A premiere recording of Handel’s pasticcio, Caio Fabbricio, by London Early Opera

1733 was not a good year for George Frideric Handel.  His business affairs were in a shaky state, the collapse of the Royal Academy in 1728 having forced him, in partnership with the Swiss impresario Johann Jacob Heidegger, to recruit and finance a new opera company which opened at the King’s Theatre for the 1729-30 season.  The Second Academy had its ups and downs, and things took a turn for the worse in January 1733, when Handel’s star castrato, Senesino, began plotting to establish a partnership with a new emerging rival company with the composer Nicola Porpora, to be based at a theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields under John Rich. 

Senesino formally announced his venture and defection to the new Opera of the Nobility in June that year, and Handel’s team of celebrity singers – Antonio Montagnana, Francesca Bertolli and Celeste Gismondi – promptly followed suit, drawn by the prospect of high salaries and the freedom to exercise their artistic egos.  In 1734, Francesca Cuzzoni and Farinelli joined them.  Of Handel’s original company, only Anna Maria Strada del Pò remained loyal.

Handel and Heidegger were clearly in need of an entrepreneurial masterstroke.  Seemingly wishing to beat Porpora and Senesino to the 1773 season’s starting line, they hastily mounted three productions, the pasticcio Semiramide riconosciuta, a revival of the opera Ottone, and the pasticcio Caio Fabbricio.  The latter, based on an opera by Johann Adolf Hasse which had premiered in Rome on 12th January 1732, opened at the King’s Theatre on 4th December for a four-performance run, almost four weeks before Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso launched the Nobility’s season at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. 

The newly recruited troupe comprised Margherita Durastanti, now assuming mezzo-soprano roles, castrati Carlo Scalzi and Giovanni Carestini, the bass Gustavus Waltz, and the two Negri sisters, Maria Caterina and Maria Rosa, also mezzo-sopranos.  There were, however, evidently concerns that audiences would fail to materialise.  Charles Jennens (Handel’s friend, patron and librettist) remarked, while the Caio Fabbricio run was underway:‘How two Opera Houses will subsist after Christmas, I can’t tell; but at present we are at some difficulty for the Support of One; & Mr. Handel has been forc’d to drop his Opera three nights for want of company.’[1] 

‘Why pasticcio and why Hasse?’ are questions that I put to Bridget  Cunningham whose company, London Early Opera, will perform Handel’s Caio Fabbricio at St George’s Hanover Square on Tuesday 24th May, prior to the release of their premiere recording of the pasticcioon the Signum Classics label in June.  

“In the first part of the eighteenth-century Handel played an important role in firmly establishing opera in London, through which he brought the music of Johann Adolf Hasse to public attention by his actions as Master of the Orchestra for the Royal Academy of Music – the first major opera company in the capital.  The German-born Hasse, fourteen years younger than Handel, and who had been trained in Germany and later worked in Italy, married the singer Faustina Bordoni and quickly rose to become the most widely admired composer of opera seria in the middle decades of the eighteenth century.  Hasse’s music is pivotal as some of the harmonic patterns are more elaborate than other Neapolitan composers.”

Bridget Cunningham (c) Victoria Cadisch

Bridget explains that Handel needed something ‘new’ to trump his competitors at the Nobility, and that the Roman style, which prioritised melody over counterpoint, was becoming increasingly popular.  She points out, too, that, “Hasse never came to England.  In 1734, according to the Memoirs of Handel’s first biographer John Mainwaring, a contemporary, when Hasse was invited to come to London to work for the rival company, the Opera of the Nobility, Hasse responded by asking, rather incredulously, whether Handel was dead.”[2]  Moreover, Handel was under pressure, working alone, rather than with a team, to prepare the season’s productions.  It may simply have been quicker and more straightforward for Handel to act as editor, rather than composer, especially when the financial recompense would be the same. 

