Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, Roberta Invernizzi, Marijana Mijanovic, Joyce DiDonato, Vito Priante, Riccardo Novaro, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis
The ideal “Floridante"
During the later years of his life, Handel revived most of the operas that he had written during the earlier part of his career. Since his singers changed from one season to the next, he invariably adapted each work to suit the changing circumstances. On each occasion, the wordbooks were reprinted, and these, together with the composer's performing scores, provide us with invaluable information about the different versions. Four versions of Floridante were staged by Handel himself, and yet none of them can have reflected his original ideal, not least because his cast changed even before the curtain went up on the first night, destroying his whole conception. The present version departs on a number of points from the one seen and heard in December 1721 but represents an attempt to return to Handel's original intentions. This route back to an ideal version of the opera may be best explained by means of an account of its genesis.
Handel worked on Floridante during the winter of 1721-2, when he was composer in residence at London's principal opera house, then known under the grand title of the Royal Academy of Music. His aim was to mount model performances of dramme per musica - Italian reform operas - using the finest Italian singers. The company's patron was none other than King George I himself, who as the Elector of Hanover had already employed Handel only a few years earlier. A glittering career beckoned the composer, but by 1720 his luck was beginning to run out as his working conditions proved increasingly uncongenial. By now he had a rival as composer in residence, and Giovanni Bononcini had the advantage of hailing from the country that was the true birthplace of opera. During the 1721-2 season Bononcini contributed two operas of his own to the repertory. Together, they ran up a total of thirty-two performances, whereas Handel's single opera that season - Floridante - could manage only seven. With his brief, song-like and memorably tuneful arias, Bononcini captured the prevailing taste far better than Handel was able to do. And the Italian composer was presumably also preferred by the directors of the Academy of Music, on whom the conservative nobility now had more influence than the king.
A further problem arose when Handel found himself having to part company with Nicola Haym, who had prepared a whole series of librettos for him in the past but who was now replaced by the Academy's Italian secretary, Paolo Antonio Rolli. Rolli saw himself not as an arranger but as a poet. Even though he took over the plot of Floridante from an older Venetian libretto, barely a single line of the original survived his adaptation, and there seems little doubt that his ambition was to outdo the poetry of his source. Although he may have succeeded in this, he lacked a far more important quality as a librettist: an instinct for the stage. We do not know what improvements Handel was able to make, but there is no doubt that his collaboration with Haym was happier than it was with Rolli and that he later returned to Haym.
But Handel's greatest challenge still lay ahead: he had just finished setting the first half of the opera in mid-October when he received news that the soprano Margherita Durastanti, whom he had cast as Elmira, had fallen ill and could not be counted on to return from Italy in time for the coming season. Handel had known her for some time and thought highly of her as a singer. Indeed, it had been Handel who had been instrumental in bringing her to London as the Academy's leading lady.
And so he stopped work on the score at least until such time as the directors of the Academy had reacted to the new situation. They decided to give the part of Elmira to the contralto Anastasia Robinson, who as seconda donna was originally scheduled to sing the role of Rossane. She had initially not been a member of the company during the 1720-21 season, and it was only towards the end of that season that she was invited back. She was the only English singer in the opera, a privilege that she presumably owed to the fact that as a Catholic and, above all, as the mistress of the Earl of Peterborough she drew her admiring support from the predominantly Catholic aristocracy who formed the Bononcini faction that set the tone at the Academy at this time. Following her promotion, the part of the seconda donna, Rossane, was awarded to the Italian soprano Maddalena Salvai.
Handel had to decide to what extent he wanted to alter the score to take account of the changed situation. He had had to accept Rolli and his libretto. The extent to which he was willing to accommodate changing public taste and the wishes and needs of his singers may be seen from the genesis of Floridante.
On the one hand, he needed to rise to the challenge posed by his currently more successful rival, Giovanni Bononcini. In his assessment of the opera, the great English writer on music, Charles Burney, singled out the “charming slow airs" for special attention - the very quality for which Bononcini was famous. But in Floridante Handel demonstrated that in this field too he was the Italian's superior. Floridante contains more arias of this kind than was usual, although this is due above all to internal factors: here the heroic couple of Floridante and Elmira is contrasted with a second pair of lovers in the persons of Timante and Rossane. It was for this second couple that Handel wrote all his brief and light song-like and dance-like arias. In taking full account of the libretto's amorous aspects, he also responded to changing taste. And the fact that in spite of all these complications, Handel was still able to maintain his own high standards is clear from his portrayal of the roles of Floridante and, even more, Elmira.
