Click Here For libretto with English translation in Adobe Acrobat format.
Program Notes - John Ostendorf
George Frideric Handel was a superstar on London's Italian operatic scene in the
1720's. In the following decade, however, the fickle public's appetites required new
entertainments. The popularity of opera seria with its lengthy Italian recitatives was on
the wane. Ironically, the spring 1732 season of the King's Haymarket Theatre found
composer Handel at the height of his operatic powers.
Ever-sensitive to public taste, Handel's ability to make sudden adjustments - even
the complete musical volte-face - enabled his extraordinary career to flourish for many
decades. London's 1732 season would provide an example. The premiere of Sosarme
was scheduled for February 15. He had presented Ezio a month earlier, to an indifferent
reception, despite a starry cast including the castrato star Senesino, Handel's
reigning soprano diva Strada dal Pò and a newly arrived Italian bass sensation, Antonio
Montagnana. To counteract Ezio's January failure, Handel revived his sure-fire Giulio
Caesare, and also decided to make emergency changes in the new opera score.
Handel had already completed the first two acts, using a libretto based on an
opera by Giacomo Perti which he had heard in Italy (Handel would later borrow three
other Perti projects: Ariodante, Berenice and Tamerlano).
He began by drastically pruning the Sosarme recitatives. The new work was set in
Portugal, to be called Fernando, Rè di Castiglia. One of Ezio's few champions was
the King himself (he attended every performance of its short-lived London run!).
Anxious about possible offence - the monarch in Sosarme spends much of the opera
in unflattering rages, fits of intolerance and is the victim of foolish deception-Handel
transported the action back to the more distant, safer, realm of ancient Persia and renamed
the opera "Sosarme."
His scrambling paid off. With the same superb Ezio cast, Sosarme enjoyed far
greater success - 11 well-attended performances. Colman's Opera Register,February
1732: "In Feb'ry, Sosarmes - a New Opera - took much by Handel-& was for many Nights
much crowded to some peoples admiration." Indeed, Handel's publisher John Walsh advertised "Favourite Songs from Sosarme" within a month of the premiere,
published a second collection in April, and yet a third rendition, for flute and basso
continuo, in May of that season!
Even with Sosarme's encouraging reception, Handel knew what was coming. He
gambled: within a few weeks of the opera's premiere, he introduced to the London
public the update of his earlier English score, Esther and simultaneously a second
English work, Acis and Galatea, based on his Naples serenata Aci, Galatea e
Polifemo--neither of them to be costumed nor staged. These "oratorios" were performed
in the vernacular (Montagnana and
Strada couldn't manage English, sang in Italian,
making for an odd performance of Acis).
English "oratorio" was instantly the rage,
and George Frideric Handel was again at the
center of things. Sosarme languished, alas, in
its wake. Not all Londoners were pleased.
Handel patron Lord Burlington wrote a nasty
account: "I left the Italian Opera, the House was
so thin, and cross'd over the way to the English
one, which was so full I was forc'd to crowd
upon the stage. To my great surprise, I found
this Sacred Drama a mere Concert - no Scenery,
Dress or Action so necessary to a Drama. But
instead H----l was plac'd in Pulpit. By him sate
Senesino, Strada, Bertolli and others in their own
Habits! They made such a rare work with the
English Tongue, you would have sworn it had
been Welsh...I am sorry but I like one good
Opera better than Twenty Oratorios!"
The modern-day assesment of Sosarme has,
perhaps, limited its contemporary popularity.
Principal Handel authorities Winton Dean and Paul Henry Lang have both criticized it.
Lang considers Sosarme in relation to Handel's own reaction to Ezio. He claims that
whereas Ezio's characters are fully-drawn and live and breathe in the recitatives, Sosarme
is peopled by "tighter" characters. The work is "composed with a wide brush,"
says Lang. "There was no time for undue finesse in the accompaniment - these are not
tender people - therefore the composer abstained from filigree work." This generalization
may arguably apply to the choral writing and some of the arias, but ignores the
delicious delicacies - at least in the current performance - of other airs, notably
Erenice's Act III"Cuor di madre" for voice and violin solo penned with plenty of
"filigree" expressly for concertmaster Pietro Castrucci-a pupil of Corelli.
As for the chorus, it is no secret that Handel was financially strapped...he had no
coro on hand for Sosarme. Yet the score clearly implies an actual group, not merely
solo principals singing one to a part. Indeed, Altomaro, the only basso in the cast,
could hardly have sung the final chorus, having just drowned himself, despite Handel's
whimsical admonition that Montagnana voice the line "di dentro"("from the wings.")
