L'isola di Alcina, parole di Antonio Fanzaglia, musica di Riccardo Broschi.
Ruggero's role was performed by Broschi's brother, "Farinelli".
Alcina can be compared to other characters in Handel's operas: Armida and Medea.
In my Bachelor Thesis for the English School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki I examined three operatic figures from three operas by G. F. Handel and their origins in great literary works by Tasso, Euripides and Ariosto.
Poetry across genres: from ancient Greek tragedy to operatic librettos
The idea that music is graced with poetic content is as old as the mythical history of music itself. Scott Burnham
, “How Music Matters: Poetic Content Revisited”
In the above quote, Burnham makes a very interesting observation. Speech and music must have coexisted from the very beginnings of cultural development. Part of that cultural development was storytelling; this pastime activity of early culture evolved into great forms of poetry: epic poetry, tragedy and opera, to name just a few. Before anyone can delve into comparing characters from these three genres
which at first sight might appear as fundamentally different in form, content and presentation
one must point out the similarities and differences that make such a comparison possible. In the remaining pages of this introduction, I will attempt to delineate some common elements between ancient Greek tragedy, Italian epic poetry of the Renaissance and Italian
. Tragedy was meant to be acted out, both for the entertainment and education of the Athenian public. Epic poetry was recited at festivities, again as a form of entertainment. Opera combined word with music and theatre and created a unique art form. All three share the same origins, and these origins I will try to point out. I intend to show that the common denominator of all three genres is essentially the spoken word, through which characters are conjured up into temporary existence and that
even though the ends of each genre might differ from each other
the common goal of all three is the entertainment and education of the spectator. Let us turn our attention first to ancient Greek tragedy
. As A.M. Nagler
observes: “Greek tragedy had its roots in the choric
dithyramb” (3), which makes two
Although from a historical point of view it would be more appropriate to start with epic poetry, I deliberately start with tragedy, because I am not interested in the history of ancient Greek poetry in
points in one already from the start: tragedy originated from some kind of poetry
and its roots are also musical, the dithyramb being a sung poem. Historians seem to agree that the man who changed the dithyramb into tragedy was
Thespis of Icaria, a “[p]laywright, actor, stage director, and producer” (3) who also
seems to have given the first actual performance of a tragedy around 536 or 534 B.C. in the City Dionysia of Athens, after an invitation of Pisistratus. The way then was paved for the three greatest Athenian playwrights: Aeschylus (525-4 B.C.
456-5 B.C.), Sophocles (ca. 495 B.C.
406 B.C.) and Euripides (ca. 480 B.C.
ca. 407 B.C.). Nagler quotes an anonymous biographer of Aeschylus, who explains what innovations he brought to the theatre: Aeschylus was the first to advance tragedy by means of a more exalted passion. He introduced scenic decorations
paintings, machinery, altars, tombs, trumpets, spirits, Furies
whose splendor delighted the eyes of the audience. He also supplied the actors with sleeved and full-length robes and heightened the buskins to increase their stature. (5) It seems then from this report that Aeschylus was the first to realize that tragedy required an elaborate show of elements extraneous to the spoken word. Poetry alone was not enough to satisfy the demands of the Athenian spectators. These technical innovations would also prove extremely important in the future for the popularity of opera. When dealing with tragedy, it is impossible to overlook what Aristotle had to say about it in his
. As Stephen Halliwell points out: “Aristotle’s
occupies a highly special, indeed unique, position in the long history of Western
attitudes to literature” (3). This treatise on “both poetry in general and the capacity of each of its genres” (1147a1) was composed two centuries after the first tragedies had
general. Where it is necessary in the pages on Italian epic poetry, comparisons with ancient Greek epic poetry will be drawn.
their premieres in Athens. During those two centuries hundreds of plays had been performed, but still the most important playwrights remained the original three. However, the genre had existed long enough for it to have some unspoken rules of composition and performance, rules that Aristotle attempted to analyze. As Kenneth
McLeish observes: “Aristotle’s conclusions were nev
er meant to be prescriptive; they were, rather, a summary of all evidence so far available, with conclusions drawn from
it” (6) or as A. O. Rorty notes: “[…] the
is a book of technical advice, as well
as a functionally oriented anatomy” (3). Aristotle’s contribution to tragedy should be
seen as a scientific observation on poetry and not only as the ultimate course book on poetic perfection. At this point, it would be reasonable to introduce that famous definition of tragedy, as it is given in the
: Tragedy, then, is mimesis of an action which is elevated, complete, and of magnitude; in language embellished by distinct forms in its sections; employing the mode of enactment, not narrative; and through pity and fear accomplishing the catharsis of such emotions. (1449b24-28)
Although most interpreters of this definition are “most vexed” (17) by the term “catharsis”, which never truly gets resolved in any of Aristotle’s works, I will not go
into the analysis of this part here. Instead, I will focus briefly on the aspect of language that tragedy employs. As Jean-
Pierre Vernant observes: “The Greek word
formulated speech, whether it be a story, a dialogue, or the enunciation of a plan” (34). In tragedy, this formulated speech is “language
with rhythm and melody, and
[…] some parts are conveyed through metrical speech alone, others again through song” (1149b29
-30). Here again music interferes with language. Poetry is enriched by it. So, even though tragedy required what we today might call special effects, the
action was achieved primarily through a metrical use of language and music. Poetry, then, is a medium to represent and act out a special event. It is not at all strange that everyday language was not considered to be the appropriate way to portray an important action
. Again Vernant notes that “in contrast to epic and lyric, where the
category of action is not represented since man is never envisaged as an agent,
tragedy presents individuals engaged in action” (33).
This last observation introduces us to the next poetic genre: the epic.
Naturally, here again one has to refer to Aristotle’s treatise: “Now, epic and tragic poetry […] are all, taken as a whole, kinds of mimesis” (1447a13
-16). Elsewhere he draws a few comparisons between the
two genres: epic and tragedy are “mimesis of elevated matters in metrical language” (1149b8
-10); but the metre employed in epic poetry remains unchanged throughout, whereas tragedy uses different kinds of metres (1449b10-11); also different is their length, not just the length of the text itself, but the duration of the described story (1449b11-16). Further down in the treatise Aristotle explains that: As regards narrative mimesis in verse, it is clear that plots, as in tragedy, should be constructed dramatically, that is, around a single, whole, and complete action, with beginning, middle, and end, so that epic, like a single whole animal, may produce the pleasure proper to it. (1459a16-20)
Finally, a little further he states that: “epic, should encompass
the same types as tragedy, namely simple, complex, character-
based, rich in suffering; […] it requires
reversals, recognitions, and scenes of suffering, as well as effective thought and
-13). These extensive references, then, show that tragedy shares many similarities to epic poetry; essentially that the two genres are connected in many ways,
Aristotle observes of cou
rse that “the iambic trimeter, more than any other metre, has the rhythm of speech” (1449a23
-24). This however does not mean that ancient Greeks spoke in poetic metres every day, nor created the kinds of elevated language tragedy used in their everyday usage of language.
such as the use of metrical language, dense plots, elevated episodes and characters that are larger than life. However, these ideals were lost in obscurity for many centuries after Aristotle had put them together. As a result, in the history of Western literature, one can observe a very interesting evolution in the epic genre, especially in Renaissance Italy. Naturally the poets closer to the original sources of Homer, like Virgil and Ovid produced poems of similar character. But, the important thing to keep in mind is that from imitation, eventually new styles were created through experimentation. The great Italian poets of the Trecento
Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch
found their own personal voice and style, therefore moving poetry a step further. When at last, during the Cinquecento Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) takes the reins from Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441-
1494) to complete the latter’s unfinished
(1483 and 1495), Italian epic poetry has almost nothing in common with the original ancient Greek works. We are not talking about pure epic poetry now, but about
“narrative poetry” (Marinelli 233) or “chivalric romance” (238). Ariosto’s poetry is pervaded by “a sense of decorum” (238) and “[h]e had an eye diplomatically alert for
opportunities to bridge the gap between the world of his imagination and the world of
daily reality” (238), being employed at the Ferrarese court. Ariosto
is completely unaware of the Aristotelian demands on epic poetry. Instead he is influenced by Neoplatonic theories as one can observe in the different kinds of love that are
celebrated in his poem: “Two kinds of love, destructive and creative, the
of the Neoplatonists, are quite deliberately poised against each other as
balancing points of the large design” (235). What Ariosto’s poem is also lacking, is the
absolutely serious style in which epic poetry needs to be composed. Ariosto is
constantly making ironic comments about his heroes, their actions, his own literary sources; and he is making fun of himself as a narrator too: The poem is therefore Virgilian, Carolingian and modern, and its creator, utilizing the unlikely medium of a comic masterpiece ultimately springing from popular sources, aims to make it the most comprehensive exemplar of the genre and to challenge the classical epic as well. Boiardan, Virgilian and Neoplatonic influences, all of them important in the culture of contemporary Ferrara, flow in upon the
, which absorbs and reconciles them all. (Marinelli 239) Ariosto writes not in order to teach or educate his courtly audiences, but to entertain. Barbara Reynolds remarks
on the subject: “The
is above all a poem
to be enjoyed; the chief aim of its creator was to give delight” (11). At the same time
however, he is leaving his distinctive mark on the genre of epic or narrative poetry.
