Early in 1729 the Royal Academy of Music, for years the home of Italian opera in London, went bankrupt. The academy suffered this unfortunate fate because the taste for Italianate opera seemed definitely on the skids.
One factor contributing mightily to the impression that Italian opera was out in London was the "Beggar's Opera," which, in 1728, had put such popular low-life characters as whores, pickpockets and cutthroats onto the stage into the 18th-century equivalent of a modern musical comedy. Capt. Macheath and Polly Peachum sand melodies the Londoners could hum as they left the theater, and it looked for a time as if Handel, the opera composer, were dead.
When Dean Swift, who loved satire, wrote in the Intelligencer, "This comedy likewise exposes, with good justice, that unnatural taste for Italian music among us which is wholly unsuitable to our northern climate, and the genius of the people, whereby we are overrun with Italian effeminacy and Italian nonsense," he was speaking for a lot of his readers.
That such Swiftian comments on music in general and Italian opera in particular must be taken with a large quantity of salt is essential since the dean was known to dislike practically all music. This enmity in turn lent particular irony to the fact that when Handel was preparing for the first performance of "Messiah" in Dublin in 1742, he was assisted by the choir from Swift's own St. Patrick's Cathedral.
However, 1729 was much too early to count out the creative genius of George Frederick Handel. More than 10 years would pass before Handel finally gave up on writing operas and turned forever to the world of the oratorio. Before the end of January in 1729, Handel and his friend and musical partner, Johnann Jakob Heidegger, had put up the money to take over the academy and were planning a new season there.
The first thing Handel wanted for new operatic successes was the Italian male soprano called Farinelli. What those castrati must have been in the operas of that time! Farinelli, Senesino and Caffarelli were the most celebrated singers of their generation. Niccolo Porpora, who taught both Farinelli and Caffarelli, called Caffarelli 'the greatest singer in Europe," and Porpora knew them all. Farinelli's voice, however, was beautiful enough that when he was 32 years old, King Philip V of Spain engaged him at a fee of 50,000 francs a year to sing him the same four songs every night.
Farinelli took the money and stayed in Spain for 25 years, augmenting his fortune with the jewelry, estates and other fringe benefits that accrued in the royal post.
When Handel found that he could not engaege Farinelli, he settled, not unhappily, for Senesino, who had helped to make hits of such earlier Handel operas as "Ottone," "Giulio Cesare," "Rodelinda," "Alessandro" and others during the years from 1720-28 when he was on Handel's payroll. By the end of 1730, when Senesio had returned to London, Handel had completed his latest opera, "Poro." With the famous castrato in the title role, the opera had 16 performances in February and March, before Lent halted all opera for another season.
The Kennedy Center will open its new Handel Festival with this opera on Jan. 8. It is a score that has never been heard in this country despite the praise musicians have given it.
An aria given to Gandarte, the general in love with Poro's sister, Erissena, was described by Dr. Burney, the 18th-century musical observer, as "the finest of all Handel's sicilianas." Paul Lang. Handel's eminent biographer, calls the whole score almost unfailingly imaginative and full of delectable surprises. He speaks of a new sophistication acquired by Handel during his 1729 visit in Italy when the composer heard various samples of the later baroque operas being performed there.
In "Poro," Handel enlarges his use of ensembles, making a distinctive duet through the unusual process of combining, at the end of the first act, two arias sung earlier by Poro and Cleofide, his lover.
It is interesting to speculate about the possible effect upon Handel of his mother's death, which occured while he was composing "Poro." Might this even be the reason for the heightened beauty of the dirge, "Se il ciel mi divide" sung by Cleofide?
There is one further historical note of every special importance which dates from this same time. For it was while Handel was in Germany visiting his ailing mother that Johann Sebastian Bach sent him an invitation to come to Leipzig so that the two men might meet and play the organ for each other. But because of his mother's condition, Handel could not accept the invitation. And thus, through one of destiny's strange turnings, these giant twin peaks of the baroque era never met.
The text of Handel's opera is taken from one of the plays of Pietro Metastasio, one of the most prolific and most often composed of any librettist of that era. Some of his poems were used by as many as 70 composers. "Poro" comes from his "Alessandro nell'Indie," which had earlier furnished Alessandro Scarlatti with the text for one of his operas.
Thanks to the power of Handel's music and the singing of Senesino at the head of a fine cast, "Poro" turned the tide that had ebbed after the "Beggar's Opera." Once again Handel was seen as Europe's most successful opera composer, and once again the royal family flocked to hear his operas. So great was the public demand for the "songs" from "Poro" that Handel's publisher, John Walsh, could not print new editions fast enough.
Modern life being what it is, there will probably be no castrati at the Kennedy Center next Sunday when "Poro" is sung, even though there were at least two in the original production, when both Poro and the general, Gandarte, were sung by these altered males. In the enforced absence of such extraordinary creatures, audiences today usually hear mezzo-sopranos or contraltos in these roles, since problems of range and key relationships prohibit the use of men's voices. The Kennedy Center cast will be headed by Beverly Wolff as Poro, Hilda Harris as Gandarte, Benita Valente as Cleofide, Sandra Warfield as Erissena, with Henry Price as Alexander the Great. Stephen Simon, music director of the Handel Festival, will conduct.