(Handel House, until 4 January 2015)
In January 1738 an amateur theatre critic reported on the premiere of Handel’s new opera, Faramondo: ‘On Tuesday last, we had a new opera of Handel’s… It is too like his former compositions, and wants variety – I heard his singer that night, and think him near equal in merit to the late Carestini, with this advantage, that he has acquired the happy knack of throwing out a sound, now and then, very like what we hear from a distressed young calf.‘
That wasn’t exactly the reaction Handel had been hoping for. Nor, one imagines, did it boost the confidence of his young primo uomo, Caffarelli, who was making his London debut at the age of 27. However, both singer and composer found themselves up against a cultural shift that would have a major impact on the future of opera in England: 1738 was the year in which the general public – who until that point had lapped up the glamour of Italian opera seria – began to rebel. It wasn’t that they wanted to do away with opera altogether. It’s just that, in an age with no surtitles, overlong da capo arias and posturing singers, they wanted something they could understand. As a French observer, the abbé Le Blanc, noted in March of that year: ‘The English, who are praised for their common sense, have realized how absurd it was to go and be bored for three deadly hours two days a week just to acquire the title of being cultured.’
The situation shouldn’t be overstated, of course. Caffarelli might have had his critics, but he suffered from the fact that his audiences still had the memory of two very popular singers fresh in their minds. Both Farinelli and Senesino had left London the previous year, and he had big shoes to fill. But the tide was turning. Caffarelli didn’t remain in the city for long and Handel’s other frequent collaborator, Carestini, was also gone by 1740. It wasn’t the castrati who were falling out of favour, however, but what they stood for. Tenducci, who was happy to sing roles in English and to adapt to local tastes, was still doing extremely well in London in the 1750s.
But in 1738 Italian opera was very definitely falling out of fashion. Faramondo had only eight performances; Xerxes, which had its premiere in March, managed only five and was very definitely a flop. Handel’s challenge was to find out what people did want and, with characteristic industry and creativity, he did so. 1738 is only one of several years which Handel House have chosen to focus on in their series of dedicated displays, but as a turning point of such significance in Handel’s career, it must be one of the most important.
The cost of staging Handel’s operas and their limited success meant that he was already short of money, to the point that he hadn’t been able to pay his lead soprano, Anna Maria Strada del Po, whose husband was making increasingly vicious threats. He needed money and, since his operas didn’t seem to be helping, he allowed himself to be persuaded to hold a benefit concert on 28 March. This featured a selection of his music and temporarily staved off his financial problems, as it made a total of £1,000 (around £60,000 today, the exhibition points out). His public still admired Handel deeply, even if they wanted something a little different in their theatres, and that’s borne out by the fact that the famous statue by Roubiliac in Vauxhall Gardens – which has a cameo role in the ENO’s Xerxes – was unveiled in the same month. It was very unusual to have a public statue of a living composer and it goes to show that Handel, no less than some of his singers, was quite the popular celebrity.
So Handel adapted: having begun the year with two traditional opera seria productions in Italian, he spent the summer labouring over the programme for the new season in 1739-40. One of these was an existing work he had to finish – the Italian opera Imeneo (which was witheringly described on its premiere, by one of Handel’s own librettists, as ‘the worst of all Handel’s Compositions‘), but the other works were English-language oratorios: Saul and Israel in Egypt.
It’s true that neither of the latter was particularly well-received at first, but Handel had found a formula which would appeal much more to his public than opera seria – and to be frank, Georgian theatre-goers seem to have been resolutely hard to impress. And this exhibition struck me with the fact, which I hadn’t fully appreciated before, that Handel had witnessed the entire lifespan of opera seria in London – it had been his Rinaldo which sparked off public interest in 1711, and his Faramondo and Xerxes which suffered from outstaying public patience with the art form.
I’ve written at length partly because I learned a lot – and I thought it a clever exhibition idea to focus on a single year – and partly because it’s a small show so there isn’t a catalogue or anything. Most of the display is text-based, so again will mostly appeal to those with an established interest in the subject, although there are prints and copies of scores and word-books on display, as well as a couple of CD players with tracks you can listen to. Actually, one of the things which most appealed to me was the effort to give a broader sense of life in 1738 via a few other milestones: it was the year the Mineral Water Hospital opened in Bath, paving the way for the city to become the fashionable retreat of the later 18th century; it also saw John Wesley’s foundation of the Methodist movement; it saw the first forays of a recently-arrived young scribbler called Dr Johnson; and, in a development which has had a greater impact on my own life than any of these, it was the year that Fortnum & Mason allegedly invented the Scotch egg.
I’m looking forward to seeing which other years Handel House come up with for future displays – I know I’ve already missed a few – as it’s no mean feat to get across so much information in such a small space.