Additionally, as Marianne Shapiro notes: “
His poem cannot be thought of simply as a transformation of myth into literature that gives a concrete example of a decline in
value” (326). Ariosto is fully aware of the society he writes for and about and presents
its vices and virtues in a masked way, as only very observant artists can do.
were rediscovered around the same time. Ariosto escapes criticism
and there would be much, since his poem is indeed very
distant from Aristotle’s ideal epic –
but Torquato Tasso (1544-1593) falls right into the debate, which had as a result his revision of his extremely successful epic
(1581), into the complete failure of the
(1593). Tasso himself had the aspiration to become even better than all of his predecessors in the genre. In the
therefore, he borrows from popular sources and uses the material in an entirely different manner than those before him. Two of his poetic accomplishments stand out. First, his characters
protagonists and minor characters
are very well constructed, as Marinelli points out, “[t]he
at its strongest […] in the creation of characters, disposed in recurring patterns and relationships” (247)
. His second accomplishment is in the theatricality of the
descriptions: “The poet is fully conscious of the dramatic aspect of his presentation” (248). He “conceives of the world as a theatre with many stages. The concept of
, of life as spectacle, occupies a central place in Tasso’s thought”
(249). This worldview is wonderfully captured in his poetry, as Davie observes:
“Tasso can be equally succinct in lines which encapsulate the dramatic intensity of a moment in the narrative” (xxi). It seems then that Tasso finds a way to unite epic
poetry with its offspring, tragedy, in a unique manner. Without knowing it too, Tasso made it possible for music to find its way into epic poetry in a fashion that would pave the way for the first opera some years later
. Mark Davies observes
ts qualities were recognized by contemporary readers and its Europe-wide influence, not just on
poetry but on music and painting as well, was immense for at least the next 250 years”
(xix). With this comment it is now high time to move on to the last genre in this discussion: the
. It is important to make two observations immediately. First,
is not to be confused with the first operas
namely those by Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli and their contemporaries
that were performed between ca. 1600 and 1700. This first century of operatic compositions is markedly different from anything that came after it; and of course, opera seria is not to
be confused with what followed after Mozart’s
La clemenza di Tito
. We can understand then that the
flourishes between ca. 1700 and
I am thinking of the
Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
(1624) by Claudio Monteverdi, that implements three different voices to represent Tancredi, Clorinda and the narrator. Its composition takes place of course later than that of the
first opera, but in it we find the “tradition of the virtuoso madrigal performance”
(“sondern steht in
Tradition der virtuosen Madrigalistik”)
(Schmierer 8), where music is implemented throughout the piece.
Historically speaking, this opera is considered by many musicologists and historians as the last
. Second, we will be dealing with a subgenre in the
, which is the so called
) and which signifies essentially the subject matter of the works themselves. This means that certain elements that apply to the
, might be slightly different in the subgenre that is being focused on. During the past few pages, we have strived to make plain that there is a connection between tragedy and music and epic poetry and music. The reason for this will be explained very briefly here. According to popular legend, the idea for this new form of entertainment originated from a quest to recreate the ancient Greek tragedy in
its absolute correct way of performance. The “Florentine Camerata”, a group of
aristocrats, intellectuals and artists at the court of Count Giovanni Bardi in Florence
operated under the assumption that: “Greek tragedy, even in the dialogue and
monologue parts, and not just during the choruses, was performed
It could be a valid thought, since, as Pavlos Kaimakis claims: “If we
had the chance to ask the ancient Greeks how they perceive their own civilization,
they would probably speak of a mostly musical civilization”
(10). This idea of the reason and the persons that were involved in the creation of opera, has been treated with a lot of skepticism in recent musicological researches
. However, since that is not the subject of this paper, we will not go into it. Regarding the subject matter of
1759 is the year of
G. F. Handel’s death. J. S. Bach died in 1750, and this date is considered the end
of the baroque era and the beginning of the classical in the history of music (Michels 301).
The term was used by the great scholar Winton Dean. Unfortunately, the treatise in which the term is introduced is out of print. However, Beate Heinel refers to it in her book
Die Zauberoper: Studien zu ihrer Entwicklungsgeschichte anhand ausge
wählter Beispiele von den Anfängen bis zum Beginn des
. Frankfurt am Main: Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1994. Print.
“In der Annahme, dass die griechische Tragödie auch über Choreinlagen hinaus gesungen worden sei” (41).
“Αν είχαμε τη δυνατότητα να ρωτήσουμε τους αρχαίους Έλληνες πώς οι ίδιοι βλέπουν τον πολιτισμό τους, θα μας μιλούσαν μάλλον για έναν πολιτισμό κυρίως μουσικό” (10).
In short, there is not sufficient evidence to prove that the attribution of the theoretical aspect of the project and the reason for the new interpretation of an old genre are accurate. See Leopold, Silke.
Die Oper im 17. Jahrhundert. Handbuch der musikalischen Gattungen.
Band 11. Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2004. Print.
opera at the beginning, generally, during most of its first century, the themes were inspired by ancient Greek myths and legends, actual historical events of Greece and Rome and
by the middle of the 17
by such Italian epics as
and the poetry of Luigi Pulci and Boccaccio (Leopold 108). Librettists chose episodes that included a lot of love, sensuality and conflict. Episodes that had a magical hero
witch or warlock
were preferred, because they gave the opportunity for showy musical pieces and plenty of refined and extravagant sets that dazzled the audience. To give just one example, Werner Wunderlich lists some operas inspired by the Alcina episode in the
: “Francesca Caccini’s
Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ isola d’ Alcina
(1650), Antonio Vivaldi’s
(1727), Riccardo Broschi’s
Bradamante nell’ isola d’ Alcina
(1729), G. F. Handel’s
(1735) and Jo
(77). In the case of the
, we are concerned primarily with its form
both musical and literary: the libretto, which is the text that is being set to music, consists of recitatives and arias. The recitatives can be either a poetic text written in metre or a linear sentence. They can also be in the form of a dialogue with two or more heroes interacting, or a monologue, where one hero expresses certain ideas before plunging into an aria. The aria is most usually in the form of a
: musically this means that the exposition
or part A
of the piece, will be repeated with ornamentations after part B has been sung (Scharnagl et al 60). Poetically, the first part is usually a bit more extensive than the second part, always in metre and sometimes even with rhyming couplets, but the key characteristic is that certain words placed in the right position, will be repeated during the aria. These words are almost always nouns that express a certain kind of emotion (love, despair, hate, affection etc) or an
invocation to the Gods. Following the new directions constructed by the Accademia
the plot is
theoretically at least
directed again back to the
Aristotelian ideals for tragedy: “Unity of place, ti
me and plot, observation of the appropriateness of style, according to which tragedy should concern itself with people
of high ranks, comedy with low ranks […] and the fact that these ranks must never intermingle” (Leopold 324)
. These directions, along with a few more that concerned themes, plots and endings were hardly ever kept by librettists and composers, who had to abide by the popular taste of their audiences. All in all, however,
was in the end constructed like a tragedy, whether it wanted this or not. The heroes were of high rank, they suffered losses and made tragic mistakes, they loved with passion and hated with ardor, fought with valiant spirit and were
most of the times
magnanimous. But what they practically never did, was die.
This brings us back to that “vexed” term in Aristotle’s definition of tragedy: “catharsis”. Catharsis is not understood as a happy ending in tragedy. It is simply the
return to the natural order of things, where the hero is punished for his misdeeds or rewarded for his kindness. It is also understood as an uplifting of the emotions of the
spectator: “It is evident throughout the
that pity and fear are regarded as apt and indeed necessary emotions to be felt towards the suffering characters of traged
(Halliwell 18); having suffered together with the heroes for a while, the spectator can
now be purified of this psychological pain: “in some sense [catharsis] completes [Aristotle’s] account of the genre by framing the experience of it as psychologicall
rewarding and ethically beneficial” (19). Ancient Greek tragedy, to that effect, allowed
This group of artists, intellectuals and aristocrats was founded in the autumn of 1690 and played an important role in improving the studies on Italian literature and discourse, as well as setting some rules for the operatic libretto (Leopold 322).
“Die Beachtung der Einheit von Ort, Zeit und Handlung, die Einhaltung der Stilhöhenregel, nach der die Tragödie von hochgeborenen, die Komödie von niedriggeborenen […
], sowie das Verbot, diese
Ebenen zu vermischen.”
deaths, murders and suicides during the performance. The
on the other hand shunned on-stage deaths. They disrupted the
the happy ending. It is a well known fact among musicologists that this term
much like the term of catharsis
is extremely controversial and not as simple to comprehend as it may seem. F. W.
