of the plot imposed a technical handicap. There were obvious advantages in casting Achilles for a woman, and Rolli as well as Handel clearly had this in mind from the start. As a result the one castrato in the company had to play Ulisse, who pulls the dramatic strings but is not at any time emotionally involved. This was to battle against the tide of the opera seria convention, in which personal emotion is the driving force of every principal character. a castrato who does not make love (except as a ruse de guerre) is almost unknown, and unique in Handel. But since he is the primo uomo he must have plenty to sing, and his part is padded out of all proportion to his dramatic merits. he is worth two or three arias; he has six, not to mention a duet and a substantial solo in the Act II chorus. No doubt Handel might have overcome this difficulty, as he overcame others as intractable, if his powers had been operating at full stretch; but Ulisse gave him little to bite on, and he failed.

The discrepancy is most glaring at the end of the opera, where, as in the final version of Imeneo, a wry coro is preceded by a duet in which one of the newly united pair remains silent. In both operas this unbalancing of the structure corresponds to an ironic twist in the story, even if it was conditioned by the conventional requirement that the primo uomo, though in neither case does he get the girl, must share the limelight with the prima donna. But whereas the climax of Imeneo communicates a dramatic truth, that of Deidamia is lopsided and unsatisfactory. a trio (as in Gay’s Achilles) and a coro with an undercurrent of pathetic emotion, perhaps in a minor key, could have met all requirements; if there must be a duet, we want to hear Achille, not Ulisse.

Nor do most of the other characters seem to have roused in Handel more than a flicker of interest, probably for a similar reason; their feelings seldom penetrate beneath the surface, even when they are not feigned. Deidamia herself is a shining exception. Handel would not be Handel if he failed to respond to a heroine who is suddenly deprived of her lover for political reasons which she cannot be expected to understand. Apart from one aria for Lycomede and one for Ulisse, all the finest music in the opera falls to her. She alone emerges as a full-length portrait, a high-spirited girl in whom misfortune strikes a flame of passion and defiance. As experience harrows her heart, her music assumes an increasing strength and eloquence. When she first appears, destiny is still smiling on the well-camouflaged union with Achille. Handel gives her two consecutive cavatinas in this scene, both with continuo accompaniment, the light touch reflecting the intimate note of contentment. This is underlined in ‘due bell’alme inamorate’ by the use of the lute with concertino cellos and harpsichord in the continuo (no double bass or bassoons). ‘Ma chi sa’, sung aside, is little more than a heightening of the recitative; but the minor key and changes of tempo (larghetto – andante – adagio – andante in twenty-two bars) warn us that her heart is engaged. Later, as she waits for Achille, she happily repeats ‘due bell’alme’, the tempo now largo instead of larghetto. The flexible form of this scene looks forward to the arioso of Gluck. In ‘Quando accenderan’ the minor key and an occasional touch in the harmony suggest the dawn of anxiety as Deidamia recalls Achille to his vows; but the ornament is facile. The same is true of ‘nasconde l’usignolo’, a conventional bird aria in which scale figures serve as a mechanical representation of flight. The music, though effective, is not much more distinguished than Rolli’s natural history.

Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 by Winton Dean. Available along with the companion volume by Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 which has recently reissued by the Boydell Press. For those of you yet to discover these monumental volumes, they are also available as a set for a special price.

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