Handel's chief concern in all this is best seen from the changes that he undertook once the female roles in Floridante had been recast. Elmira had initially been intended as a soprano part but was now to be sung by a contralto, while the contralto role of Rossane was to be given to a soprano. This was more than just a technical problem that could be solved by transposing the arias to other keys, and so Handel substantially rewrote two of Rossane's already finished arias for Maddalena Salvai and replaced the third altogether. In doing so he not only took account of the various strengths and weaknesses of the two singers, he also paid due heed to their differing characters. In Act One, Scene Six, Rolli's libretto had included a simple but emotionally charged aria for Anastasia Robinson to sing to the words “È un sospir che vien dal core". The contralto had already made a deep impression with this particular type of aria, and Bononcini had provided her with several such numbers, more especially in her role as the modest and long-suffering Griselda. For Maddalena Salvai, by contrast, Handel wrote a flirtatious aria to the words “Sospiro, è vero". The adaptability that Handel demonstrated here was by no means unusual in the 18th century. In the hierarchy of the theatres of the time, singers generally lorded it over composers. In spite of all this, the changes that Handel made to the role of Rossane were entirely to the work's advantage.
Handel adopted a completely different approach to the problems associated with the role of Elmira. Two of her three finished arias were quick, dramatic numbers with contrasting ritornello motifs that Burney described as “characteristic of Handel's fire and thunder". The voice receives no support from the orchestra but is pitted against it as a rival. Margherita Durastanti was renowned for her bravura rendition of such arias. When Anastasia Robinson took over the part, it turned out that her voice was not only lower but that it had a more limited compass and was less agile and less secure in pitch. In the circumstances, it is surprising to find that Handel took virtually no account of this and declined to replace any of these three existing arias. If he had followed his usual pattern, he would have asked his librettist to provide him with new words for “È un sospir", for example, so that Anastasia Robinson could have taken over Rossane's tailor-made aria and used it with its new text in her new role. The fact that he declined to do so indicates the limits of his willingness to adapt to the changing situation.
Handel's insistence on retaining his original conception of the role of Elmira shows that this part was especially important to him. Even while preparing the libretto, Rolli had already emphasized Elmira's character by distinguishing it from that of Floridante. In a scene that has no counterpart in Rolli's Venetian source (Francesco Silvani's libretto to La costanza in trionfo, which had been set to music by Marc'Antonio Ziani in 1696), Floridante is asked by Oronte to urge his bride to yield to her stepfather's importunities and in that way save her own life and, with it, the crown that is hers by right. He himself, he says, is ready to die. But Elmira despises the tyrant too much to pay this price. She is incapable to appreciating the generous, selfless nature of Floridante's offer. Proudly she interrupts him and asks if he still has a royal heart, making it clear that of the two she is more heroic, more powerful and more consistent as a character.
For the most part, Handel gives her arias in 4/4 time, frequently subdivided into furiously agitated semiquavers, whereas virtually all Floridante's arias are either in triple time or else they pass into flowing triplets. This difference is most clearly discernible in the opening act at the point where both react in turn to Oronte's order for them to part. Elmira vows that the stars will sooner fall into the sea. Three times her fury flares up in unison with the orchestra, before yielding to more tender feelings to the accompaniment of the pianissimo upper strings and, finally, to a solo violin: never, she sings, can she abandon her lover. Floridante, on the other hand, has had to suffer the additional shame of losing the supreme command of the Persian army, and yet in spite of this he consoles himself with the thought that even in misfortune Elmira remains true to him, expressing his contentment in a gently undulating 3/8 metre.
Handel was evidently not prepared to sacrifice his conception of Elmira to a weaker singer, and yet he was still obliged to take account of Anastasia Robinson's more limited vocal range. As a result, it was not enough for him merely to undertake a series of downward transpositions. Here and there he also had to reduce the compass of the inordinately wide-ranging intervals, the duet for Elmira and Floridante at the end of Act One being only one of the numbers to suffer in this way. He could transpose it only a semitone lower, otherwise it would have been too low for Senesino's Floridante. The many corrections in the composer's performing score attest to the difficulties that he had in attempting to reduce the compass of Elmira's role. For the first printed edition of the score, which was published soon after the first performance, Handel exceptionally chose the first version of the duet as if demonstrating that he wanted to distance himself from the compromises that he had been forced to make in order to ensure that the work was staged at all.
If the news of Durastanti's illness had reached London two or three weeks later, Handel would presumably already have finished work on the score and we would now have a complete original version of the opera at our disposal. In 1991 Alan Curtis recorded highlights from the opera and took the bold decision to perform all the numbers involving Elmira in the form in which they appear in the original score - and where no such version exists, he transposed the numbers accordingly. He limited his revisions to the role of Elmira, as hers was the only one to suffer from the decision to recast the two women's parts. Rossane's role was left untouched.
This was also the model for the present complete recording. All the sections of Act One that involve Elmira are performed in the version found in the original, whereas Rossane's arias and recitatives have been left at their revised pitch. This has been possible because in reworking the recitatives Handel retained their harmonic foundation, meaning that the old and new sections are a perfect fit. In the first half of the second act, too, Elmira sings the original version of her aria. It was only after the change of cast that Handel set the recitative that precedes it, with the result that a few minor changes had to be made in adapting it for our present purposes. From the middle of Act Two onwards, Elmira's arias and accompanied recitatives had to be transposed and the ends of the recitatives changed accordingly. In the case of Elmira's great scena, “Notte cara", we opted for the key of C minor, as originally envisaged by Handel. In her final aria, “Sì, coronar vogl'io", the vocal line was transposed up a fourth, with the result that the orchestral parts had to be transposed in turn, in some cases upwards, in others a whole fifth downwards. In a few passages of agitated dialogue in the second and third acts, individual phrases in Elmira's part had to be sung at a higher pitch, albeit without any changes to the bass line or harmonies.