Similarly, the massed forces of Act I's military call "Alla stragge, alla morte" which
Handel liked so much he repeats it in a later scene, can hardly be sung convincingly by
the soloists, urging themselves on to slaughter - themselves! On the present recording
an authentic chorus rouses the rabble mightily in Act I and proclaims the happy Act III
benediction appropriately, leaving the vocal soloists to the task for which Handel
assembled them - the expressive singing of his magnificent airs.
Sosarme was revived in 1734. And although he labored for several more seasons
with Italian opera in London, the musical forecast was apparent to Handel. He had
Esther,Acis and the biggest oratorical ace of all - his Messiah - ready, guaranteeing
himself another brilliant chapter in his amazing musical life-savvy of him, lucky for us.
Notes on the Music - Johannes Somary
Although by the end of the Baroque era, da capo arias had become a convention in
both opera and oratorio, the arias in Sosarme are so full of melodic inventiveness
that the da capos are a joy to hear as well as a joy to perform. And the embellishments
singers are expected to provide are truly added ornamentation, not a requirement
for improving a tune, as might be the case for lesser works by lesser composers.
Dramatic arias with especially distinctive melodies include Erenice's Act I aria in F
Minor, wherein we find the music revealing the strength of her personality, and
Altomaro's first aria in E-flat major with its strikingly large leaps, borrowed by the
composer from his own earlier Italian serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Both Haliate's first aria in C Minor with the rapid reiterated semiquavers in the strings and
Elmira's final aria of Act I with its tempo oscillations are powerful examples of word
painting. And as is frequently the case with Handel, a really short and forceful
pronouncement such as Erenice's "Vado al campo" in Act II is one of the most
spellbinding moments in the whole opera. As for Haliate's "S'io cadro," in Act III, here is truly an irresistibly beautiful combination of chamber music and dramatic
No less compelling are the lyrical arias in Sosarme, songs that highlight the
human elements of the drama. It is with a pastoral melody the we first meet Elmira
in her brief but beguiling "Rendi'l sereno al ciglio" at the .beginning of the opera. And
it is with a pastoral melody that the chorus sings the gorgeous Act III Finale in da
capo form. In "Dopo l'ire si funeste," the lilting lyricism of the music suggests earthy
bliss and contentment rather than triumph and glory one associates with the endings
of some more familiar Handelian works. The Second-act duet between Sosarme and
Elmira is lyrical music of such celestial beauty that Handel rightly used again six years
later in his penultimate opera Imeneo. And Elmira's aria that ends Act II with all
kinds of enchanting roulades and trills is one of the finest "bird" arias in all of
One must note that many of the songs in Sosarme bubble like dance music. In
"Tiene Giove in mana, " Handel instructs Altomaro to sing in the tempo of a gavotte.
And when Elmira and Sosarme sing their final duet, the syncopated melody is
positively bouncing with joy! Several arias throughout the opera which are
composed in 3/8 time are suggestive of elegant minuets: Melo's E-Minor aria in Act I
(an exquisite intimate piece of chamber music), his lovely E-major aria in Act III, and
Sosarme's regal aria with obbligato horns in Act II.
Although the orchestra is rather small and suggests economy of means, there is
nonetheless a great variety of textures and tone colors throughout Sosarme. Of
special note is the minuet in the overture wherein there is a delightful dialogue
between three woodwinds - two oboes and a bassoon - and the full orchestra. Also
very striking is the F-sharp-minor aria "Cuor di madre"; here the plaintive sighs that
accompany Erenice's vocal lines are composed for a solo violin and strings in such a
way that the violin becomes an expressive soulmate in a kind of duet with Erenice.
As for the aforementioned aria "Alle sfere della gloria," which Sosarme sings in Act II,
the counterpoint involving the two horns, the two oboes, strings, and continuo is as
intriguing and exciting as it is unusual.
The textures of recitatives are varied more than once with ejaculations involving
two or more of the characters singing simultaneously. And how many times in the
annuals of operatic literature are we likely to encounter a duet for two altos such as
the dramatic "Se m'ascolti" in Act II?
If this is an opera for which Handel had the occasion to engage a plethora of
altos, one must observe that each alto, and in fact each solo singer, is given a very
distinctive personality. And these personalities are nowhere better delineated than in
the recitatives wherein felicitous blends between text and music frequently serve to
heighten tension and conflict. Far from being merely modulating links between
concerted movements, the recitatives of Sosarme underline the fact that Handel was
a man with a deep passion for the theater and an understanding for the sweep and
intensity of music drama rarely matched in the history of music.