Handel premieres in Halle
The 2014 Handel Festival in Halle again sees two first performances using the Halle Handel Edition (HHA). This year’s new opera production on 6 June features Handel’s seldom-performed Arminio of 1737, conducted by Bernhard Forck and directed by Nigel Lowery. The oratorio Solomon follows a week later, performed on 11 June in the Marktkirche. Top soloists, the Kölner Kammerchor and the Collegium Cartusianum perform, conducted by Peter Neumann. In addition, the Halle Handel Edition (HHA) features prominently in this year’s programme, with Amadigi, Riccardo Primo, Giove in Argo and a revival of the 2013 production of Almira.
In the six months between August 1736 and January 1737, the 51-year-old George Frideric Handel composed three operas. Never before had he composed so many in such a short period of time. Arminio, HWV 36, was written between 15 September and 14 October 1736.
The premiere took place in London on 12 January 1737. After just five further performances it was withdrawn, so it scored very little success with the public. However, the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury was enthusiastic about the work and the second performance of it which he attended, and wrote on 18 January 1737: “I was at Arminius last Saturday [...]. Mr Handel has a much larger orquestre (I know not how to spell that word) than last year [...]. The opera is rather grave, but [...] correct & labour’d to the highest degree & is a favourite one with Handel. The bases & accompaniment if possible is better than usual. But I fear t’will not be acted very long. The Town dont much admire it. [...] I think there is rather more variety & spirit in it than in any of the preceding ones & tis admiralby perform'd.” There were no further performances of Arminio during Handel’s lifetime.
Antonio Salvi’s opera libretto Arminio became one of the most frequently-set operatic libretti of the Baroque period following its premiere in 1703 in Pratolino near Florence with music by Alessandro Scarlatti. Although several new versions of the text already existed by 1736, Handel and his unknown literary collaborator took the 1703 libretto as their basis. In this, Salvi was inspired by the tragedy of Arminius (1684) by the French writer Jean Galbert de Campistron.
The characters in Handel’s Arminio essentially corresponded with their historical models, but the plot of the opera itself bears little resemblance to historical events: there is Varo’s love for Tusnelda, Arminio’s capture by his father-in-law Segeste and Segeste’s reconciliation with Tusnelda and Sigismondo, his two children, and – unhistorically – with Arminio, but by contrast there is no mention of a battle in Teutoburg Forest in the opera, and only a brief mention in the last scene that Varo has died, evidently in the conquest of Segeste’s castle by Arminio’s “German” warriors.
Although, as the Earl of Shaftesbury reported, Handel performed Arminio with a much larger orchestra than he had used the previous year, the work is not particularly richly orchestrated. Alongside oboes, bassoons, strings, harpsichord and archlutes, horns and recorders are only used in one movement, and flutes and trumpets which are used in many of Handel’s other operas are not used at all. In view of the level of ingenious and varied musical invention in Arminio, the Earl of Shaftesbury’s opinion of the work still applies today. The final scenes of the second act, with the great arias sung by Sigismondo (with concertante oboe), Varo (anticipating the musical material of the famous “He was despised” from the Messiah) and Tusnelda (one of Handel’s most beautiful Sicilianos), represent a particular high point in the composer’s output.
(from [t]akte 1/2014)
(translation: Elizabeth Robinson)