Sternfeld observes that “[f]ew periodical or dictionary articles deal with the term
or the concept specifically; rather, its discussion is buried in monographs on such topics as opera, libretto, finale or ensemble
(“lieto fine”). This is particularly striking,
especially if we take into consideration that most operas during the first two centuries of the genre
s existence, ended happily (Sternfeld). This
also takes various kinds of forms in its representation, which will not concern us here. What is important to keep in mind is that great composers and librettists often bent the rules, but did it in such a manner, that the
was nevertheless upheld
. I would like to maintain that the
may not exactly serve the same function for
, as did catharsis for ancient Greek tragedy. However, the happy ending signifies the return to the natural order of things, where the lovers can finally be joined and the conflicting powers be appeased. Before I turn my attention to the three heroines that are the subject matter of this analysis, I will give a brief summary of some of the characteristics of the
, as they are stated by Beate Heinel: On the other hand, Winton Dean in his work on
Handel’s operas used the term MAGIC OPERA and
defined it as a subgenre or a variation of the opera seria. [...] However, in his analysis of the individual operas, he emphasizes the magic that is being conjured up through scenic effects, instead of focusing on the
For example, deaths of all kinds
murders, combats, suicides
quite often in Handel’s
greatest operas, as well as in operas of his contemporaries. But they happen because otherwise the
would not be fulfilled. This is unfortunately a very long and entirely different matter that cannot be tackled here.
musical characterization of the magical action or the reactions that are produced as a result. (12)
Heinel may be
somewhat negatively preoccupied by Dean’s definition that excludes
the musical aspect of the magic scenes, but one has to keep in mind that the audience of a London theatre of the early 18
century would be most surprised and dazzled by tricky set changes and extravagant usages of the available machinery, rather than the musical aspect ascribed to a particular scene
even if that music was by Handel himself! She goes on by listing some more elements of the
: “[t]he magic figure”
(28) and natur
ally, the “magic object”
(28), “the magical action”
which in turn is divided into the “conjuring of spirits”
(34), the “spell of horror and love”
(35) and other forms of magic spells. These elements of the
are clearly poetical
as in the spell that a witch or warlock evokes to achieve something magical; musical
as in the music that will dress the poetry into a magical and possibly frightening piece; and representational
as in the wands and costumes, masks and other artefacts that denote the magic in an iconic fashion. Now that the evolution of the genres has been explained, I need to address the issue of chapter order in this work. There were obviously two ways of ordering the chapters concerning the witches: the first would be to put Medea at the beginning
since Euripides predates Ariosto and Tasso
Alcina second, for the same reason, and Armida last. In a sense I would discuss the texts as they appeared in history. But Handel did not compose his operas in that order and so the dilemma arose: perhaps I should place the chapters in the order that Handel composed his operas? Again a new
“Zum anderen prägt Winton Dean in seiner Arbeit über die Opern Händels den Begriff der MAGIC OPERA und definiert diese als Untergattung bzw. Variante der Opera seria. […] Doch setzt auch er bei der Analyse der einzelnen Opern den stärkeren Akzent auf die durc
h Zauber hervorgerufenen
szenischen Effekte, als auf die musikalischen Ausprägung der magischen Aktionen bzw. die dadurch
“Die magische Aktion” (34)
r Geister” (34)
und Liebeszauber” (35)
problem came up: What of
? Handel re-worked this opera at least five times and there is one version from 1731 that has significant changes in the end of the work. Which version should I choose? Thankfully the answer to that final question was delivered to me by all the opera houses that have ever performed a
: it seems that only the first version of 1711 gets to be performed, clearly because it is a lot funnier than the 1731 version. To the observing eye, however, it is clear that there is an evolution of sorts within these four operas (including the 1731 version of
); and because I am interested in the inner workings of their creation, I decided to place the chapters in the order of the composition of the operas. To put it all in a nutshell, the attempt to show that
Ariosto’s Alcina have any relation to their operatic counterparts in Handel’s
respectively, is not invalid from a comparative point of view. It is my opinion that the three genres I have analysed, operate on common grounds and
communicate through the centuries with each other. I will now turn my attention to the comparison of the texts, and the evolution or backformation of the characters in their different realizations.
Armida: a fortunate failure and Handel’s lucky witch
Oh you, who take Part of me with you, and leave part behind, Take one or give the other back, or make Both die.
, XVI, 40
Ah! Crudel, Il pianto mio deh! Ti mova per piet
! O infedel al mio desio proverai
, Atto II, Scena VIII As I have explained in the introductory chapter, I will turn my attention first to the literary text that historically seen, comes last. The discussion then will begin
with the examination of Armida, Torquato Tasso’s powerful sorceress and Handel’s
first attempt at the genre of magic op
era. Tasso’s Armida is clearly a major character
(1581) and it is not at all strange that she inspired composers to important masterpieces
. At the same time Armida has been analyzed as an interesting symbol regarding the evolut
ion of epic poetry in Tasso’s time; a
point that will be discussed briefly here as well. However, it is my intention to focus
more on Armida’s failures in Tasso’s epic and to analyze her unique position in all of Handel’s operas that contain a sorceress.
It was observed in the introduction that Tasso stood at a crossroads when he
began composing his epic poem. In the aftermath of Ariosto’s
it was difficult for any aspiring Italian poet to establish himself. Not only that, but the rediscovered Aristotelian doctrines regarding epic poetry forced Tasso to take a more restricted stance in his composition, moving away from his predecessors. As Edouard
Roditi explains: “it thus becomes clear that Tasso, as a neoclassicist, really sought to
conform with principles of taste which he himself had helped to establish and wished
The English translation that I use as a primary source is by Max Wickert.
“Ah! Cruel man, let my tears move you, have pity on me. Else, infidel, you will know the cruelty of my spurned desire” All t
ranslations of the Italian libretto are taken from the
DVD as cited in the Works Cited.
For more information on composers inspired by
Tasso’s Armida, see Silke
Leopold and Robert Maschka as cited in the Works Cited.
to illustrate, striving to move away from licenses that he condemned, from the
‘romanticism’ of Ariosto and Boiardo” (237). As a result, his
is very different from the two epics by Boiardo and Ariosto; at the same time,
however, it retains certain elements that depict clearly Tasso’s connection to his
immediate literary past. One of the things that are markedly different in Tasso is the subject. His poem was based on historical facts, conforming to a rule he himself made up
drawn also from Vergil’s
as Helen M. Briggs comments: Consequently both the
conform to the rule laid down by Tasso that the argument shall, in the noblest kind of epic, be drawn from history. The poet must not, however, treat his material after the manner of the historian, otherwise his work will become nothing but a versified chronicle. (458) This new form of epic then would retell a historical fact, enriched with new elements, both realistic and unrealistic. Also in keeping with Aristotelian rules, this new epic would have a limited stage where the events unfold. I am referring to the unity of
place, which “is respected by Tasso much more than by Ariosto” (Roditi 239). A very
interesting fact we need to comment upon briefly, is that Tasso revised his
a few years later, and turned it into the
(1593); the new version, a result of severe mental illness and criticism the poet had suffered regarding his first version, was a complete failure. The second version conformed absolutely to the rules of epic poetry that Tasso had helped to establish and Tasso himself considered it better than the original. However, as Anthony Oldcorn observes:
“In spite of the poet’s premature comparison of this latest
offspring of his genius
the obstetrical metaphor is Tasso’s own –
to the transfigured
Beatrice […], the
was still-born. The text posterity has chosen to
remember is that of the
” (496). The new version was stripped of all elements
that had raised the
to the pantheon of classical writings. The
may be an epic about the first crusade, but at the same time it is also a fictitious adventure. Part of this adventure for the Christian knights is the confrontation with the sorceress Armida, who is the niece of Hydraoth, the Lord of Damascus (IV, 20, 23). The introduction of Armida is one of those elements that make the epic something more than just a simple retelling of historical
facts. Helen M. Briggs emphasizes this point by saying: “For the first reason [
i.e. that it is based on historical facts] Tasso introduces into the
the story of Armida, for whom there is no
historical warrant” (458); and Armida is truly an
intriguing character, to say the least. She dominates the beginning and the end of the poem.
Armida’s first appearance happens in the fourth canto. The poet describes her
in a lovely and at the same time d
ark fashion: “all the Orient/no beauty to outshine her
beauty shows./Each darkest trick, each subtlest blandishment/a woman or a witch can
ply she knows” (IV, 23); further down the description continues: “Like gold her hair
one moment gleams, lovely/throug
h veils, then unveiled glitters from each tress” (IV, 29) or one stanza down: “A tint of roses in her fair face plays,/sprinkled on ivory, mingling with the white;/but on her mouth, warm with love’s breath, there glows/alone in simple ruddiness the rose” (
IV, 30). A very characteristic element of Armida is the game of veiling and unveiling she plays with the knights in order to seduce them. The
“secret places” (IV, 31) are partly hidden and partly exposed “so Mind will in her
daring penetrate/the veiled, forbidden regions, and, these won,/roam through them
freely, there to contemplate/the truth of countless marvels, one by one” (IV, 32).
