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One writer describes Handel as “a bruiser whose robust
personality and generous physique were as renowned as
his music. His delight in intrigue and gossip was matched
only by his insatiable appetite for food and liquor.” To prove
this point, there are accounts of a strange incident in 1704
in which Handel fought a duel with a fellow composer
named Johann Mattheson, during which Mattheson almost
killed Handel with his sword—saved only when he hit a
button on Handel’s chest rather than the chest itself. In 1710,
Handel accepted the position of Kapellmeister to George,
Elector of Hanover, who was soon to be King George I of
Great Britain. In 1712, Handel settled in England, where he
began a time of incredible artistic output that included some
of his greatest works, including Water Music and Messiah.
Handel’s life was not without tragedy. He had a stroke in
1737 (at age 52) that caused temporary paralysis in his right
arm, was involved in a coach crash in 1750, and had
cataracts and eventually went blind after a botched eye
operation in 1751 (at age 66). He continued to compose
despite his blindness, and died in London at the age of 74.
Since he never married, his estate was passed on to his
niece Johanna Floerken. His request to be buried in
Westminster Abbey was honored, and it was reported that
his funeral was attended by more than 3,000 mourners.
Even the great Ludwig van Beethoven praised Handel:
• Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects,
by such simple means.
• I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.
I should be sorry if I only
entertained them. I wish
to make them better.
George Frideric Handel
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Study Guide to the Opera
George Frideric Handel (February 23,
1685 – April 14, 1759) was born in
Halle, Germany in the same year
as Johann Sebastian Bach and
Domenico Scarlatti. Though Handel
and Bach were born in towns only
about 50 miles apart, they never
Portrait of G. F. Handel by
met. Handel’s father, a barberBalthasar Denner (c. 1726–1728)
surgeon, wanted his son to become
a lawyer, but the young Handel loved music. His father
forbade him to touch any musical instruments, but stories
persist that his mother smuggled a clavichord into the attic,
where George would practice when his father was away.
After his father died, Handel’s propensity for music drove
him to find ways to pursue his musical studies and career.
In 1702 he left Halle for Hamburg, where he played violin
and harpsichord for the only opera company in Germany
that existed outside the royal courts.
Think German-English Baroque composer
by Jill Leahy
of early opera, oratorio, and orchestral works
Music by George Frideric Handel
Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym
by Jill Leahy
G. F. Handel:
Pittsburgh Opera
Education thanks our
generous supporters:
Meet the Composer
The Baroque period of music started around 1600 and ended around 1750.
During this period, Shakespeare created his great tragedies (Hamlet, King
Lear, Othello, and Macbeth), the first real orchestras came into being
(including recorders, lutes, and harpsichord), and, with the Church’s loss of
political control in Europe, new styles of music like the concerto, sonata, and
opera flourished. Jacopo Peri composed the first opera, Daphne, in 1598; in
1607, Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo, the earliest surviving opera that is still
regularly performed.
Handel, who composed
over 40 operas, was a
larger-than-life character
(literally—he was very
rotund), and his music
was loved, especially by
London audiences.
When, toward the end of
his career, musical
tastes moved away from
the strict musical
limitations of Italian
opera, he stopped
composing operas and
turned instead to
creating oratorios: large
musical compositions for
orchestra, choir, and
soloists, generally with
no costumes or props
and with the texts most
often dealing with
sacred subjects.
Oratorios by Handel
include Messiah and
Judas Maccabaeus.
More than 25 Handel operas premiered at the King’s
Theatre between 1711 and 1739. The name of the theatre
changes with the gender of the monarch. The theatre first
became the King's Theatre in 1714 on the accession of
George I, was destroyed by fire in 1790, then rebuilt and
renamed Her Majesty's Theatre in 1837. From 1901 to
1952, the theatre was known as His Majesty's Theatre; it
became Her Majesty's on the accession of Elizabeth II.
Since 1986, The Phantom of the Opera has been playing at
Her Majesty’s Theatre, which has a capacity of 1,216 seats.
