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

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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

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