Sergio Zatti observes on this instance:
The figure of Armida marks the entrance of Eros as the art of seduction into Italian poetry: Armida represents Eros in all of its aspects, with its unpredictable mutations and contradictions. Actually, Tasso has invented a figure quite
different from Virgil’s Dido or the various Medeas of
classical antiquity. Neither Dido nor Medea was a temptress, whereas Armida plays this role in the
from the beginning. Her political strategy is made up of a cunning verbal simulation (her false words form
disguising her true intentions) that is not different from her erotic seduction, conceived as a teasing game of ostentation (nudity) and feigned reluctance (covering), and played as an illusionistic transparency behind her
He also continues by making an intriguing connection between Armida’s fluidit
the general aspect of baroque ideology: “The protean nature of her being is that of the baroque universe itself, split between ‘being’ and ‘appearing’: Armida can assume an
endless variety of identities, metamorphosing herself according to circumstances and
the person she addresses” (208). This ability is displayed throughout her narration to
Goffredo of Bouillon, the leader of the crusaders, of her misfortunes at the hands of her uncle and her plea to Goffredo to assist her (IV, 39-64). The actual purpose to this invented story Armida tells, is to seduce Goffredo and his knights and lead them away to other kinds of conquest, removing the threat the Christian army poses to the heathen warriors, locked up behind the walls of Jerusalem. Sergio Zatti confirms this, making also another point about Armida being a symbol of dissimulation: In the
most of the negative uses of dissimulation are embodied in the figure of Armida, who manipulates her weapons of seduction and sorcery to achieve a single end
that of drawing the crusaders, and in particular their leader Goffredo, away from their holy mission and into the trap of Venus. (206)
Here we have her first failure. Goffredo is not the least bit impressed by “Armida’s ‘mortali dolcezze’ (lethal charms)” (
Zatti 179), because he is protected by divine powers and is impervious to any form of seduction. The same thing happens with
Tancredi; he too remains unaffected, but for an entirely different reason
. However, even though Armida does not succeed in her initial mission, she manages to take from Goffredo a significant number of his best knights and removes them from the camp (V, 77-84). She also brings discord to the camp, which has as a result the self-imposed banishment of Rinaldo, the champion of the crusaders, in order to redeem himself after murdering one of the other knights (5.19-59). Indeed Armida fails in her primary goal, but not everything is lost for her cause, since she manages to capture good warriors and remove them effectively from the battlefield.
Armida’s next failure happens in the seventh canto. She has locked herself
and her knights inside a magic castle. There is however no evidence of her indulging in amorous games with her prisoners. By all accounts she keeps the knights imprisoned, without sexually using them. When Tancredi arrives at her castle, she simply sends out her champion
one of the former crusaders
to stop him. Armida
“perched on high, […] sits at ease,/hid where, though unseen, she both hears and sees”
(VII, 36) and protects her champion once he gets into serious trouble unable to defeat Tancredi. As a result, Tancredi is lured into the magic castle and remains a prisoner of the sorceress. When at last Armida is ordered by Hydraoth to deliver her captives to him, the knights are saved by Rinaldo while on the way to Damascus (X, 70-72). Armida then fails for a second time. She is unable to keep the knights in her palace and then deliver them as slaves to her uncle.
Armida’s third failure is probably what makes this charac
ter so incredibly alive and interesting. She vows to avenge herself on Rinaldo, who has released the captive knights and comes up with a magical plan: to lure him to a barren island and
kill him. The poet describes this accordingly: “Like a sly huntress no
Tancredi’s extreme passion f
or Clorinda protects him from Armida
lurks/for Rinaldo at the ford” (XIV, 57). Once Rinaldo is lulled to sleep on the
desolate island she approaches him, but cannot strike the blow because she falls in love with him: But when she fixed those eyes on him to see his calm face as he drew breath, soft and light, his eyes that seemed to smile so charmingly, though closed (if they now opened, what delight!), she halts, transfixed, and next him presently sits down to gaze, feeling her rage and spite stilled as she hangs above him, marveling,
Thus (who would credit it?) the slumbering heat hid in his eyes melted the ice that made her heart harder than adamant, and lo! she has turned lover who was once his foe. (XIV, 66-67) Her passion is so strong that she also decides to take Rinaldo away; thus she transports him to the Fortunate Isles, where she creates a perfect illusionary garden and palace and hides with her lover (XIV, 69-70). In the creation of the magic palace
and its subsequent destruction again through Armida
the reader gets a taste of her true magical potential, as Robert Durling points out:
The art of Armida’s palace is magic. Writing in the tradition
of Boiardo and Ariosto, Tasso consciously tried to outdo them in his treatment of the enchantress theme. Part of the novelty of his treatment lay in his Virgilian picture of the pleading Armida, but he also tried to outdo them in his
enchantress’ magical virtuosity. Armida, at first overcome by
her incontinent passion for Rinaldo and later enraged by his departure, both builds and destroys her palace instantaneously by means of black magic. (343-344)
The palace and garden too are close references to Ariosto’s sorceress, Alcina. Those
gardens in turn are modeled on actual gardens the poet had himself seen; and Edouard Roditi explains that those gardens were inspired by a completely different source, retaining an invisible thread of subjects that span from Arthurian legends right into
Armida’s enchanted garden:
The Arthurian cycle remains, however, more evident: it is recalled by such incidents, now thoroughly endemic to Italian heroic romance, as the supernatural other-
world of Armida’s garden, itself borrowed from Alcina’s garden in Ariosto,
which, in turn was but an unconscious adaptation of a Celtic theme and, to some extent, also a stylized description of gardens that the poet had actually seen, such as the pleasure-dome of the Este family, the Belvedere built on an island in the Po. (242) Armida then is perceived once again as a symbol of continuity and novelty at the same time within the literary tradition. Apart from the magnificent garden, the palace itself is a very well constructed place. Robert Durling gives us an account: Tasso describes in detail the various defenses with which
Armida’s palace is equipped. It stands on a s
teep mountain; its approach is guarded by wild beasts; in the plain outside
the palace itself is placed the ‘fonte del riso,’ the taste of
which induces fatally uncontrollable laughter; two sirens are
stationed in the lake formed by the fountain’s waters; Armida’s garden is in the center of a labyrinth of heavy
Everything attests to Armida’s powers and her exceptional strategic s
kills, fending off any intruder who might disturb her bliss with Rinaldo.
Armida’s third failure, as we described it
above, is there simply as a test for Rinaldo and the two knights that go after him, Carlo and Ubaldo. The idea behind this is quite simple. Rinaldo is an accomplished warrior in every way, even before he is captured by Armida. Being youthful and very inexperienced in matters of emotions and honor
let us recall here that he had a very short temper, a result of which was his banishment from the crusaders army
he needs to be educated before he can liberate Jerusalem. He must learn temperance and self-control. Armida, with her excesses and lasciviousness is the perfect teacher. This idea is confirmed by a few scholars as well;
David Quint says that: “Before [Goffredo] can conquer the Moslem defenders of
Jerusalem, he must restore unity in his own ranks, particularly with regard to the hero Rinaldo, whose defection and eventual return to the Christian army imitates the model
of Achilles and gives the poem its generally Iliadic shape” (2
-3); Sergio Zatti
continues the thought by stating: “Thus, the hero of the
, in order to reach the
Christian temple, must perforce pass through the ‘pagan’ garden of Armida” (198);
finally, Giovanni Da Pozzo comments that: “the aim of the episode is to recover the lover that must be taken back to the battlegrounds” (328).
Therefore Armida’s failure
to kill Rinaldo is part of a well constructed plan to restore the champion of the Christian army to his senses.
The fashion in which Carlo and Ubaldo find Rinaldo on Armida’s island is strongly reminiscent of Ruggiero’s state wh
ile with Alcina; a fact that shows how much Tasso was under the influence of his poetic precursors. The poet ascribes such
power to the lovers’ passions that nature itself is partaking in the whole act: “It seems
all earth and waves and skies above/breathe the sweet scents and the sweet sighs of
love” (XVI, 16). Inside this garden of wonders the couple is immersed in lustful
games, completely unaware of the two intruders: Lo! Between branch and branch meanwhile their sights pierce through the gloam and see, or seem to see, then clearly see the lover and his lass, he lying in her lap, she on the grass. Her veil parts at her bosom, and her hair, loosed to the warm breeze, lets its ringlets dance. She swoons in his caress, cheeks flushed and bare, while silver beads of sweat their charms enhance. (XVI, 17-18) Rinaldo is entirely stripped of his manhood; this transformation begins already in the
fourteenth canto, when the hero, listening to the sirens’ lullaby, falls asleep and thus into Armida’s trap. Melinda Gough emphasizes that: “The songs performed by Armida’s Siren in canto 14 not only lull Rinaldo to sleep, however. They also have ‘lulled his manhood,’ a point the narrator underlines by informing us that in Armida’s enchanted garden Rinaldo’s ‘sword, (not
to speak of other things)’ has been ‘made effeminate at his side by too much luxury’” (530). Rinaldo is forced to realize the
pitiful state in which he has fallen with the help of a shield that Ubaldo carries with him. This is necessary for the education of the hero because, as Robert Durling
comments: “Both Rinaldo and Armida are overcome by passion, and the mission of
Carlo and Ubaldo represents the reinstatement of reason to control over the appetite,
most probably by means of natural persuasion” (340).