Watercolor by William Capon (1757–1827)
The first performance of Rodelinda, regina de' Longobardi was at the King's
Theatre, London, on February 13, 1725. It is an opera seria in three acts and
one of the few operas with a tenor in the villain’s role. Historically, Handel
wrote for specific singers, and in the original performances, the part for
Bertarido was written for an alto castrato named Senesino (Francesco
Bernardi), who created over 15 leading roles for Handel. It was not until the
late 19th century that the Roman Catholic Church officially condemned the
procedure of castration of young boys (castrati) to preserve their high voices.
While Handel’s orchestral works, such as Water Music and Music for the
Royal Fireworks, have remained popular, his operas fell out of favor for more
than 200 years. The Metropolitan Opera first presented Rodelinda in 2004,
and again in 2011, with Renée Fleming singing the title role.
Rodelinda Synopsis
Location and timeframe: Milan and the surrounding
countryside, early 18th century.
Prologue: Bertarido, King of Lombardy and Milan, has been
attacked and deposed by Grimoaldo, an ally of his estranged brother.
Bertarido vanishes, leaving Rodelinda and her son Flavio in the
power of the victorious Grimoaldo. As a reward for defeating
Bertarido, Grimoaldo was promised the hand of Bertarido’s sister,
Eduige, giving him a legitimate claim to the throne at Milan. Eduige
and Grimoaldo fell in love, but she would not marry him while
mourning two brothers—one dead, one presumed so. From abroad,
Bertarido sent word of his own death, intending to return to Milan in
disguise to rescue his wife and son, and to escape to an anonymous
life far from the vagaries of politics and the burden of government.
The news of his death has devastated both Rodelinda and Eduige.
Grimoaldo, intent on gaining the throne, weighs his options,
counseled by two advisers—Garibaldo, his closest aide, and Unulfo,
a member of Bertarido’s cabinet, who maintains intimate ties with the
royal family and is the only person who knows that Bertarido still lives.
Rodelinda Synopsis continued
of the Opera
Queen of the Lombards
Rodelinda’s husband, the King of Lombardy
Duke of Benevento, a usurper
Sister of Bertarido, betrothed to Grimoaldo
ACT I A palace in Milan Rodelinda and her son are
being held in a sparsely furnished room in the palace in
A nobleman, loyal friend to Bertarido
Milan (Ho perduto il caro sposo). Grimoaldo enters with
Eduige and his advisers and announces his wish to marry
Rodelinda, thereby gaining the throne. The outraged
Duke of Turin, Bertarido’s closest aide
Rodelinda refuses him and storms away. Eduige is
appalled at Grimoaldo’s overture to Rodelinda, but
despite the rules of mourning, offers him her hand, heart,
Flavio [FLAH-vee-oh]
silent role
and throne. Grimoaldo, however, is still stung by her
Son of Rodelinda and Bertarido
previous postponements and, though still in love with her,
fiercely declines Eduige’s offer. Now Garibaldo makes
overtures to Eduige, hoping to gain the throne for himself (Lo farò). Eduige, furious with Grimoaldo,
does not discourage him. When he is left alone, Garibaldo reveals his ambition for the throne.
Bertarido arrives at the stables, where Unulfo has left a soldier’s uniform for his disguise (Dove
sei). He finds in the cemetery a memorial built for him by Grimoaldo to appease those loyal to him.
Bertarido yearns to see Rodelinda but knows he cannot yet reveal himself. His reunion with Unulfo
is interrupted when Rodelinda brings her son to plant flowers at the memorial. Unulfo succeeds in
restraining Bertarido, who wants desperately to reach out to his family. Garibaldo appears with an
ultimatum from Grimoaldo, to which Bertarido must also be silent witness: either Rodelinda agrees
to wed Grimoaldo, or Garibaldo kills the boy. Rodelinda is forced to agree. She takes back her
child, lashes out at Garibaldo, and rushes away. Bertarido cannot see past Rodelinda’s surrender
to Grimoaldo’s demand. Unulfo promises to find some resolution to the dilemma. Alone and
disconsolate, Bertarido grieves over Rodelinda’s seeming loss of faith.
