Notes and Editorial Reviews
Handel’s opera Lotario (1729) seems to have been born under an unlucky star. Although the Royal Academy of Music had gathered the most prominent ensemble of singers of the age and become one of the most brilliant opera stages in Europe, the stockholders of Handel’s opera enterprise afforded themselves such utter luxury with Italian opera stars and their outrageous wages that the venture had to lead to a financial fiasco. After the two primadonnas Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni had insulted each other and even come to blows during a public performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte in 1727, the society columns of London’s newspapers were filled with the intrigues of the opera ensembles. Audiences in the Haymarket opera house became sparser, and when Senesino, senior castrato and darling of the opera scene, left London shortly thereafter, it just about bankrupted Handel’s opera company. While this was happening, London’s public was amusing itself at the overcrowded Lincoln’s Inn Field Theatre, where John Gay’s satirical burlesque The Beggar’s Opera was jibing and jeering at the artificial world of opera seria, the incomprehensibility of Italian song and the commercialization of opera for the nobility. Despite this situation, Royal Academy stockholders gave Handel and his theater manager Heidegger five years to plan anew, although with a severely cropped budget.
Lotario was the first opera for the “New Royal Academy of Music”. Handel traveled to Italy personally to hire the singers for this work. The fact that he saw a performance of Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s opera Adelaide in Venice may have only been happenstance – but could also have been planned. Senesino and Bordoni were singing the title roles. Handel’s reencounter with the renegade stars probably triggered memories of happier times. He had first seen Senesino in Dresden ten years before, singing Ottone in Antonio Lotti’s opera Teofane. Senesino’s artistry caused Handel to hire him shortly thereafter for his London troupe. Senesino sang the same role in Handel’s Ottone as the celebrated darling of London’s opera-goers in 1723. In choosing the historical background of the age of the Ottones, Handel may have felt this to be a sort of lucky charm. He thus had the Adelaide libretto reworked for his new opera Lotario. But Handel’s plan to present well-known material with new singers was unsuccessful, even though Lotario’s premiere on December 2, 1729 was followed by nine further performances at the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket. In a letter to her sister An. Grannville dated December 20, Mrs. Pendarves, a lover of Handel’s music, wrote about the reasons why Lotario had been a failure with London audiences.
“The opera is too good for the vile taste of the town: it is condemned never more to appear on the stage after this night. I long to hear its dying song, poor dear swan. We are to have some old opera revived, which I am sorry for, it will put people upon making comparisons between these singers and those that performed before, which will be a disadvantage among the illjudging multitude. The present opera is disliked because it is too much studied, and they love nothing but minuets and ballads, in short the Beggars’ Opera and Hurlothrumbo are only worthy of applause.”
Mrs. Pendarve recognized that Handel’s Lotario was a stroke of genius – a major compositional masterpiece. Despite this, Handel’s work was a failure. Audiences were bored with the musical display of knightly heroics sung by a new and unknown cast of singers. Instead, they amused themselves with the lusty jokes of a certain Lord Flame in the musical farce Hurlothrumbo, which enjoyed fifty performances in the overfilled Haymarket Theatre after Lotario was cancelled. Lord Flame was the pseudonym of Samuel Johnson (not to be mistaken with the famous English poet of the same name). One of England’s last professional court jesters, he conquered the hearts of the masses.
Even Mrs. Pendarves observed the members of Handel’s new ensemble of singers with some suspicion (primarily in regard to the women):
“Bernachi [Lotario] has a vast compass, his voice mellow and clear, but not so sweet as Senesino, his manner better; his person not so good, for he is as big as a Spanish friar. Fabri [Berengario] has a tenor voice, sweet, clear and firm, but not strong enough, I doubt, for the stage: he sings like a gentleman, without making faces, and his manner is particularly agreeable; he is the greatest master of musick that ever sang upon the stage. The third is the bass [Clodomiro], a very good distinct voice, without any harshness. La Strada [Adelaide] is the first woman; her voice is without exception fine, her manner perfection, but her person very bad, and she makes frightful mouths.
La Merighi [Matilda] is the next to her; her voice is not extraordinarily good or bad, she is tall and has a very graceful person, with a tolerable face; she seems to be a woman about forty, she sings easily and agreeably.”
A letter by Handel’s earlier librettist Paolo Anton Rolli, dated London, December 11, 1729, to Giuseppe Riva of Vienna confirms these impressions.
“The opera Lotario began nine days ago. I saw it this past Tuesday, that is, the third performance. The opera is generally considered to be very bad. Bernacchi did not please audiences the first evening, but changed his method for the second and was then better received. From figure and voice he is not as pleasing as Senesino, but the fame of his artistry at least quiets those who cannot or do not wish to applaud him […]. There is actually only one single aria in which he can show himself off because […] he [Handel] has shot himself in the foot with this opera. The libretto was sung by Faustina and Senesino last year in Venice under the title of Adelaide. The rogue! La Strada is quite good, and according to [Handel?], she sings better than the previous two [Cuzzoni and Faustina], because the first was never pleasing, and because he wants the other to be forgotten. The truth is that this one [La Strada] has an extremely thin soprano voice which tickles the ears; but we are nowhere near the Cuzzoni! This is also the opinion of Bononcini, with whom I heard the opera. Fabri is very pleasing; he truly sings well. Could you ever have imagined that a tenor would be applauded so loudly here? La Merighi is a consummate actress and is generally considered to be one. Then there is La Bertolli, a girl from Rome, who sings breeches parts. Oh, dear Riva, if you would see her sweating under her helmet – I am sure that you would desire her in your Modenese art – oh how wonderful she is! Then there is a bass from Hamburg whose voice sounds more like a natural altus than a bass; he sings sweetly through the throat and nose, pronounces the Italian with a German accent, acts like a young boar and has a face which more resembles a valet’s than anything else. Beautiful! Really very beautiful! Giulio Cesare is now being prepared, because the [ Lotario] audiences are waning strongly. It seems to me that the storm will now break over the proud bear [Handel]. One will not eat every bean, especially not such a badly cooked one. Heydeger [Heidegger] was given much applause for the costumes and adequate applause for the scenery, which at least lived up to the eternally average standards.
What Rolli means with “badly cooked beans” can hardly be imagined today, considering Handel’s powerful as well as cantabile musical language. Lotario has no lack of compositional finesse, highly emotional arias or passionate drama.
The arias found on this CD impress the listener by their carefully worked out polyphony, richness of melody and exceptional beauty of expression amidst sumptuous coloraturas (No. 4, 6, 8) and intimate, lyrical moments (No. 3, 5, 11). Before the expansive final chorus “Gioie e serto” (No. 15) closes the opera in splendid fashion, the happily united royal pair Adelaide and Lotario sing one of the most beautiful duets in baroque opera (No. 14).
Lotario audiences in 1729 apparently missed the popstars of Italian opera with their aura of the extravagant and sensational. Instead, they preferred amusing entertainment befitting the rules of that age’s “fun-culture”. This makes it all the more satisfying that Lotario – thanks to the new publication by the Halle Handel Edition – was able to be reawakened from oblivion. It can only be hoped that it will now be seen in countless new performances and production.
-- Hans-Georg Hofmann