"Disprezzata regina" from L'incoronazione di Poppea
The earliest work on today's program comes from Monteverdi's last and greatest opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), which premiered in 1642 in Venice when the composer was in his mid-70s. For 30 years the master of music at Venice's San Marco Cathedral, he had glorified the fields of sacred music, madrigal, and opera with his restless and genius experimentation. Now as the first public opera theater was opened in Venice, he moved on from the early reliance on mythological plots to create the first historically based opera, drawn from the infamous career of the Emperor Nero around the year 60 CE.
In this racy, even amoral plot written by librettist Gian Francesco Busenello, Nero has fallen in love with the beautiful Poppea and decides to discard his queen Ottavia in order to marry her. Over the course of the opera, Ottavia plots to assassinate Poppea and is banished from Rome. In the end, Nero and the ambitious Poppea triumph, and Poppea is crowned the new empress.
We hear Ottavia's entrance aria, "Disprezzata regina" ("Despised queen"). Monteverdi had particularly studied how to combine a wide range of emotions within a single piece, and here Ottavia reveals successively her feelings of despair, jealousy, rage, thirst for vengeance, and ultimate remorse for her impiety. Though this is ostensibly an aria, the style is closer to speech-like recitative rather than pure song. The meaning of the words shapes and colors the music, while the accompaniment remains minimal. This is the earliest version of a great diva scena, and its power remains stunningly timeless.
"Intorno all'idol mio" from Orontea
Antonio Cesti was the most celebrated Italian composer of the generation that followed Monteverdi. A fine tenor and a protégé of the Medicis, he won his success with his very first opera Orontea, which premiered in Venice in 1649 and was popular in Italian theaters for decades after. Cesti presided over a period of retrenchment after Monteverdi's fearless experimentation, and his arias are much simpler and ingratiatingly melodic. In "Intorno all'idol mio" ("Hover around my beloved"), the Egyptian queen Orontea has fallen in love with the humble painter Alidoro. After he faints at the sight of her beauty, she kneels beside him and tenderly confesses her love in this exquisite blend of love song and lullaby. Fortunately, Alidoro turns out to be of royal birth, and this love match prospers.
GIUSEPPE MARIA ORLANDINI
"Da torbida procella" from Berenice
The remaining works on this program belong to the early- and mid-18th century. Florence-based Giuseppe Orlandini came from the same generation as Handel and Vivaldi, and was renowned in his day for both his dramatic writing and gift for comedy. His opera Berenice was written for the Venice carnival season of 1725. The love affair between Berenice, Queen of Palestine, and the Roman Emperor Titus does not end happily because Titus decides for reasons of state he cannot marry a foreigner. But early in the opera, Berenice's hopes are high, and in the coloratura torrents of "Da torbida procella" ("On stormy seas"), she likens her love for Titus to the pole star that guides sailors through troubled seas.
Concerto in D Minor for Violin, Strings, and Continuo, RV 242
"Sposa son disprezzata" from Merope
One of the most famous sets of Vivaldi's concertos is his Op. 8, published in 1725 and given the wonderful title Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention)—that is, a contest between the learned side of music and freer creative expression. This set of 12 concertos is best known today for its first four concertos, The Four Seasons. In the first of four instrumental interludes in the program, Il Complesso Barocco performs the Concerto in D Minor for Violin, Strings, and Continuo, which is the seventh concerto.
Vivaldi refined a formula of three movements, fast-slow-fast, that dominated the late-Baroque concerto. The two fast-tempo outer movements are bound together by an ensemble refrain known as the ritornello, which establishes the overall character of the music. The slow central movement puts the spotlight on the soloist. The Allegro first movement of this concerto features an undulating and rhythmically supple ritornello, energized by syncopated accents. That undulating shape is also carried over into the Adagio movement: a beautiful, aria-like solo for the violin over a pattering accompaniment. The vivacious final movement also emphasizes strong rhythmic accents, as well as echo effects in the soloist's episodes.
The aria "Sposa son disprezzata" ("I am a scorned wife") is often attributed to Vivaldi, though in fact, he did not write it himself but merely poached it for his opera Bajazet. The real composer was Geminiano Giacomelli, who created it for his 1734 opera Merope. Chapel master at the court of Parma and very popular in his day, Giacomelli was the author of 19 operas. Merope, or Irene as she is known in Bajazet, is another betrayed royal wife like Monteverdi's Ottavia, but her response to her situation is much gentler. Still in love with her faithless husband, she reveals her grief in this extraordinarily beautiful lament, built over repeated descending lines in the accompaniment. This aria is a great test of a singer's ability to float legato lines on long-sustained breaths.
Sinfonía, from Tolomeo et Alessandro; Sinfonía in C Major
Domenico Scarlatti's career shone brightest at the keyboard during his illustrious period at the court of Spain after 1729. But we hear two little sinfonias from his early career in Rome when he was a young opera composer who was experimenting and stretching his wings away from the intimidating shadow of his father, Alessandro Scarlatti.
