Many Classical music lovers are familiar with George Frideric Handel's famous oratorio, "Messiah", but are not aware his preferred area of composition was Italian opera seria.
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Biographical books explore his career as an opera composer and the rise of the new pious genre when Italian opera was no longer popular in London, but rarely do we find detailed accounts or discussions on that tempestuous period in the 1730s when this shift in populaity forced Handel to leave the Haymarket theatre and join with John Rich at Covent Garden where he tried to carry on the Royal Academy opera company in competition with the new Opera of the Nobility venture founded by the Prince of Wales before he was finally forced to abandon opera in favour of oratorio. This book explores this rocky transition period and how it affected Handel's work, namely, his inclusion of French elements to his operas and other novel innovations in order to regain his chagrined public. There are discussions exploring the possibility Handel was his own worse enemy with regards to his business decisions as impresario-composer, alienating the Italians of London and his public, which nearly cost him his career. A fascinating study for Handel admirers.
"... There were so many details raised and questions asked which make the reader really excited and interested in the period and what was happening. ... There are many, many details which just suddenly bring home to you, 'My goodness, (opera production) was different in those days!' ... There are many things that jumped out of this book at me ..." - David Adams, 'Into the Evening', Lyric FM Classical Music Radio Ireland
Handel's Path to Covent Garden
Review by Randall Radic (Feb. 1, 2011), BlogCritics.org
Most music lovers go ga-ga over Handelís famous oratorio ĎMessiah,í as well they should. However, what most music lovers donít know is that Handel established his fame upon the bedrock of Italian opera. Handel wrote many operas. During one twelve month span, while at the Royal Academy of Music, Handel wrote three operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda. All three were big hits and wildly successful at the box office.
In 1728, just as Handelís contract with the Royal Academy expired, Italian opera fell out of vogue. The listening public decided they preferred the English style of opera. Still, Handel kept the faith. He started a new company, going into partnership with John Jacob Heidegger, who was the manager of the Kingís Theatre in the Haymarket. Handel and Heidegger continued to produce Italian operas successfully for a few years. Then in 1733, a rival opera company Ė the Opera of the Nobility Ė opened for business, bringing in such superstars as Johann Adolf Hasse, Nicolo Porpora, and Carlo Boschi, who was better known as Farinelli. Handel and Heidegger couldnít vie with such big names. Their venture effectively failed and Handel and Heidegger parted ways.
Instead of retiring, as most thought he would, Handel moved on to Covent Garden, where he joined up with John Rich. For three years, the two impresarios struggled financially and artistically. This period of adversity Ė from 1734 to 1737 Ė and how it changed Handelís life, career, and fortune is the subject of E.A. Bucchianeriís remarkable book, Handelís Path to Covent Garden.
Bucchianeri examines the intrigues, back stabbings, jealousies, and rivalries that existed at the Royal Academy of Music. The examination reveals that, as in todayís music world, egos and money are greater motivators than musical expression. To put it simply, everyone was caught up in power plays, trying, like a bunch of spoiled brats, to get their way. It makes for amusing reading, especially as it took place almost 300 years ago.
Of particular interest is John Richís arrangement with Handel. According to Bucchianeri, unlike most people in his position, John Rich wasnít motivated by ego or money. "Rich aspired to succeed in overcoming the deficiencies in Italian opera." Therefore, Rich disregarded "a practical business approach on this one project, he may have decided to afford every opportunity to Handel," who he recognized as Englandís "best composer."
The result of this "opportunity" was Handelís growth and change as a composer. Bucchianeri relates this adaptation in detail, using the evolution of Handelís opera Ariodante to illustrate Handelís genius and creativity. For one thing, Ariodante had no magical content, which meant it was neither heroic nor anti-heroic. In other words, Handel was doing something totally different. The difference wasnít shocking or scandalous. It was simply unique. And, according to Bucchianeri, this distinctiveness eventually found its way into Handelís oratorios.
What makes Handelís Path to Covent Garden so much fun to read is the authorís scholarship and the authorís ability to express that same erudition in simple language. In other words, although Bucchianeri does occasionally get technical, Handelís Path to Covent Garden is a book for the average Joe or Susie. One doesnít have to have a musical background or a doctorate to enjoy the book. At the same time, the book is just technical enough to appeal to music lovers. For the latter group, the book fills in a gap surrounding Handelís life and work.
On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from 1 star (terrible) to 5 stars (delightful), Handelís Path to Covent Garden comes in at 5 stars.
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