Perhaps, Handel was also aware that Porpora and Senesino were considering future productions of Hasse’s operas (they performed Artaserse in 1734).  Furthermore, scores of recent Roman repertoire seem to have been readily available in London at this time.  Bridget comments that Jennens built up a large collection of volumes of Italian opera, “acquired from his close friend Edward Holdsworth, a classical scholar who travelled extensively on the continent escorting young gentlemen on the Grand Tour”.  Jennens received regular shipments of scores from Holdsworth and his collection, which subsequently became known as the Aylesford Collection, included a copy of Hasse’s Caio Fabbricio, aswell as Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse.  Later, when a box of music containing scores from the library of the late Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni reached him, Jennens wrote to Holdsworth, ‘Handel has borrow’d a dozen of the Pieces & I dare say I shall catch him stealing from them; as I have formerly, both from Scarlatti & Vinci’, to which Jennens replied, ‘’tis some credit to yr box that Handel borrows some of the pieces, and if He borrows from them, that will be still doing them more honour.’[3]

In preparing his pasticcio, Handel used Jennens’ copy of Hasse’s song-book, which Bridget describes. “It contains 28 of Hasse’s original da capo arias for Caio Fabbricio. without recitatives.  Handel selected arias, made preparations, and added markings of little crosses, for cuts and transpositions and thought processes for his own opera.  He used 13 arias from Hasse’s original opera and replaced the others with a selection by other composers.” 

“Handel’s annotations show us that he originally intended to use more of Hasse’s arias, but late changes to the cast of singers forced Handel to find alternative material for his available voice types.  As a by-product of this situation, singers won opportunities to perform their favourite party pieces, the so-called ‘suitcase arias’ (arie di baule) that they transported from production to production.  Carestini had performed his aria, ‘Quando verrà quel giorno’ before, in the role of Poro in Luca Antonio Predieri’s Alessandro nell’Indie in the Carnival in 1731, but in fact it was written for the castrato earlier, by Antonio Pollarolo for his opera Sulpizia Fedele in Venice in 1729.  Carestini made a ‘suitcase aria’ out of it.” 

Helena Charlston (Turio), Fleur Barron (Pirro) and Miriam Allan (Sestia) in rehearal
(c) Marshall Light Studio

The arias that Handel selected were drawn from contemporary repertoire by composers such as Leonardo Vinci, Leonardo Leo and Giuseppe Sellito, who wrote in the more modern, innovative Neapolitan lyrical style.  “When combined with Handel’s own more contrapuntal working methods,” observes Bridget, “the result is a unique stylistic mixture that permeates his own later compositions.  There are musical differences: for example, the aria ‘Al foco del mio amore’ by Albinoni is in a more traditional style and relatively old-fashioned compared to the other arias, featuring an intricate interweaving of voice and violins.  Its euphony suits the amorous nature of the text excellently.”

The arias were also designed to suit the singers’ particular voice types – their ranges, restrictions, lines and sense of display.  “Sestia was sung by Anna Maria Strada del Pò and the high tessitura shows off her strong and radiant sound and fearless quality to her performances.  Pirro, the warlike king, was sung by the dynamic Carestini, who sang the virtuosic tour de force pieces with a wide vocal range.  Hasse commented that, ‘He who has not heard Carestini is not acquainted with the most perfect style of singing’.  Bircenna was sung by Durastanti, who had swapped roles with Maria Caterina Negri, and the role has wide dissonant leaps in vocal lines and other difficulties, such as chromaticism which she covered very well.  In addition, transpositions were made, for voice types, roles were swapped, and several cuts were made, to shorten the opera.”  

The role of Fabbricio, which was sung by Waltz, in Handel’s arrangement was also heavily cut.  One of his arias was cut as it has been used recently in Handel’s pasticcio Semiramide riconosciuta and therefore Hasse’s original five arias reduced to just a single number, ‘Quella è mia figlia e ’l mio’.  Handel also had to compose new dramatic recitatives, which Bridget describes as “well-considered, well-placed and reflecting the text.  They are evenly distributed in accordance to the significance of the role.”

I ask Bridget what led her to Handel’s pasticcio?  “In 2015, I began to create an important recording series about George Frideric Handel with our partner record label, Signum Classics – looking not only at Handel’s iconic works, masterpieces and his incredible musical legacy, but also some of his lesser-known repertoire, from his travels across Europe.  For many years, I have been researching and performing Handel’s cantatas, operas, pasticcios, oratorios, opulent keyboard works, and exploring his work in Ireland, at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, in Italy, and the spread of his influence and experiences.”

Jess Dandy (Cinea) in rehearsal (c) Marshall Light Studio

“There are some baroque operas or pasticcio operas which have not been edited or recorded because they may have been considered compositionally weaker, but this is absolutely not the case here.  Handel’s pasticcios are vibrant and have been overlooked for far too long.  Caio Fabbricio is one of nine pasticcio operas that Handel performed in London.  It contains a brilliant and well-considered collection of some of the finest eighteenth-century Neapolitan arias by different composers which were selected, arranged, assembled and directed by Handel, who was in effect, the editor.” 

