In this excerpt from Cori Ellison’s article Baroque Blockbuster we discover the origins of Handel’s Rinaldo. (Excerpt from 2014 Glyndebourne Festival Programme Book.)
A swashbuckling hero, a plucky heroine, a supernatural antagonist, adventure, fantasy, romance, suspense, disguises, some special effects, a soupçon of sex, a few laughs and, finally, the triumph of good over evil: the formula for a hit opera seria in 18th century London was not so different from that of a modern Hollywood blockbuster. Granted, Handel’s protagonists display their machismo and magic through death-defying coloratura and preternatural breath control rather than spaceship battles or car chases. But the truth is, for all their musical sublimity and psychological depth Handel’s operas are every bit as much about delighting the audiences as any top-grossing contemporary flick.
The 25-year old Handel certainly had his audience foremost in mind when he first arrived in London in 1710. He had a plum assignment: to compose the first Italian opera written specifically for London audiences (or rather hastily but expertly cobbled together from snippets of his earliest Italian operas with some new material added). The Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, which commissioned it, offered golden opportunities for crowd-pleasing spectacle, with its elaborate stage machinery and scenic capacities. So Handel’s brief was the write an opera that would impress visually as much as musically; in the words of Aaron Hill, the Queen’s Theatre’s impresario, to ‘afford the Musick Scope to vary and display its Excellence, and to fill the Eye with more delightful prospects, so at once to give Two Senses equal Pleasure.’
What better source material could Hill have drawn upon than Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, as familiar and fascinating to 18th century audiences as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings is today? Gerusalemme liberata’s chief thematic thread and engine of lyrical effusion is the dilemma of characters torn between love and valour or honour (a theme that would much later fuel so many of Verdi’s operas). Tasso’s poem portrays the early obstacles encountered by the Christian Crusaders and their eventual victory, liberally folding in non-historic fantastical elements.
Gerusalemme liberata gained huge popularity throughout Europe and its characters and situations have regularly found their way into plays, poems, ballets, madrigals, masques, paintings and frescoes (in places including the Palace of Fontainebleau in France). And Handel’s operatic setting of the tale of Rinaldo and Armida is but one of dozens by compases including Lully, Campra, Vivaldi, Salieri, Gluck, Haydn, Rossini, Dvorak and the contemporary British composer Judith Weir.
The first complete English translation of Gerusalemme liberata by Edward Fairfax (1600) was certainly well known to the cultured 18th century Londoners who made up Handel’s audiences.
The libretto for Handel’s Rinaldo, fleshed out by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi from a scenario provided by Aaron Hill of the Queen’s Theatre, takes considerable liberties with Gerusalemme liberata, thickening the plot with special effects, fresh twists and new characters – including love interests for Rinaldo and Armida (Almirena and Argante, respectively) – never dreamed of by Tasso. London’s literary critics, unfriendly towards Italian entertainments in English theatres, were quick to pounce on Rinaldo’s cavalier treatment of Tasso’s classic text. But no matter, the public ate it up, and the young greenhorn Handel went on to rule opera in England for three decades.
Rinaldo will feature in Festival 2019. Members have priority access to Festival 2019 tickets. Register your interest in Membership today. Public booking opens Sunday 3 March 2019.