Handel’s “Almira, Königin von Kastilien” in Halle
Handel’s first operatic venture Almira, Königin von Kastilien, composed in 1704 for Hamburg, contains a wealth of sumptuously-conceived scenes. The nineteen-year-old composer’s genius already radiates strongly throughout the work.
The 2013 Handel Festival in Halle (Saxony) sees the first performance of the composer’s first operatic venture Almira, Königin von Kastilien, using the edition by Dorothea Schröder published in the Halle Handel Edition (HHA II/1, 1994). The opera – or “Singspiel”, as it was described in the printed libretto of 1704 – was a resounding success in its first season in 1705, and marked a promising start to the career of a young man who was one day to become the most famous opera composer in history.
Handel was nineteen years old and had only been working for just over a year in the orchestra at the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt when he was commissioned in 1704 by the two directors of the opera, Reinhard Keiser and Drüsicke, to compose a full-length work for the theatre. The libretto was written by the young theologian Friedrich Christian Feustking, who reworked the Venetian model of L’Almira by Giulio Pancieri according to the Hamburg tradition, translating most of it into German. This presented the then inexperienced Handel with an interesting text, which, with its colourful and magnificent images of a coronation ceremony, ball scene at court, a festive act with ballet, extras, splendid carriages and exotic costumes, offered the composer a whole range of possibilities.
The plot is set in medieval Valladolid, the royal capital of the Castilian kings. There, Queen Almira and her secretary Fernando fall in love with each other, but in their way stand conventions of status and the dying king’s wish for a politically motivated marriage. A game of intrigue unfolds, difficult to figure out and driven to the extreme, involving seven characters, which the servant Tabarco appositely describes with the words “the court is almost mad with love”. But the plot has a happy ending: the young actors divide into three couples, and through a happy stroke of fate, Almira is able to marry her beloved Fernando.
Handel seized the opportunity and set the libretto of Almira in collaboration with the experienced opera composer and actor Johann Mattheson. Strongly influenced by Keiser’s and Mattheson’s compositional style, Handel wrote some wonderful numbers, which became the models for later works during his time in Italy and shortly thereafter. Probably the best-known of these is the Sarabande in F major (no. 52), a short dance from Asia, which Handel expanded to become the moving aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” in his opera Rinaldo, HWV 7a.
Unfortunately, Handel’s Almira does not survive complete. The autograph score is missing, and the only surviving full score based on this was used as a conducting score by Georg Philipp Telemann for his revival of the work in 1732; this was so radically altered that the music of the chorus “Hoffe nur der rechten Zeit” (no. 73) is only known today in fragmentary form, and the music of Almira’s aria “Ingrato, spietato” (no. 28) was long thought to be lost. Nine bars of the basso continuo part for Bellante’s aria “Ich brenne zwar” (no. 71) were thought to be lost, as bars 19–27 (and 39–47) in this part contain an empty stave. In 2004, some sources were discovered in the Library of the Mariengymnasium in Jever, Lower Saxony, an album of arias from the early 18th century, containing the missing music of the continuo parts from the aria “Ich brenne zwar” and the aria “Ingrato, spietato”. In addition to the Halle Handel Edition, a separate publication of the two arias has now been released, which completes the missing bars in Bellante’s aria with those from the Jever manuscript, and makes available Almira’s aria with the following ritornello in the fragmentary surviving copy. A historical-critical edition of the aria “Ingrato, spietato” is in preparation as part of the Halle Handel Edition.
(from [t]akte 1/2013)