Creatively the early 1720’s were a triumph for Handel, he produced a string of masterpieces culminating in Giulio Cesare in 1724. The Royal Academy had a strong cast of singers, the cast headed by the castrato Senesino and the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. But the directors clearly thought something was missing and engaged a second prima donna, Faustina Bordoni. For a few seasons, the Royal Academy had two reigning divas. Bordoni arrived in time for the premiere of Handel’s Alessandro in 1726, thus issuing in the era of ‘The Rival Queens’.
For the final concert of this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St John’s Smith Square on Saturday 26 May, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company told the story of the amazing and sometimes scandalous seasons when Cuzzoni and Faustina (as they were habitually referred to in the press) reigned supreme. Soprano Mhairi Lawson incarnated Faustina and Lisa Milne (replacing Rosemary Joshua) incarnated Cuzzoni, with Christopher Benjamin reading from contemporary sources. The concert followed events historically, starting with Ottone (1723), Handel’s first opera for Cuzzoni and ending with works written for the sopranos when they left the Royal Academy.
By an unfortunate co-incidence, Alessandro (1726), the opera in which the two sopranos first sang together in London had the same subject, Alexander the Great, as the popular tragedy The Rival Queens (1677) by Nathaniel Lee and the satirical play, The Rival Queans by Colley Cibber. Thus the press and the public soon dubbed Cuzzoni and Faustina as well, a media phenomenon was born. Cuzzoni and Faustina, whilst both touchy prima donnas, had worked together before. But in London, public and press interest created the Rival Queen phenomenon, akin to a modern media storm. London society formed itself into Cuzzoni and Faustina factions.
Whether the two sopranos actually came to blows on stage is debatable, but the events ended in disaster. The Royal Academy ran out of money. The Rival Queens departed. Faustina married the composer Hasse and had a long and happy marriage as the toast of continental Europe. Cuzzoni’s marriage was less happy, with many debts. She returned to sing with the Opera of the Nobility, the company set up in rival to Handel, under Nicola Porpora. But eventually departed to Italy, dying in penury.
Benjamin’s readings included a contemporary description of the Cuzzoni’s voice from Mancini and a positively salivating description of Faustina’s face and voice which was printed in the Universal Journal. There was a funny and hugely satirical view of what it was to be a prima donna from Marcello.
There was cause for no little humour when one of present day sopranos took to the stage immediately after a big build up about her historical counterpart’s voice, or a satirical description of her historical counterpart’s behaviour. A situation which was treated with much good humour and general hilarity which, combined with the high level of performance, contributed to the distinctive quality of the evening.
Contemporary letter writers described the furore surrounding the singers, with Mrs Delaney, intolerant of those who found Handel’s work lacking, saying the English have no taste in music!
Cuzzoni’s last mentions were the pathetic letter published in the General Advertiser announcing her intention of trying to clear her debts before leaving for Rome, and a description by Charles Burney of her third visit to London, when her powers had diminished considerably. By contrast, Burney’s diary from the 1770’s gave a touching description of his visit to the elderly Hasse and Faustina in Vienna.
And what was Handel’s reaction to all this? There are sufficient anecdotes to suggest his relationship with the sopranos was stormy, though that applied to his relationship with Senesino as well. Handel’s operas for the Rival Queens show a concern to give the two ladies equal weight and balance. And this is the problem, musically Handel seems to have been a little inhibited, the operas written for Cuzzoni and Faustina do not match those written for Cuzzoni alone. But, if not quite vintage Handel, there were some very striking moments.
Curnyn opened with the overture to Ottone (1723) in a crisp and lively performance with a fast section whose oboe burbling had an apt touch of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba about it.. This was followed by Lisa Milne singing “Amanta Stravagente” from Flavio (1723), a delightfully teasing piece in which Milne’s rich voice easily threw off the runs. Her next aria was the best known piece in the evening, a stunning performance of “Se pieta?” from Giulio Cesare (1724). Here, as in some of best slower arias, Handel lets the bassoon off the leash in the ritornelli, to provide lovely counterpoints clearly relished by the orchestra’s bassoonist.
The overture and three arias from Alessandro (1726) brought us to ‘The Rival Queens’. Mhairi Lawson sang a captivating account of “Lusinghe piu care” (Sweetest allurements, true darts of love). A relaxed piece, but still with plenty of passage-work which Lawson encompassed easily, her voice with a warm, soft edge to it.
Milne’s “Che tirannia d’amor” (What a tyrannous thing is love) was a siciliana with a strongly pathetic vein which seemed to be one of Cuzzoni’s specialities. The first half ended with Lawson’s brilliant account of “Brilla nell’alma” (There sparks within my soul an unexpected yet sweet contentment).
We opened part two with Lord Hervey’s description of the Faustina and Cuzzoni factions developing in Society, followed by a stylish account of the overture to Admeto (1727) from Curnyn and the orchestra.A satirical description of the factions from a broadsheet hilariously attributed the popularity of Faustina and Cuzzoni to a papist plot. Though we can laugh today, there were probably people in London who really did take this seriously.
Milne followed this with a lively performance of “Torrente cresciuto” (Consider the torrents), a simile aria from Siroe (1728) which was obviously intended to display Cuzzoni’s talent at divisions, and Milne showed herself quite the equal. Faustina’s aria from Riccardo Primo (1727) “Quell’innocente” (An innocently suffering heart) was another apparently simple, pathetic piece which was certainly not simple and Lawson showed deceptive ease with the passage-work.Next came the overture of Porpora’s Polifemo written for the the Opera of the Nobility in 1735. Porpora used rather busier textures than Handel and Curnyn’s attractively lively performance made me wonder what Porpora’s operas would be like.
Milne’s final aria was “Miseri, sventurati” (Oh, how wretched, how hopeless) from Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso (1733). Porpora used a richly textured accompaniment with delightfully bubbling oboe. The aria is pathetically charming, and received a very affective performance from Milne. In the Da Capo she elaborated the vocal part extremely but without showy brilliance. Lawson’s final aria was from her husband Hasse’s opera Cleofide (1731), based on the same libretto as Handel’s Alessandro. Lawson sang “Son qual misera colomba” (I am like a wretched dove), preceded by a dramatic accompagnato. The aria was very much in the galant style, with the sort of difficult but gratefully written coloratura which made Hasse a great favourite with contemporary singers.
But this wasn’t the end. Christopher Benjamin gave a final reading from ‘The Art of Florid Song’ in which the charms of Faustina Bordone and Francesca Cuzzoni were described, with the author wishing to unite them in one person. Then Mhairi Lawson and Lisa Milne joined together to sing the duet, Placa l’alma, quieta il petto (Sooth your restless spirit) from Alessandro.
A delightful conclusion to an evening which mixed erudition, humour and superb performances into one profoundly satisfying whole.
image_description=Portrait of Georg Friedrich H‰ndel (1685-1759) attributed to Balthasar Denner c. 1726-1728 [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Handel and the Rival Queens: Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music
product_by=Mhairi Lawson (soprano); Lisa Milne (soprano); Christopher Benjamin (speaker). Early Opera Company. Christian Curnyn (harpsichord and conductor). St. Johns Smith Square, LondonSaturday 26 May 2012.
product_id=Above: Portrait of Georg Friedrich H‰ndel (1685-1759) attributed to Balthasar Denner c. 1726-1728 [Source: Wikipedia]