In his reflection on the shield
Rinaldo sees “his sword, his very sword, ablaze/with womanish gauds, to luxury
succumb./Adornment makes it seem a useless toy,/not the fierce tool a soldier might
employ” (XVI, 30). Once the knight gets over his initial fee
lings of shame and remorse he decides to leave the island immediately and return to the conquest. In the remainder of the sixteenth canto, Tasso portrays masterfully the deep love that Armida harbors for Rinaldo. Once she realizes that he is escaping her, she follows him and catches up with him and his liberators. She confronts him in a highly unusual and most unexpected way. Instead of using her magic skills to imprison him and his companions, or even of inflicting some kind of harm upon them, she tries to convince him to take her with him. She offers to become his willful slave and appear
in front of everyone as another spoil of war: “When victors go, their captives do not
stay./Make whole your triumph, let your army see/one final trophy on your glorious
way” (XVI, 48). This unexpected turn of events, even though it might appear as
somewhat untrue and unrealistic, is a clear reference to Deuteronomy and a way for Tasso to preserve his sorceress in a comely fashion. Melinda Gough observes: From the moment
of Rinaldo’s attempted departure from the temptress’ garden in canto 16, the poem portrays Armida as
not only a traditional enchantress but also a captive woman like that of Deuteronomy, a figure taken up by writers such as Jerome and Boccaccio in their defenses of pagan poetry. By first transforming his sorceress into a pagan captive and then modifying the treatment this lovely captive should receive at the hands of the conquerors, Tasso finds a way to avoid
sacrificing Armida’s beauty and her poetic powe
rs to the exigencies of Christian epic. (534) What is meant by this is that, unlike Alcina who in the end is exposed as an ugly and very old woman, Armida may remain beautiful to the end. The repercussions of such a choice, that moves Tasso away from his predecessors,
are seen in the end: “Tasso’s
striking refusal to imitate his literary precursors by depicting his enchantress as a hideous hag appears to be a conscious aesthetic choice, one for which he compensates, if uneasily, by transforming Armida into a willing captive pagan woman who is then
literally converted to the Christian cause” (526). Her evil power is not the fact that she
uses magic to make herself appear beautiful, but simply the fact that she stalls
Rinaldo: “Armida, after all, does little more than keep Rinaldo from his duty” (Durling 338). Her magic powers are so perfect that they “work[…] like art” (Zatti 210);
something extremely important to Tasso, who seems to be identifying sometimes his sorceress with the process of artistic creation. Again Melinda Gough observes on the
connection between Armida’s beauty and the process of literary composition: “Tasso
insists on associating Armida with pleasures and dangers both erotic and literary. But equally insistently he refuses to unmask her beau
ty” (530). In Armida’s soliloquy to
Rinaldo in this canto the reader understands also that the sorceress has truly fallen in love with Rinaldo, and that
contrary to what might have been the impression up to that point
she was a virgin before she met Ri
naldo: “To let one’s virgin flower be plucked, to tame/a man to kneel at beauty’s tyrant feet” (XVI, 46) is Armida’s
exclamation to Rinaldo. Galileo Galilei, quoted in John Black, observes this as well:
“Armida is a young and beautiful virgin, who is truly
enamoured of Rinaldo; full of sentiment, they spend their hours in those repetitions of love, which are not repetitious to the heart; and their retirement, far from mankind, to the Fortunate Isles, has a certain romantic charm which it is impossible to de
scribe” (377); and Robert Durling draws a comparison between Spenser’s Acrasia, Ariosto’s Alcina, Homer’s Circe and
Armida based on their uses of men: Acrasia and Alcina are true Circes, while Armida remains virtuous until she falls in love with Rinaldo. A
lcina’s lovers are transformed into plants, streams or beasts, and Acrasia’s
into beasts; but Armida has no lover but Rinaldo, and the
beasts outside her palace seem to have no connection with the knights she turns into fish in
, x, 65-66. Acrasia is similar to Armida, however, in not owing her beauty to enchantment, as does Alcina. (335) And we also get the impression that Rinaldo too harbors feelings for her in his
response: “Armida, your distress/grieves me. Ah, that I might assuage your woe/and
e the unwise ardour you confess!/I feel no hatred, do not scorn you, no!” (XVI, 53).
He knows, however, that he cannot take her with him, and thus abandons her on the island. Armida, before falling unconscious to the ground, curses him and claims she will follow him
wherever he goes “a vengeful ghost” and “a blazing Fury” (XVI, 59).
A truly heartbreaking scene follows, when Armida, returning to her senses, realizes she has been abandoned for good and tries to decide upon a course of action:
‘Is he gone then,’ she said, ‘and could he go
and thus forsake me with my life in doubt? […]
And yet, do I still love him? Should I keep this shore and, unavenged, sit down and weep?
‘What more have tears to do with me? Have I
no other arts, no other weapons then? I will pursue him; no place, neither sky nor the abyss, shall see him safe again. (XVI, 63-64) Eventually Armida decides to take immediate action and destroying everything she herself created on the island, leaves and joins the Egyptian army that is preparing to
assist the besieged Muslims of Jerusalem. Which brings us to Armida’s last meeting
with Rinaldo and her final failure. The final canto of the
is essentially the last and greatest battle of all. On account of the number of the characters involved it clearly tops every other conflict or combat that took place during the previous nineteen canti
. In the heat of the battle, Armida, who is fighting along the Egyptian army, attempts to kill Rinaldo with her bow and arrows. When she sees him for the first time
Although personally I consider the greatest combat of all, even greater than this final battle, the combat of Tancredi and Clorinda in the twelfth canto. Some elements are clearly hastily done in the XX canto, because Tasso was under pressure to finish the epic and print it. For more information on this last issue, see the Introduction of Mark Davie to
The Liberation of Jerusalem
again: “Wrath trembles in her eyes, and mad desire” (XX, 61); she takes aim and –
amid a lot of hesitation
she releases the arrow: “The arrow flew, but with it flew her
prayer/that it be spent in vain upon the air./She even wished the sharp dart would
return/and pierce her own heart” (XX, 63
-64). Naturally and although the shot is very good, Rinaldo is unhurt and continues to fight against the Muslims. Armida, enraged once again, releases a whole volley of arrows, but again as she send
s “dart after dart to wound his heart or head,/but as she shoots, Love wounds her heart instead” (XX, 65).
One by one the heathen warriors are killed by the crusaders and Armida, who by now has ceased any attempt to kill Rinaldo, retreats alone to a place away from the
battlefield: “She meanwhile reached a dark and sheltered spot,/apt for the solitary death she sought” (XX, 122). However, the poet does not allow her to succeed, not
even this time. Armida fails to commit suicide, not because she falters, but because Rinaldo has followed her and stops her before she can pierce her heart with her arrow. Their reunion is described in a very dramatic way: averting her disdainful eyes from the dear face and fainted instantly. She fell, a flower snapped in half that lies with limp neck bent; while, like a column, he with one arm propped her side as she sank down and at her bosom loosened her rich gown,
and bathed the wretched lady’s lovely face
and lovely breast with many a pitying tear. (XX, 128-129) What follows is one of those puzzling moments that occur often in texts like that:
Rinaldo offers to become Armida’s champion once again and procure for her a
kingdom, under the condition that she be baptized; on the spur of the moment, apparently, since there exists no further preparation in the text, Armida accepts the terms.
This extraordinary resolution of the Armida plot is the result of Tasso’s break
with tradition. Melinda Gough explains:
Unwilling to unveil his sorceress and reject as false her loveliness, Tasso must devise some new way to temper the erotic and poetic dangers she embodies. The story of
Armida’s conversion to Christianity constitutes such an
innovation, substituting assimilation for the usual repudiation
that would have been Armida’s lot had
she been exposed as an ugly crone. (533) At the same time, since Armida accepts the terms she is a novelty in the genre:
“Taking up this position of submissive, captive woman and evoking the cutting of her
own hair, Armida in effect becomes the first ench
antress who offers to unveil herself”
(539). But this conversion has also received some serious criticism, particularly on the
basis of the last words Armida utters in the epic: “‘Behold your handmaid,’ says she, ‘let your will/dispose of her and be her master still’” (XX, 136). The allusion is
obvious: Armida uses the words the Virgin Mary addressed to Gabriel in Luke 1:38.
