Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Operamaniac

Fri Oct 17 2014

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The OAE Office’s resident opera fan takes you through some 18th century opera house gossip.


When you ask an Englishman about England’s best composers two names will stand out: Handel and Haydn. Which might seem particularly odd since they were, well… continentals. You see the English, and London in particular, have a special talent for adopting foreigners and making them feel comfortable and at home. So much so that, after a long period of time, no distinction is made in people’s minds (or most of them at least).

Because London was Handel’s adoptive home, and because the OAE played Rinaldo at Glyndebourne this year, let me share with you four episodes from Handel’s London.

1. When Handel moved to England, Italian Opera was becoming quite fashionable. Benefiting from the new wave of interest and using his experience he’d acquired while living in Venice, Handel soon enjoyed great success. However after the premiere of Rinaldo (1711) some critics, such as Joseph Addison in The Spectator, showed their displeasure towards the dissemination of Italian opera in England, by stating: “the Italians have a Genius for Musick above the English, the English have a Genius for other Performances of a much higher Nature” and “We no longer understand the language of our own stage”. Happily for the rest of us, nobody paid him much attention and nowadays we can enjoy Handel’s music in all its glory (and in English at the ENO).

2. After the introduction of Italian opera in London, a certain kind of snobbery started to develop among London’s elite. Nobody could understand what was being sung, but nobody really cared: it was all about the concept, the abstract. The less they could understand the more they would applaud. To fight against this nonsense, John Gay wrote a satirical opera called “The Beggar’s Opera” which plot described the lower levels of London’s society and its struggles, making fun of opera as an art form and using an overture and pastiches of popular songs of the time. It provoked panic among opera goers who started to lose interest in the art form, causing Handel some serious financial problems.

3. In London there was a very famous, very dashing Italian opera singer called Francesca Cuzzoni. Once, after she refused to sing an aria that Handel had wrote specially for her, he grabbed her by her arms and threatened to throw her out of a window. The singer kindly agreed to sing it then!

4. In 1727 Handel was trying to re-invigorate London’s opera scene. He decided to cast, alongside the irascible Francesca Cuzzoni, another famous Italian singer, Faustina Bordoni. The audience was divided – Cuzzoni’s fans would boo when Bordoni was singing and Bordoni’s fans would strike back when Cuzzoni was on stage. Things came to a head when the singers started to insult each other on stage, starting a fight and eventually falling from the stage. Among the audience was the Princess of Wales who left the theatre deeply perturbed.

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