Act II In the palace library Garibaldo again offers his services to Eduige in exchange for her
hand—he will kill Grimoaldo if necessary. But he sees from her response that Eduige loves
Grimoaldo still. Rodelinda appears with her child and reassures Eduige that her son’s future is her
greatest concern. Eduige shares with Rodelinda her confused anger over Grimoaldo’s rejection of
her. Grimoaldo enters with Garibaldo and Unulfo, and Rodelinda presents him with an ultimatum of
her own: she will marry him on one condition, that he personally kill her son before her eyes. Her
Meet the Librettist
by Jill Leahy
gambit works—Grimoaldo backs down (Spietati, io vi giurai). But,
he is very taken with Rodelinda’s courage and constancy and feels
that he might actually come to love her, though he cannot forget
his feelings for Eduige. Garibaldo and Unulfo are left alone to
debate Grimoaldo’s options. Garibaldo believes power should be
seized and ensured at any cost. Unulfo, musing alone, decides to
take Rodelinda to Bertarido and finds a breath of hope (Tirannia
gli diede il regno). Walking near the stables, Eduige happens
upon and recognizes Bertarido. She is overjoyed to find him alive.
She assuages his fears about Rodelinda’s constancy, and they
move away deep in conversation as Unulfo brings Rodelinda to the
stables. Unulfo goes off to look for Bertarido, who soon returns with
Eduige to be reunited at last with his wife.
When Bertarido and Rodelinda are discovered by Grimoaldo, he
orders Bertarido taken into custody and, enraged, bids them take
their final farewells. Bertarido will soon die (Io t’abbraccio).
Act III Dungeon in the palace Eduige sends a servant to the
dungeon with a concealed weapon that is to be given to Bertarido
(Un zeffiro spirò che serenò quest’alma). She and Unulfo plan
for Bertarido’s escape: Unulfo, who has access to the prison, will
lead Bertarido through a hidden tunnel from the cell to the palace
garden, where Eduige will wait with Rodelinda and the child. From
there they will escape. Grimoaldo enters with Garibaldo, who
advises him to kill the prisoner or lose the kingdom, but
Grimoaldo’s conscience prevents him from taking this action: he is
caught in a web of conflicting feelings—fear, suspicion, love, and
remorse (Tra sospetti, affetti e timori).
Bertarido is reassured when a weapon is dropped through the bars
of his prison cell. In the darkness he strikes out at what he believes
to be an assassin—but it is Unulfo, come to help him (Vivi,
tiranno). Even though he is wounded, Unulfo manages to get
Bertarido to change out of the clothes he has been seen in. As the
two men escape into the tunnel, Rodelinda and Eduige arrive—
Rodelinda has insisted on rescuing Bertarido herself but finds only
his clothes covered with Unulfo’s blood. She imagines the worst.
At the foot of Bertarido’s memorial, Grimoaldo’s internal struggle
continues. He ultimately acknowledges his cruelty and guilt.
Exhausted, he falls asleep. Garibaldo attempts to assassinate
Grimoaldo, but is stopped and killed by Bertarido, who gives
himself up to Grimoaldo. Following Grimoaldo into the library,
Bertarido dares him to condemn his own savior. Grimoaldo is
himself ready to surrender and restores wife, child, and throne to
the rightful king (Sposa, figlio). His apology to Eduige goes
unheeded at first, but eventually she forgives him. With reason
restored, the survivors can envision and celebrate a happier future
(Dopo la notte oscura più lucido).
Adapted from Opera News
Nicola Francesco Haym was
born in Rome on July 6, 1678
and worked as a librettist,
composer, theater manager,
and coin collector. He is most
remembered for the libretti he
wrote for Handel—Giulio
Cesare, Ottone, Tamerlano,
Flavio, and Rodelinda. Haym
died at the age of 51 in 1729.
Literary Basis for Rodelinda
Haym based his libretto for
Rodelinda on several sources:
• A 1710 libretto, written by
physician and court poet
Antonio Salvi, one of the
developers of opera seria.
Salvi’s libretto was called
Rodelinda, Regina
de'Longobardi and set to
music by composer
Giacomo Antonio Perti.
• Salvi’s libretto originated
from a 1653 play by Pierre
Corneille, a French
tragedian, well known in
his time along with playwrights Molière and
Racine. Corneille’s play,
called Pertharite, roi des
Lombards, was based on
the history of Perctarit, an
actual 7th-century King.