Peter Marinelli criticizes: “At the end of the
, […] we must cope with the
problem presented by the final redemption of Armida, who uses the words of the
Virgin to Gabriel: a solution as astonishing as it seems distasteful” (247). It is indeed
interesting that Tasso took such a great risk with his sorceress. It is even more intriguing, if we consider the fact that the love affair is left suspended in mid-air. There is no satisfying answer as to what happens to Rinaldo and Armida in the end. Rinaldo offers himself as her champion, but there is no discussion of marriage or any kind of romantic allusion. One can of course claim, as have some critics, that in doing
this, Rinaldo is asking Armida to marry him: “The knight, however, soon declares his devotion to Armida in what many critics have taken as an offer of marriage” (Gough 545). But still “[t]he exact nature of Rinaldo’s promise
to Armida remains notoriously
unclear” (545). Rinaldo’s last words to Armida are there to appease her, as Giovanni Da Pozzo explains: “Still, in canto XX Rinaldo’s final speech to Armida can be
remembered, when he wishes her a definitive serenity and her
(329). It does not necessarily mean, however, that he is going to marry her as Gough
suggests: “The fulfillment of Rinaldo’s chivalric oath should be marriage” (546). It is
left to the imagination of the reader and his/her own personal feelings towards the
sorceress to decide her fate. Armida’s treatment by Tasso is surprisingly humane, but
again, this does not explain her conversion to Christianity, nor make the reader entirely comfortable with the idea that she might end up marrying Rinaldo, as Gough
again observes: “the sorceress has been portrayed so sympathetically that her debased
submission to Rinaldo, even if it does result in marriage, strikes an untenably jarring
note” (548). Perhaps it would have added to the character if she w
ere to suffer like her predecessors for a doomed love affair.
Torquato Tasso’s epic is filled with intriguing episodes and characters. One
of those characters is Armida, a beautiful young virgin, who falls desperately in love with her enemy and is torn between love and duty. It is also interesting that through her failed attempts to kill Goffredo first and then Rinaldo, she evolves into a very sensitive and deeply vulnerable being. Although her final appearance may not be as magnificent as one might expect, she survives with dignity and honor
despite the attempted suicide. And it is no wonder that so many artists were inspired by her and treated her subject in various other forms. One treatment of this plot will be discussed in the following pages, when we
devote ourselves to Handel’s first magic opera.
By 1711, Handel’s fame as an operatic composer had already reached a
relatively high point in all the cultural centers of Europe. He had been employed in the opera of Hamburg for two years and during his tour of Italy he was welcomed everywhere as a great composer. The decision to leave his steady employment with the Earl of Hannover
the future King George of England
and move to London was certainly a bold move. But Handel was a man who clearly thrived in the face of
adversity and enjoyed a good challenge. London certainly would prove to be his greatest challenge ever. The genre of the Italian
was definitely a new one in England; one that was embraced by the London audiences, but still lacked the popularity it enjoyed in other European countries. The main reason for this weak presence was mostly the absence of good composers who would give the audience something to feast on musically; because where good composers went, good singers would follow
something that again was not the case with London. Handel, who had an acute sense for business, realized very soon that he could devote himself to the composition of operas and make a lot of money, if he moved to the London stage. He did not let the opportunity pass. For the production of
Handel worked together with Aaron Hill and Giacomo Rossi. Hill, who was a theatre owner and an amateur writer himself, came up with the general idea for the plot. Rossi then took this idea and turned it into the libretto. It is obvious that the story is based on the
by Torquato Tasso. However, Hill undertook some changes that affected the structure and the
characters greatly. Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp explain: “Hill multiplied the
love interest by inventing the affair between Armida and Argante and the entire character of Almirena, but gravely weakened the relationship between Rinaldo and Armida, comparable in its stormy and devouring passions with that of Ruggiero and
Alcina in Ariosto’s
” (172). Also, due to the great pressure Hill was
under, the libretto was a hasty work, not well thought through, including a lot of strange scenes and superfluous characters
that greatly weaken the
characterization of the protagonists
. Despite the bad quality of the libretto, the opera was a huge success with the London public, both on account of the music and the extravagant scenic effects that were utilized for the first time in such a manner. Paul
Henry Lang observes in regard of the music: “The success was tremendous, and
rightfully so, because in spite of the hasty composition and the many borrowings,
is one of Handel’s great operas” (119) and Dean and Knapp too say: “The opera was an immediate success with the public” (181) and “
, thanks to its sensational qualities and the fact of primogeniture, had 53 performances in London during H
andel’s life, more than any of his other operas” (183). As far as the text goes, David Alden gives an extremely accurate description: “The libretto of
is a frightful
mixture of the worst clichés regarding Power, Love, Honor and so on, but the
ion of the text in itself was of an inferior category”
(12). What David Alden means is that in the case of the first Handelian operas, the text was the last thing to be considered: first came the music and then the scenic effects that could be employed, in order to dazzle and amaze the audience. Even so, there are some elements that make this opera stand out in the repertoire and one of these elements is the character of Armida. Silke Leopold explains why this particular sorceress has inspired so many composers: In the ranks of all the sorceresses that play their demonic games on the operatic stage
preferably from an elevated position
Armida has given wings to the imagination of composers. This is probably the result of the fact that already in the original literary source from which she comes, she is
depicted as more ‘human’ than all her sisters in sorcery like
The librettist, Giacomo Rossi, complained that Handel was to blame for the hasty poetic composition, because he composed his music with the speed of light. What Rossi did not know was that Handel was mostly reusing tunes he had composed for previous works in Italy and Germany (Dean & Knapp 172).
-Libretto ist eine erschreckende Mischung der schlechtesten Klischees von Macht,
Liebe, Ehre und so weiter, aber der Text war in seiner Funktion ja auch nur drittrangig” (12).
Circe, Alcina, Melissa, Arcabonne, Urgande, Logistilla or even Medea.
(37) It is clear, mostly from the music, that Handel too felt a certain sympathy for her and even though his first sorceress is not as well characterized as is his Melissa or especially his Alcina, she stands out over all the other characters in the opera and once
again demands the audiences’ attention.
Armida’s first entrance
in the fifth scene of the first act is impressive in every way: she appears on a chariot driven by two dragons, singing an
fury and passion: “Furie terribili, circondatemi, seguitatemi con faci orribili!”
(26). She arrives at the plains in front of Jerusalem, where her lover Argante has just signed a truce of peace for a few days with Goffredo, the leader of the crusaders. Argante, a powerful man, is in desperate need of some good news, because his campaign against the Christian army is failing. Armida, his advisor and connection to magical creatures
and powers, informs him that she has consulted Hell’s powers to find a way to defeat the Christians: “Signor, se ben confuse son gli enigmi del fato, io con note tremende
pur forzai quell
’abisso a scior in chiaro suon distinti accenti, ed a mie brame ardenti rispose in tuono amico: ‘Se dal campo nemico svelto fia di Rinaldo il gran sostegno, spera pur d’Asia il desolato regno’”
(28). Armida also informs Argante that she will personally see to the fulfillment of this prophecy, removing Rinaldo herself from his comrades. She then plunges into an impressive aria, where she expresses her certainty
in the turn of events that will be in her favor: “Molto voglio, molto spero, nulla devo
“Unter all den Magierinnen, die auf der Opernbühne und bevorzugt vom Schnürboden herab ihr dämonis
ches Wesen treiben, hat Armida die Phantasie der Opernkomponisten am nachhaltigsten
beflügelt. Das mag damit zusammenhängen, dass sie schon in der literarischen Quelle, der sie entstammt, “menschlicher” als alle ihre Schwestern im Zaubern wie etwa Kirke, A
Arcabonne, Urgande, Logistilla oder gar Medea dargestellt ist” (37).
“Formidable Furies, encircle me, escort me with flames of terror!”
“My lord, the enigmas of fate are obscure. With imperious imprecations I commanded Hell to give
n answer in clear words and to my burning desire, it gave a friendly answer: ‘If the enemy loses the vital support of Rinaldo, then there is still hope for desolate Asia’”
Di mia forza all’alto impero saprò il mondo assoggetar”
(29-30). Dean and
Knapp make a comment on Armida’s first appearance on the stage, that could have been a lot more powerful and different had the libretto been better prepared: “Armida
in turn wastes her sensational first entry on her lover and then kidnaps Almirena
instead of Rinaldo, whom she scarcely meets till the second act” (172
-173). Indeed Armida after her first aria disappears for a couple of scenes, only to reappear in scene VII, where during a small and unimpressive recitative she kidnaps Almirena in front of
a stunned Rinaldo. She exchanges only a couple of sentences with Rinaldo: “Al valor del mio brando cedi la nobil preda!”
and to Rinaldo’s refusal to do so she replies: “Tanto ardisci, arrogante!”
(38). Then she disappears again and does not reappear for a long while.
