How Handel made London love opera
The conductor Jane Glover’s spirited history is insightful about the music – but not the man. Ivan Hewett reports
‘THANDEL IN LONDON
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here is no question,” declared The Spectator in 1710, soon after Italian opera arrived in Britain, “but our great grandchildren will be very curious to know the reason why their forefathers used to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own country, and to hear whole plays acted before them in a tongue which they did not understand.”
The author perhaps hoped that something so patently absurd would soon pass. He hadn’t reckoned on an ambitious German, who would transform the fashion of a few seasons into a permanent feature of British culture. Georg Friedrich Händel had already had sensational successes in Hamburg and in Italy, where he was known as “the divine Saxon”. (His connection to the Court of the Elector of Saxony would prove handy when that Elector became George I.) He was a fantastically hard-working, shrewd entrepreneur, with the tough skin one needs to compete in a field filled with jealous rivals and spiteful critics. And he was a composer of genius, who could imbue the mythical creatures of 18th-century opera with a believable human psychology.
Of course, Handel didn’t establish the taste for opera in Italian single-handedly. The craze for Italian singers, particularly the star castrati, was already established, and audiences were already bewitched by the genre’s elaborate stage spectacle (a scene in Handel’s first London opera Rinaldo featured a black cloud,
“all filled with dreadful Monsters spitting Fire and Smoke on every side. The Cloud covers Almirena and Armida, and carries them swiftly into the Air…”). But Italian opera was always the butt of satire and dislike, and there was always a countervailing trend for a more popular, often comic opera in the vernacular. That alternative model might have taken root, had there not been such a towering genius on hand in London, to make the case for Italian opera.
But it was never easy to make opera a going concern, even for Handel. The stars demanded to be paid even more than they earned back in Naples or Rome. Unforeseen events – a Jacobite rebellion, the bursting of the
South Sea Bubble (which ruined quite a few of Handel’s backers) – could force the closure of theatres for months. When a rival company appeared in 1733, the resources and audiences available, always precarious, became even more so.
The story of how Handel triumphed, was knocked back repeatedly, and triumphed again is a gripping one, and has often