The first Sinfonía on the program is actually the vivid overture to his 1711 opera Tolomeo et Alessandro, which introduces the Cleopatra theme running through this program. Tolomeo, or Ptolemy, is Cleopatra's son, who has been banished to the island of Cyprus. This opera was written for Queen Maria Casimira of Poland, herself an exile living in Rome.
The Sinfonía in C Major was probably also written as the prelude to a larger work, perhaps a cantata. Both these brief, three-movement works feature the bold, startling effects and high contrasts Scarlatti favored in his music during this period.
JOHANN ADOLPH HASSE
"Morte, col fiero aspetto" from Antonio e Cleopatra
"Madre diletta" from Ifigenia in Aulide
One of the most admired composers for voice of the first half of the 18th century, German-born Johann Adolf Hasse was a true cosmopolitan whose career flourished in Italy, Dresden, and Vienna. He enjoyed a long marriage to Italian soprano Faustina Bordoni, who was the idol of London—and star of Handel's operas—in the 1720s. An accomplished tenor himself, Hasse wrote with great understanding of the voice. The display of beautiful, flowing melody over transparent accompaniments was his specialty.
"Morte, col fiero aspetto" ("Death's grisly aspect") comes from his unstaged serenata Antonio e Cleopatra, premiered in Naples in 1725. Late in her fabulous career, Cleopatra has chosen to flee the naval battle of Actium, which leads to her lover Mark Antony's defeat by Octavian's fleet. In this aria, she tells Antony that death holds no terrors for her; she only dreads the loss of her throne and her freedom. Worthy of a queen, this is a proud and spirited aria, fired by dramatic, chromatically ascending scales.
We meet a much gentler royal figure in Giovanni Porta's "Madre diletta" ("Dearest mother"): the princess Ifigenia, who is about to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to propitiate the gods after the fall of Troy. Venetian-born Porta wrote his opera Ifigenia in Aulide for the court of Munich in 1738. Ifigenia does not struggle against her fate, but accepts her father's will without reproach. In writer Simon Heighes's words, "Porta enfolds her in the arms of a gently rocking siciliana, given added edge by its expressive harmonic coloring, unexpected bursts of virtuosity, and a middle section of heart-stopping beauty."
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
"Piangerò la sorté mia" from Giulio Cesare; Passacaglia, Act II, from Radamisto; "Brilla nell'alma un non inteso ancor" from Alessandro
In 1720, at the command of King George I, the Royal Academy of Music was founded to present a public opera series at the King's Theatre in London's Haymarket. Though operas by other composers would be presented there, Handel was its presiding genius for the rest of the decade.
His first opera for the Academy was Radamisto (April 1720): a serious drama about two competing monarchs, Radamisto and Tiridate, in ancient Thrace and their passion for the same woman, Radamisto's wife Zenobia. At the end of each of its three acts, Radamisto contains movements for the ballet. We hear the Passacaglia that closes Act II: a calm and regal dance in 3/4 time built over a repeating harmonic pattern.
Premiered in 1724, Giulio Cesare is Handel's most popular opera. Here we meet Cleopatra again, but in this work she is a young queen competing for the Egyptian throne with her rather nasty brother and consort Tolomeo. Handel and his favorite librettist Nicola Haym made her into a fascinating character who uses her beauty, well-honed seductive skills, and political wiles to lure the visiting Julius Caesar to her side and ultimately to bring about the defeat of her brother.
In Act II, the imprisoned Cleopatra believes that Caesar has been killed and she will soon be executed by the apparently victorious Tolomeo. In one of Handel's most beautiful and poignant melodies "Piangerò la sorté mia" ("I shall mourn my fate"), she grieves for Caesar's and her situation. The contrasting middle section, however, reveals she is not yet defeated as she vows vengeance on Tolomeo in blistering coloratura roulades.
In 1726, a battle between two real-life drama queens erupted at the Royal Academy. Creator of the role of Cleopatra, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni had been the reigning prima donna. But now the theater's impresarios brought in a new sensation: the beautiful soprano Faustina Bordoni, wife of Hasse and a technician of formidable skills. (Supporters of these two prima donnas would soon actually break out in physical violence at their performances!) For Bordoni's debut, Handel created the opera Alessandro about Alexander the Great's exploits in India. Because both Cuzzoni and Bordoni had to be featured on equal footing in this opera, they were given the roles of two Indian princesses competing for Alexander's attentions. However, Handel awarded Rossane (Bordoni) the most technically spectacular of the arias: "Brilla nell'alma un non inteso ancor" ("In my spirit shines sweet contentment"). Here at the beginning of Act III, Rossane trumpets forth her conviction that she will eventually be the winner of Alexander's heart in an aria that blazes with the most demanding coloratura passages taken at a fiercely virtuosic pace.
—Janet E. Bedell