Armida’s next appearance is in scene VI of the second act. A huge interval of
other scenes have taken place, where the witch is only there as an idea, not an actual presence. Her plan to kidnap Almirena, however, has succeeded in removing Rinaldo
from the Christian camp. What she is not counting on is that both Almirena’s father,
Goffredo, and her uncle, Eustazio, have gone with him
. Armida, despite being off stage, lures Rinaldo away from his two companions with the help of two sirens; at the same time her lover is falling desperately in love with the captive Almirena, whom he
is supposed to be guarding, because she makes the lovely mistake of singing “Lascia ch’io pianga,” which is one of those typical heartbreaking melodramatic pieces of
music that belong in the evergreens of musical history. Enough of that, however; we
“Great desires and hopes have I, so I have no doubts at all. With the power that i
s mine I shall subdue
“Surrender your noble prize to
the courage of
“Such audacity and arrogance!”
Here is yet another inconsistency in the plot: if things were for real then the two heathen leaders were handed the perfect opportunity to destroy the crusaders, since their leaders and their champion had abandoned them in search of Almirena. But this is not an opera of war, rather an opera of love, so this little strategic mistake on the part of the librettists may be excused.
return to Armida and Rinaldo, who has just arrived on her island
. It must be remembered that in the first act Armida exchanges very few words with Rinaldo and it is implied that she does not get a good look at him while she speaks with him. Otherwise it makes no sense that now, seeing him for the first time clearly, she falls immediately in love with him! Her gasping exclamations in the dialogue
show her rising emotions of love: “(Splende sù quel bel volto un non sò che, ch’il cor mi rasserena.) […] (Con incognito affetto mi serpe al cor un amorosa pena.) […] (Ma d’un nemico atroce sara trofeo il mio core?) […] (Son vinta sì; non lo credea si bello)”
(64). Without hesitation she expresses her love to Rinaldo, who is not interested however and does not listen to her entreaties. Their dialogue before their duet is rather amusing, considering the circumstances: Rinaldo demands the return of
Almirena, expresses his detestation at Armida’s love and shows himself completely unaffected by Armida’s pitiful cries (64). What follows is one of the most lively duets in Handel’s operas –
and in my opinion one of the funniest too: ARMIDA: Fermati! RINALDO: No, crudel!
ARMIDA: Armida son fedel, io son fedel! Sì, sì, Armida son
fedel! RINALDO: Spietata, infida, no, no, crudel! Lasciami! ARMIDA: Pria morir!
RINALDO: Non posso più soffrir!
ARMIDA: Vuoi ch’io m’uccida?
(65-66) Although the words themselves are rather hard, especially on the part of Rinaldo, the music is diametrically different, perhaps heralding already the happy and absurd
e locations in this opera are also very obscure. Armida’s palace is on an island, on which island is
also located the cave of the Christian sorcerer, who helps Goffredo and Eustazio in the third act. Again it is highly improbable that something like this would ever happen in real life, but we are talking about an absurd opera, not a work of verismo.
“(Something in his beauty softens my heart.) […] (A strange emotion, a pang of love, creeps into my heart.) […] (Will my heart be the trophy of a detested enemy?) […] (I am vanquished, yes… I did not expect him to be so handsome)”
“A: Stop… R: No, cruel woman! A: Armida is true, yes, and faithful! R: No, she is cruel and faithless! Let me go! A: I’d sooner die! R: I can bear no more! A: Do you want me to kill
ending of the opera. Armida threatens to kill herself, but in this particular context, with this particular music, it is highly improbable that she will actually do so. The story continues with Armida playing some neat magic tricks on Rinaldo, appearing to him in the semblance of Almirena and accusing him of abandoning her for a more lascivious life. Rinaldo falls for the trap at first, but he soon realizes his mistake and leaves in search of the real Almirena. Armida is left alone for the first time in the opera and she contemplates her position. She sings a heartbreaking
and an aria immediately after that, which show Handel’s
great musical skill at depicting deep emotions and making his heroines more alive than
they should be; the aria too is a precursor to Alcina’s great aria, which is Handel at
best. Dean and Knapp comment on this particular scene: “‘Ah! Crudel’ is scarcely less profound than ‘Ah! Mio cor’ as a revelation of the anguish in the sorceress’s heart, torn between involuntary love and anger, and makes its point by similar means” (1
Armida’s accompagnato is essentially an internal monologue, in which the
sorceress realizes she has been abandoned and tries to distinguish between her emotions of hate and love and whether to perform some vindictive action or remain inactive: Dunqu
e i lacci d’un volto, tante gioje promesse, li spaventi d’Inferno, forza n’havran per arrestar quel crudo? E tu il segui, o mio core! fatto trofeo d’un infelice amore! No! si svegli’l furore, si raggiunga l’ingrato, cada, a’miei piè
svenato! Ohime! Che fia
! Uccider l’alma mia? Ah! Debole mio peto, a un traditor anco puoi dar ricetto? Sù, sù, furie, ritrovate nova sorte di pena e di flagello! S’uccida sì,… Eh! No, ch’è troppo belo!
(70-71) After she has concluded these thoughts, she begins her mournful aria, where again,
utilizing the form of the da capo aria to emphasize Armida’s inner thoughts, we see a
“So neither the charms of a face which promises so much joy, nor the terrors of Hell are strong
enough to capture that heartless man? Yet you go after him, my heart, you are the trophy of an unhappy love. No: let my anger arise! Find the ingrate! Make him fall lifeless at my feet! Alas! How can I do this? Can I kill my very soul? Oh, my feeble heart! Can you shelter a traitor still? Arise, Furies! Invent
new forms of punishment, let him die, yes! Ah, no, he is too handsome!”
sorceress as human as possible: “Ah! Crudel, il pianto mio deh! Ti mova per pietà! O infedel al mio desio proverai la crudeltà!”
(72-75). With the closing of this aria, where Armida is exposed as a scorned and abandoned woman
incidentally it is the third and last most profoundly deep moment in this particular opera, the other two
being Rinaldo’s “Cara sposa” and Almirena’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” –
Armida immediately devises a new plan to lure her object of desire back to her. Once again she
assumes Almirena’s appearance and awaits Rinaldo’s return. Instead of Rinaldo,
however, she gets her actual lover, who, believing her to be Almirena, exposes himself to
her. Armida is furious and accuses Argante of treachery: “Traditor! Dimmi: è questa del mio amor la mercede? […] Io, ch’il mio cor ti spiego con affetto! […] Io, che l’inferno, oh altero, slego a tuo prò! […] Tradirmi! […] I fulmini vedrai del mio furore”
(77). By contrast to Armida’s dialogue with Rinaldo, in this case the
dialogue resembles more the quarrel of a couple with marital problems. And another
side of Armida’s magic is shown as well: the power that turns against the hopes and
expectations of the one who uses it.
puts it very nicely and juxtaposes
the heathen couple to the Christian couple as well: “Armida’s infernal powers turn
unexpectedly against the beautiful sorceress, because it is only this power that is under her control
that reveals Argante’s unfaithfulness.
Here again does magic operate as a catalyst of understanding, because Argante and Armida form the negative counterpart
to the ideal couple, Rinaldo and Almirena”
(109). Armida closes the second act with a great
aria di vendetta
, turned against everyone who has offended her: “Vo’ far
“Ah! Cruel man, le
t my tears move you, have pity on me! Else, infidel, you will know the cruelty of
my spurned desire!”
“Traitor! Is this the reward for my love? […] I who gave my heart to you! […] I, arrogant man, who set Hell loose for you? […] You betrayed me! […] You will see the thunderbolts of my fury.”
“Armidas Höllenkunst kehrt sich unversehens gegen die schöne Zauberin selber, weil diese Kraft
ihrer eigenen Manipulationen erst Argantes Untreue entlarvt. Auch hier fungiert die Zauberei als Katalysator der Erkennt
nis, denn Argante und Armida bilden das negative Gegenstück zum idealen Liebespaar Rinaldo und Almirena” (109).
seem to be of importance to this play: “the tragedy of love grown cold, the mysteries of that area of human behavior which is ruled by the goddess Aphrodite” (Musurillo 54) and “the
whole plot construction revolves around Medea’s children; additionally
the child in general and the relationship of man and woman towards the child is a pattern that resonates
very often, even in the parts of the chorus” (Schlesinger 39)
. Other important elements of this tragedy are the oaths taken before and during the play. It is a well established fact that ancient Greeks valued oaths highly, having even
established gods as protectors of those oaths. As Anne Burnett observes: “Oaths stood
like the primeval pillar that supports the sky, a link that could at the same time hold off
a possibly angry weight” (13). In short Euripides creates a tragedy about human affairs
with cataclysmic results.
Medea is introduced to the audience through the Nurse’s monolo
gue. In it the whole story of how Medea came to be in Greece in the first place is quickly brought to mind and immediately condemned. Also in that speech the audience is acquainted with
some of the relationships that already exist: Medea is Jason’s obedien
t wife (12-14) and an exile (11), but she has been betrayed by her husband (16-17). Already here we understand that Medea has fallen victim to an illusion created by her passionate
emotions towards Jason. As Carolyn Durham observes: “Medea acts not for her
self but for Jason, and Medea believes that Jason will honor her love and the actions she
performs in its name with the fidelity he has sworn” (55). This unconditional devotion
she displays before arriving in Korinth turns to extreme hatred during the play. The Nurse also gives the listener the impression that Medea is suffering like any betrayed
woman would suffer: “Scorned and shamed,/
She raves, invoking every vow and solemn pledge/That Jason made her, and calls the gods as witnesses/What thanks she
“die ganze Handlung sich um die Kinder der Medea dreht, und darüber hinaus ist das Kind im allgemeinen und das Verhältnis von Mann und Frau zum Kinde ein M
otiv, das immer wieder,
besonders auch in den Chorpartien, anklingt.”
