Handel by Jonathan Keates Page B

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Authors: Jonathan Keates
Ferdinando de’ Medici, whose sister Anna Maria was married to the Elector Palatine. Delighted with the young composer, the latter wrote to Florence: ‘I have found in the virtuoso Georg Friedrich Handel all those singular talents for which he enjoyed a justified place in Y.R.H.’s favour, whose kind letter he has given me. I am, moreover, Y.R.H.’s debtor for the satisfaction I have received from his several weeks’ stay here,’ signing himself ‘Your Brother and Servant even in the Grave’. Though Johann Wilhelm was disappointed not to secure Handel’s services, ‘he made him a present of a fine set of wrought plate for a desert, and in such a manner as added greatly to its value’. Doubtless this trophy, along with the similar gift made earlier by Prince Ferdinando, was eventually shipped to England with the rest of Handel’s baggage, but there is no mention of all this handsome tableware in either his will or the household inventory made after his death.
    The years before Handel’s arrival in England had seen startling changes in the nature of London’s flourishing theatrical life. At the start of the century there were two playhouses open in the city, the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1705 a new theatre was built at the bottom of the Haymarket to designs by Sir John Vanbrugh,on a site now partly occupied by New Zealand House and Her Majesty’s Theatre. ‘Van’s tott’ring dome’, as the contemporary poet Nicholas Rowe called it, was an ambitious affair and the acoustics were generally inadequate: ‘the Tone of a Trumpet, or the Swell of an Eunuch’s holding Note, ’tis true, might be sweeten’d by it; but the articulate Sounds of a speaking Voice were drown’d, by the hollow Reverberations of one Word upon another.’ This was corrected some four years later, by which time audiences had had ample opportunity to judge both sorts of entertainment in their new setting. Meanwhile opera, for better or worse, had arrived in England and altered the entire spectrum of stage entertainment in the capital.
    Its appearance was not altogether a surprise. London audiences had grown increasingly accustomed to musical interpolations in comedy and tragedy performances, and all plays were in any case given with ‘act music’ designed to cover scene changes, quieten the spectators and introduce the forthcoming stages of the drama. During the 1690s Purcell had brought out his ambigus or ‘semi-operas’, plays heavily larded with dramatic music of the highest calibre, though not all the speaking roles were expected to sing as well. The growing number of young noblemen spending long periods on the Continent to complete their education inevitably made for a greater sophistication in the taste of at least one important sector of the metropolitan public. Thus Italian singers and instrumentalists started by degrees to figure in theatrical programmes, and operatic arias were inserted at appropriate moments.
    The Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket opened under Vanbrugh’s direction on 19 April to a prologue spoken by Anne Bracegirdle, the most accomplished actress of her day, written by the royal physician Sir Samuel Garth:
    Your own magnificence you here survey,
    And cars triumphal rise from carts of hay.
    Swains here are taught to hope, and nymphs to fear,
    And big Almanzors fight mock Blenheims here.
    Descending goddesses adorn our scenes,
    And quit their bright abodes for gilt machines.
    Garth’s lines introduced a pastoral entertainment, Gli amori d’Ergasto , by Jakob Greber, an undistinguished German composer who two years earlier had written the music for Nicholas Rowe’s popular tragedy The Fair Penitent . The new opera was notable solely as the first to be given in London with foreign singers and an Italian text. It was at Drury Lane, however, in the preceding

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