“In 2018, London Early Opera raised funds to digitise the manuscript of Handel’s conducting score of Caio Fabbricio, which is held at the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Hamburg, and, with the support of the Handel Institute, I made a new edition, parts and scores – a lockdown project! – and Professor Michael Talbot created a new text and Italian translation for us.”  In Handel’s score only the bass line of the Overture was indicated, so Bridget has substituted Hasse’s Concerto No.2 in D, which shares the same forces and key as Handel’s opera and is appropriately celebratory in mood.J

Bridget’s edition employs the same forces as Handel’s original – strings and two each of oboes and horns – and a rich continuo group comprising archlute, bassoon, double bass and harpsichord.  I ask her about the challenges of the editing process. “Throughout, I made important decisions on speed, shape and colour, ornaments and cadenzas, and decisions on temperaments to suit the work.  This was the first time I had to find four mezzos though!  All of this was based upon my extensive experience of voice, harpsichord and conducting.  Hasse, like Handel was also a harpsichordist.  And, the harpsichord always has a special focus in my life – it is wonderful to lead forces from it and perform this colourful, vibrant music.  The rhetoric of this music is incredibly detailed and everything we play says something and speaks to us, as we take the listener on a journey, to be moved by the music, from affect to affect.”

London Early Opera in rehearsal (c) Marshall Light Studio

I wonder what present-day audiences will admire in Handel’s pasticcio?  Bridget suggests that the storyline will seem relevant and universal.  “The libretto is by Apostolo Zeno and the plot is based on the story of the incorruptible Roman ambassador Caio Fabbricio.  He was sent from Rome to Tarento, a city on the southern coast of Italy, to restore peace and order between his republican Rome and the Greeks under the leadership of the warlike King of Epirus and Macedonia Pyrrhus (Pirro) in the wake of the latter’s self-damaging ‘Pyrrhic’ victory in 280 BC.  In using this libretto, Handel reminded his audience of a familiar episode from the history of ancient Rome – one taking place on the territory of Italy itself, a perennial centre of attention for art and music collectors that stirred up memories of Grand Tours and places visited.  It upholds the Classical unity of time, place and action.” 

“The theme of Caio Fabbricio is ‘As Good as it Gets’, and rather than ending with a glorification of the Greek victory, or of Rome, and long praise and jubilation, the virtue of Caio Fabbricio or of Volusio’s freedom and love for Sestia,  the finale is a very brief celebratory chorus of only 22 bars, representing momentary peace.  This Pyrrhic Victory, which the Greeks won, was temporary as they went on to lose the Pyrrhic War – and they lost so many lives that they felt that even to win again, would be a terrible loss.   This libretto reinforces the futility of war, resonating with us all even today.”

The music, too, is brilliantly melodious.  “In Caio Fabbricio it’s wonderful to see how Handel, as editor, carefully chose the very best Neapolitan repertoire to suit his forces.”  She singles out Sestia’s aria, ‘Caro sposo, amato oggetto’, which ends the first Act as one of the highlights.  “Her beloved, whom she believed dead, has just returned and this is a moment of hope and joyfulness.”  The role is performed on this recording by Miriam Allan, and this lovely aria can be enjoyed on London Early Opera’s YouTube channel.

Bridget is passionately committed to bringing Handel’s work as editor and director into the foreground. “I would like to take this important Handel opera to major opera house and festivals as it is great work and very relevant today.  It would be exhilarating for me to direct staged versions of Caio Fabbricio and other of my favourite baroque operas at major opera houses across the world.”

Caio Fabbricio is released by Signum Classics on 3rd June.
London Early Opera will perform Handel’s pasticcio at
St George’s Hanover Square on 24th May.

Claire Seymour

[1] Charles Jennens to John Ludford, 13 December 1733, transcribed in Anthony Hicks, ‘A New Letter of Charles Jennens’, Göttinger Händel-Beiträge 4 (1991), 254-57.

[2] Mainwaring, J., Memoirs of the Life of the late George Frederic Handel (London: R & J Dodsley, 1760).

[3] Foundling Museum, Gerald Coke Handel Collection, accession no. 2702, ‘Jennens Holdsworth Letters 2’, items 86 (17th January 1743) and 87 (5th February 1743).

ABOVE: Bridget Cunningham leading London Early Opera in rehearsal for the company’s new recording of Caio Fabbricio (c) Marshall Light Studio