These three types of editorial intervention are all examples of the sort of device that Handel himself used when reworking his operas for a new cast. It is a technique that may be observed in many of his stage works. In the present case we have applied it with great care but with a different aim in mind, namely, to reverse Handel's alterations and, as far as it is in our power to do so, to come as close as possible to the composer's original ideal.
Hans Dieter Clausen Hans Dieter Clausen, editor of the critical edition of Floridante for the Halle Handel Edition, prepared the version on which the present recording is based.
Sex, violence, lust, incest, jealousy and betrayal: ah, it's comforting to slip into the world of High Art, isn't it? Yes, we cultured few devote our thoughts and sensibilities to Higher Things . . . like sex, violence, lust, incest, jealousy and betrayal. These emotions and actions are the engine of much great literature as well as many great operas. One of those operas is Handel's Floridante.
The background story is that Oronte, a Persian general, has killed and usurped the throne from Nino, the rightful king. After his victory, Oronte took Elisa, the surviving infant daughter of Nino and raised her as his own daughter, who had died the day of the battle. This daughter, Elmira, has been promised in marriage to Floridante, Prince of Thrace and warrior in the cause of Oronte. His other daughter, Rossane, was betrothed to Timante, Prince of Tyre, but war between Tyre and Persia put an end to the possibility of this marriage, and Timante is believed to have been lost in the battle.
ACT I The opera begins happily, with Elmira and her sister Rossane going together to welcome Floridante, who has just won a naval victory over Tyre, the reward for which is the hand of his beloved Elmira. Rossane, though aware of the loss of Timante, whom she has never met, yet hopes that love will still somehow prevail and unite them.
The triumphant Floridante enters and proclaims that the love of Elmira is greater than any reward he might receive for his victories. To Rossane he gives the captive Glicone (who, of course, is the disguised Timante), first praising his prowess in battle. Suddenly a Persian satrap, Coralbo, arrives, giving Floridante a letter from Oronte which orders him to renounce his command and leave the country. Rossane goes immediately to Oronte and begs him to reconsider, or at least to speak to Floridante, and the tyrant agrees, though he insists that the hero's marriage to his daughter Elmira has been cancelled because of “reasons of state".
Rosanne then meets Glicone, who tells her that her beloved Timante had not only succeeded in fleeing the battle safely but before that had sung of his undying love for Rossane.
Floridante is conducted to Oronte, who confirms his decree of banishment, remaining deaf to the hero's entreaties and then to those of Elmira. A ship, he tells Floridante, will convey him to exile. Oronte exits, leaving Floridante and Elmira to proclaim that separation will cause them both to die of longing and grief.
ACT II In her apartments, Rossane tells Glicone that she fears Timante could not have survived the battle. He assures her that the prince did survive, indeed, that he is in the city, disguised and safe. As proof, Glicone gives her a portrait of Timante and departs, leaving her to rejoice when she recognizes in the portrait of Timante the face of the prisoner.
Floridante, meantime, has disguised himself as a Moorish captive and is planning to escape with Elmira and the other pair of lovers. But Elmira is delayed by Oronte, who proclaims his love for her, telling her she is to be his bride. Her horror is only minimally diminished when he explains that she is not his daughter but that of the former king Nino. She condemns Oronte, saying he is more monster than king.
As the prisoners prepare to escape, Oronte enters with guards and arrests the disguised Floridante, who explains that he is a mere slave, sent by Floridante to take Elmira to him. When he is dragged off in chains, Oronte presents Elmira with a choice: become his queen or die.
ACT III Rossane tries to help Elmira. Even though they are not really sisters, Rossane proclaims that she and Elmira are joined by love until death. When Coralbo, the Persian satrap, discovers Elmira's true identity, he says the love of the Persian people for her family yet might make her queen. Oronte appears and tells Elmira that the Moor has died, at which news Elmira swoons with grief. Oronte has the captive Floridante dragged in and tells him, while Elmira sleeps, that he must persuade her to accept Oronte as her husband or she will die. He leaves, and when Elmira recovers, Floridante attempts to persuade her, but she rejects the idea; better that they die together.
Unaware that Rossane and Timante are organizing a coup, Elmira goes to the again-imprisoned Floridante with a cup of poison which she has been told to administer to him. Instead, she prepares to drink it herself. Oronte enters and takes the cup from her hand, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Timante and Coralbo, who arrest him and proclaim Elmira Queen of Persia.
Enthroned, Elmira and Floridante promise mutual fidelity and just government for all. At Rossane's pleading, Elmira (now under her real name of Elisa) pardons Oronte, while Floridante announces that Rossane and Timante will marry and go to reign in Tyre. Floridante confesses to Elmira/Elisa that he has even greater happiness as a lover than as a king, and the new queen declares a day of universal rejoicing in Persia.