ELPIDIA (LONDON, 1725)
PASTICCIO BY GEORG FRIEDRICH HANDEL
[CONCERT PERFORMANCE SUNG IN ITALIAN]
ST GEORGE’S, HANOVER SQUARE, MARCH 31, 2016
April 2, 2016
Roll up! A new opera by Handel is to be performed, L’Elpidia overo li rivali generosi. It is based upon a libretto by Apostolo Zeno with music by Leonardo Vinci – excepting a couple of arias by Giuseppe Orlandini and, additionally, two from Antonio Lotti’s Teofane (which the star bass, Giuseppe Maria Boschi brought with him from the Dresden production of 1719).
The secco recitative, it is presumed, is by Handel (who may also have contributed two accompanied recitatives, a duet and part of the Sinfonia). Imagine such an announcement, for an opera ‘by’ Handel which includes almost no music by him, but which predominantly presents music by a composer who never wrote an opera called Elpidia.
In the eighteenth century, opera was often a sort of ‘cut-and-paste’ affair, continually tailored to suit new casts - who often insisted on importing their own ‘show-stopper’ arias. Scores were rarely published; indeed the ‘score’ barely existed in the form of the ‘Work’ as we know it. Star singers such as castrato Farinelli or the mezzo-soprano Faustini Bordini ruled the roost - and earned considerably more than even the most successful composers; the arias were written for them and they thus assumed ‘ownership’.
In need of a sure-fire hit, a company which found itself without a resident composer, or waiting for a new opera to be delivered, or faced with the egotistical demands of star singers, might commission a composer-arranger to assemble a work from a recipe comprising an existing libretto, some of the latest Italian arias, an English poet’s translation of the text and a few new recitatives. Consequently, what became known as pasticcio-opera was a Chinese menu of re-cooked dishes. Though it initially served a pragmatic function, later, in the hands of the likes of Handel, Vivaldi and Gluck, the pasticcio achieved artistic integrity and during the heyday of opera seria became a genre in its own right.
The quality, inevitably, often varied. During his 36 years in London, as a composer, theatre manager and impresario, Handel produced 42 operas, so it’s not surprising that he resorted to his own, and others’, back catalogues at times. Ever the opportunist, he was also the consummate man of the theatre, and his pasticcio operas demonstrate Handel’s dexterity in crafting disparate numbers into at least the semblance of a creditable narrative. In Elpidia, thought to be Handel’s first Royal Academy pasticcio, the composer skilfully re-worked Zeno’s libretto (probably with the assistance of Nicola Haym) retaining just a skeleton of the existing text and dropping one character, Alarico, entirely.
The printed libretto for the first London performance on 11 May 1725 at the King’s Theatre gave Zeno as the author (his Rivali Generosi had been seen in Venice in 1697 with music by Ziani) and announced that the music was by ‘Signor Leonardo Vinci, except some few songs by Signor Giuseppe Orlandini’; musicologist Reinhard Strohm deduced that most of the arias came from the three operas (which themselves made copious use of ‘borrowing’) of the Carnival Season 1724/25 at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice: Vinci’s Ifigenia in Tauride (seven arias and final chorus) and La Rosmira Fedele (six arias), and Orlandini’s Berenice (three arias). Handel’s singers – Cuzzoni, Senesino, Francesco Borosini and others – presumably had some say in the selection, several of these arias being already in their repertories.
Elpidia seems to have met with moderate success: it had received eleven performances by the end of the season and opened the next season, on 30 November 1725 – albeit with a modified cast and, inevitably, a few new numbers. It was seen a further five times between then and 14 December, but since then, Elpidia has been little more than a musicologist’s conundrum. So, this performance by Opera Settecento at the London Handel Festival provided a welcome opportunity to hear a terrific parade of thrilling arias by Vinci and others.
The seria plot is, characteristically, an amorous tug-of-war, the love knot at the heart of which is only disentangled after much confusion, angst, self-sacrifice and magnanimity. It is the sixth century and the Byzantine Emperor has sent his general Belisario to besiege the Ostrogothic capital, Ravenna. Two Greek princes, Olindo and Ormonte, are fighting by his side. They are rivals for the love of Elpidia, Princess of Apulia, who is also loved by the defeated tyrant Vitiges. Although she is enamoured of Olindo, Elpidia explains that she will marry the one who is the bravest in battle.Much kidnapping, hostage-taking and rescuing ensue: Vitiges captures Elpidia, while Ormonte takes Vitige’s daughter, Rosmilda, prisoner - who, of course, immediately falls in love with him. Olindo first rescues the imprisoned Belisario, then sacrifices himself to Vitiges to secure Elpidia’s release; but Ormonte then saves Olindo, and so the rivals contend who has done most to win Elpidia’s hand. If one loses the plot it’s a relief when, after much misery and misfortune, Belisaro exercises generosity, frees Vitiges and decides that Olindo should get the girl, while Ormonte can be consoled with Rosmilda. To which all agree.
