Handel. Agrippina, Armida, Lucrezia with Eva Mei

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Handel. Agrippina, Armida, Lucrezia with Eva Mei

History and myth — generally inextricably interwoven — were always central to the concerns of Baroque composers, with not only operas, but ballets and cantatas, too, exploring the exploits of the heroes and gods of antiquity Although male figures predominate, these works also feature a handful of female characters who, extremely popular in their day, were the object of musical interest. Indeed, the very first opera of all was devoted to a woman, the nymph Daphne. It dates from 1594. These women were mostly depicted torn between love and duty, or else they were seen as models of virtue. This was still the case in Handel’s day, with the result that he often chose women as the main characters of his operas, oratorios and cantatas: suffice it to mention Rodelinda, Alcina, Esther and Theodora in this context.

Lucrezia — one of the three female characters presented here — was the wife of a Roman general in the 6th century BC. Hailed as a paragon of virtue, she aroused the interest of Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome. When she rejected his advances, he raped her Lucrezia forced her husband to swear to be avenged, and only then told him what had happened, finally taking her own life in order to restore her honour. According to legend, this sparked the insurrection that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the birth of the Roman republic. By the 16th century Lucrezia’s fate was a popular subject for literary treatment (Shakespeare’s poem, The Rape of Lucrece, was published in 1594), and in 1656 gained a new topicality in the historical figure of Lucrezia Obbizi of Padua, who preferred death to violation.

Agrippina condotta a morire is the only one of the present cantatas to be based on a historical incident and is set in the first century AD. Agrippina was the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius. On several occasions she schemed to have Nero, her son from a former marriage, installed as Claudius’s successor Finally, in 54 AD, she poisoned her husband when he threw his weight behind a rival candidate. Nero repaid her by having her sentenced to death and executed five years later, presumably because she was all too familiar with the circumstances by which he had come to power.

Popularised by Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, the medieval legend of the Saracen Princess Annida is one of the most frequently set of all operatic subjects, with more than one hundred works treating of her unrequited love for the Christian hero, Rinaldo. Endowed with magical powers, Armida falls in love with the crusading knight, and by casting a spell on him (only in this way could the Middle Ages explain away the fact that a Christian should fall for a heathen) she persuades him to accompany her to her island palace. But his friends discover the palace, break the spell and bring him back to the Christian camp. Disappointed in love, the furious Armida destroys the building with thunder and lightning and, in a chariot drawn by two dragons, sets off to kill Rinaldo. But she is no more successful in this than in her sub-sequent attempt to take her own life. Finally she converts to Christianity and in that way manages to gain Rinaldo’s love.

Handel spent the period between 1706 and 1710 in Italy, getting to know the country which at this date was the leading centre of music in Europe, and continuing to develop as a composer. In Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice he met some of the foremost composers of his day and, as a performing artist, could compete with prominent virtuosos. During these years he received countless commissions and wrote the majority of his one hundred or so cantatas. In Italy there was considerable demand for this type of piece, which was normally set for voice, continuo and, in certain instances, one or two obbligato instruments: As a result, such works required no great outlay or elaborate resources to perform them. In contrast to Germany, where the sacred cantata held sway, the secular cantata played a much greater role in Italy, with both secular cantatas and operas drawing on much the same themes. On the other hand, these secular cantatas — also known as scene di camera — involved no dramatic action but generally concentrated on a central turning point in the principal character’s life, which was examined from the perspective of that character.

One of Handel’s most famous cantatas, La Lucrezia was written in Florence in 1706 or 1707. Rumour has it that Handel chose the subject because he was then having an affair with the Florentine prima donna Lucrezia d’André. In spite of the fact that it is scored for minimal resources in the form of a soprano soloist and continuo, Handel has succeeded in writing a highly dramatic work that is rich in a thousand nuances, with its detailed description of Lucrezia’s feelings before she takes her own life. Particular emphasis is placed on her impassioned hatred of Tarquinius.

Agrippina condotta a morire was written either in Florence in the autumn of 1707 or in Rome in the spring of 1708 and portrays the empress’s emotions on her way to her place of execution: she is torn between hatred of the tyrant who has ordered her death and love of her son, whose career she sought to advance by murdering her own husband. The resultant changes of mood gave Handel an opportunity to write a highly contrastive piece: Agrippina begins by bewailing her fate and in her first two arias begs Jupiter to avenge her with thunder and lightning, only then to succumb to indecision and vacillate between her wish that her son may survive her and her desire for justice and vengeance.

Armida abbandonata is believed to have received its first performance at the Palazzo Bonelli in Rome on 26 June 1707. Johann Sebastian Bach valued this work so highly that he prepared his own copy of it. Here Handel focuses on Armida’s anger following Rinaldo’s rejection of her: time and again she works herself up to a white heat of anger, calling on the sea and wind to assist her, while at the same time conceding that she still loves Rinaldo. In a final siciliana she begs the god of love to free her from her entrammelling passion.