In the late-eighteenth century Charles Burney (in A General History of Music: from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period II) lauded Vinci’s talents:
‘Vinci seems to have been the first opera composer who ..., without degrading his art, rendered it the friend, though not the slave to poetry, by simplifying and polishing melody, and calling the attention of the audience chiefly to the voice-part, by disentangling it from fugue, complication, and laboured contrivance.’
This performance inclined one to concur with Burney’s praise. The balanced melodic structures, simple diatonicism - with delicate appoggiaturas providing affecting harmonic nuance - and transparent instrumental textures drew attention to the vocal lines which, with several esteemed Handelians in the cast, enabled us to enjoy some wonderful singing.
The polish and elegance of Vinci’s melodies was most evident in the masterly, poised singing of soprano Erica Eloff, winner of the 2008 Handel Singing Competition, in the role of the eponymous princess. Eloff’s voice is ripe with colour and texture; ornaments are delivered with pin-point precision and phrasing is exquisitely controlled. She is not afraid to dare the slightest of piano’s, as in the tender aria ‘D’alme luci savillate’ (from Vinci’s Ifigenia) which expresses her despair when imprisoned by Vitiges, but can also use her not inconsiderable power to striking effect, as when rejecting the cruel tyrant (‘Amante, Tuo constante’, Rosmira). The extensive melodic arcs of Elpidia’s substantial Act Two aria, ‘Dolce orror, che vezzeggiando’ (Ifigenia), were gracefully imploring, and vibrato was judiciously applied; this aria was further enlivened by expressive elaborations of the theorbo (Eligio Luis Quinteiro) in the instrumental inter-phrases. Eloff also brought considerable animation to the preceding recitative, colouring the text persuasively.
I was impressed, too, by the relaxed demeanour and ease of voice demonstrated by tenor Rupert Charlesworth as Vitiges. Charlesworth won both the Jury and Audience prizes at the 2013 Handel Singing Competition, and his appealing, even tone and well-mannered execution bore out these accolades. Charlesworth showed attentiveness to the instrumental lines, too, in the Act 1 aria, ‘Per serbati e regno e onore’ (from Orlandini’s Berenice), shaping his phrases sympathetically. The subsequent Orlandini import, ‘Amor deh lasciami’ (Lucio Papirio), was notable for the suppleness of the long melismatic developments. Charlesworth built tension through the accompanied recitative which precedes Vitiges’ Act 2 aria, ‘Al mio tesoro’ (Vinci, Rosmira), and the latter was particularly moving – indeed, the tyrant hopes that Elpidia will be touched by his suffering – as Charlesworth exploited Vinci’s appoggiaturas and suspensions to create variety and balance.
At the lower end of the vocal spectrum, bass Chris Jacklin as Belisario despatched Lotti’s two arias with appropriate bluster and heft, and while there was some occasional aspiration in ‘Dopo il vento e il turbe irato’, the second aria from Teofane, ‘Di quell crudel gl’inganni’ was more focused and warm-toned.
But, it’s the two countertenors who have the lion’s share of the work. Rupert Enticknap (Olindo) and Joe Bolger (Ormonte) have very different voices and they did not form a comfortable blend in their opening duet (ascribed to Vinci); both struggled to settle the intonation and to achieve an even line. Subsequently, Enticknap eased into his role with aplomb, showing agility and strength in Act 1’s closing aria, ‘Un vento lusinghier’ (ascribed to Sarri, Merope); he made sense of the long, rather directionless phrases and employed a beautiful chest voice with a soft timbre. The asymmetrical lines of ‘Parto bel idol mio’ (anon.) were similarly well-crafted, as were the somewhat fragmented melodies of Orlandini’s ‘Addio dille’ (Berenice). The score’s more florid gestures were executed with measured accuracy and sweet tone.
Bolger has a strong voice across the range, but didn’t always use it prudently, exhibiting a tendency to indulge, or to push too hard, at phrase endings; intonation wavered a bit too, and the text was not always clear. But, Bolger made an effective dramatic impact and worked hard to convey character.
Russian Maria Ostroukhova – who came second with the Michael Oliver Prize in the 2015 Handel Singing Competition – was confident in Rosmilda’s two arias, with Act 3’s ‘Gia sente il Core’ (Vinci, Ifigenia) particularly show-casing her plush, dark-toned mezzo.There was much excellent music and music-making on display, and – after a messy and unsteady start – the orchestra of Opera Settecento provided eloquent support. But, it felt like a long evening, and this was not solely because of the orthopaedic challenges presented by the pews of St George’s. Musical director Leo Duarte showed care and sensitivity in shaping individual numbers, but did not create an effective dramatic continuity between them. Tempi erred on the slow side, and the recitatives did not build into the arias; indeed, the singers were given free rein in the secco recitatives and they took their time, with elaborate interjections from harpsichordist Chad Kelly and theorbist Quinteiro providing expressive colour but little impetus.
This was a pity as Elpidia, despite its dramatic convolutions, is no less or coherent or compelling than many of Handel’s original operas. In staging pasticcio-operas, Handel offered his London audiences the opportunity to taste the latest operatic flavours from Italy; we should be grateful to Opera Settecento that we were able to do likewise.