All translations from German are my own.
eceived for her fidelity” (19
-22). The Nurse makes another important observation about her mistress before going on to
different matters: “A frightening woman; no one
who makes an enemy/O
f her will carry off an easy victory” (37
-38). This side note is not only a very accurate characterization of Medea, but also a sort of prophecy in regard to the outcome of the plot.
Euripides delays Medea’s appearance on stage for quite a while. However the
protagonist is ever present, through exclamations that she makes off stage which again
reveal the distressed nature of Medea: “Death take you [children], with your father, and perish his whole house!” (113) she pleads and further down again: “Oh, how I
hate living! I want/T
o end my life, leave it behind, and die” (146
-147). Euripides puts
harsh words in Medea’s mouth while she is still off stage. These curses, combined with Jason’s betrayal, make Medea a sympathetic character to the audience. In the
ideal case of a completely unaware audience, her off stage remarks should cause the audience to support Medea and not Jason. This also means that the expectations of the
audience regarding Medea’s first
physical appearance on stage are entirely different from what Euripides gives. The audience expects a weeping, fragile and weak woman, whose only power lies in cursing those who have wronged her. But when she at last
appears on stage in line 214, she is “cool and self
possessed” (23). Aristide Tessitore observes on Medea’s portrayal: “Euripides’ initial presentation of Medea is
its restraint” (589). Thus, a completely new image of Medea is introduced. Finally, the
audience can hear her address the female chorus. This great monologue is a testament to Athenian orators, as it is well structured and succeeds in its goal. Medea pleads her case by describing her own misfortunes, but she also makes a social comment on the
status of women in Greece: “For women, divorce is not/
Respectable; to repel the man,
not possible” (237
-238). In this monologue one finds also that much commented line:
“I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear/
ne child” (249). Up to this
point Medea keeps pushing the limits of her own sex by making remarks totally unacceptable by the society where this play was originally performed. Her words are a violation of the expectations men have of women. This gender reversal is pursued even more when Creon enters the stage. He
admits openly: “I fear you” (282) and also further down he says: “You’re a clever woman, skilled in many evil arts” (285).
The audience can confirm his fear and
Medea’s powers, for evidence o
f all those accusations have been given already by the Nurse. Usually it is not men that fear women, but the other way around. But Creon is careful and realistic. Judith Fletcher makes a poignant observation in regard to
Medea’s capability to appeal to both men and women through her speeches: “She can appeal to a shared bond of women’s oppression one moment and negotiate like a man
with other men the next, although her negotiations are laced with the seductive magic of
or ‘tricky persuasion’” (33). This is precisely the case with Creon. She
manages to appease him and trick him into allowing her to stay one day in Corinth, to prepare herself and her children for exile. She revers
es all his fears of her: “So you,
of what? Some harm that I might do you?/D
Creon. I’m in no position
to wrong a king. You have done me no
-306) and appeals to his nature a
s a father to “make
provision/For my two sons, since their own father is not concerned/To help them. Show some pity: you are a
father too” (345
-347). Creon makes the mistake of believing in her innocence and allows that extra day.
Upon Creon’s leav
ing Medea gives us a glimpse of what she plans on doing
for revenge. Her ironic comment “I have in mind so many paths of death for them,/I don’t know which to choose” (417
-418) brings back to memory the many murders she
has committed so far. Anne Burnett reminds us that: “Far from
being of testified innocence, this agent of revenge has already been guilty of the worst crimes known to
humanity” (10). Indeed, her revenge is going to be ruthless, because, as Schlesinger observes: “Revenge is part of her own nature. That is why she nece
ssarily desires it and she is well aware of that fact. Revenge and consequently infanticide
since that is its core part
is a closed subject” (30)
. Medea requires the Chorus’
s consent for what she has in mind and of course receives it. At this point the playwright finally introduces Jason.
Jason’s first appearance on stage assumes the form of a quarrel between a
married couple, where each part throws the blame on the other. The difference with all normal married couples that go through the same situation is that the woman is as
powerful as the man and seems to be having the gods’ assistance. Jason’s infidelity is
an oath he took on foreign soil. So Medea’s claim that he has not only
broken his oath to her, but most importantly to the gods is a valid one (492-494). Also, once again a gender reversal takes place: Medea reveals it was she and she alone that made it possible for Jason to take the Golden Fleece, essentially portraying Jason as a weakling and definitely not the hero everyone thought he was (476-483).
Jason’s claims in his monologue that all he does, he does for the sake of his family
fall on deaf ears (547-567). When this scene between husband and wife is resolved
not in a peaceful manner
the Chorus breaks out into a lamentation about the state of refugees in general and in particular about people trying to escape love. This introduction serves the playwright to bring forth, exactly in the middle of the play, Aegeus, the King of Athens. Medea has planned her just
up to this point
revenge, but still there is some doubt as to what will happen to her next. She is well aware of
“Die Rache ist ihr in gewissem Sinn auferlegt durch ihre eigene Natur. So muß sie sie notwendig wollen, und das weiß sie sehr wohl. Die Rache u
nd damit der Kindermord, denn dieser ist ihr
wesentlichster Teil, ist eine beschlossene Sache” (30)
that. She has not received any divine signs that she may continue with her plans.
Fletcher explains in regard to the issue of revenge and Aegeus’ arrival: “Zeus
[…] is ultimately responsible for punishing Jason’s perjury, but his power is evidently congruent with Medea’s revenge, appropriately facilitated by the opportune arrival of
Aegeus whose subsequent oath, precisely in the center of the play, guarantees Medea
sanctuary in Athens” (32). So, it is clear that Aegeus is the divine sign that Medea
has been waiting for, in order to set her plans in motion. This scene has caused a huge amount of commentary from scholars, most importantly because it breaks certain rules of tragedy, as described by Aristotle. However, Euripides is in full control of his play, and even though this scene might seem to break the dramatic cohesion of the play, in fact it strengthens it. The best explanation for the use of
Aegeus is given by Herbert Musurillo: “For Medea, we
should recall, is still operating as a mere woman, and cannot proceed further in her
plans without the assurance of a haven and a refuge” (58). Indeed, so far Medea has
appeared as larger than life in the eyes of the audience, but still remains a woman, condemned to exile. A single mother in exile would have extreme problems finding a place to stay and start a new life. Aegeus gives her the opportunity she needs. He promises to protect her in Athens, when she arrives there. Medea, true to her character, makes Aegeus swear that he will grant her sanctuary (732-
755). Aegeus’ oath will be
as is testified by mythological reports of events to come
that oath nearly destroys him as well; we are remi
nded by Tessitore that: “She who will be received into the hearth of Athens as a giver of life is in reality a harbinger of destruction”
(601). Medea, who has assumed an entirely controversial gender role throughout the play, makes Aegeus swear, again raising herself above the female sex and into manliness. This break with tradition once more will result in future problems, because
as Judith Fletcher explains: “Euripidean oaths tendered by women lead to a disruption of the status quo” (30). Also in the Aege
us scene Medea conceives the plan of infanticide. Aegeus is himself childless and was on a mission to get a prophecy on how to conceive an heir (672-686). Medea realizes that the offspring
and in particular the male offspring
is of extremely high value to the man. Schlesinger
confirms this: “She realizes what the child means to the man” (42)
and also: “This
same case makes her understand that she can hurt Jason the most, if she murders his children. At this point she has the first thought of infanticid
. Medea not only decides finally to destroy her entire family, but she has acquired for herself a sanctuary. The Aegeus scene is resolved very quickly, and Medea can conclude her act of vengeance. Although a great deal happens before the end, these scenes simply confirm
Medea’s character as we already know her. Medea kills the young princess and her
father through the use of poisoned clothes, so the first part of her revenge is over. A Messenger describes the horrible scenes to a very pleased Medea and the shocked Chorus (1135-1231). We learn nothing new about the character of Medea in these scenes; we are only reassured of her potent magic powers and extreme hate. And this murder is only an affirmation of what Shirley Barlow so aptly discerns
has killed before and she will kill again
without a second thought
. There is drive and resolve in her determination to avenge and to preserve her won honour and avoid
humiliation” (162). There are only two more scenes that are of interest to our discourse
now: the scene of the infanticide and Medea’s departure from Corinth.
The actual infanticide takes place off stage. What is important is the final on stage meeting Medea has with her offspring. At first, one hopes that Medea will spare
“Sie erkennt, was das Kind für den Mann bedeutet” (42)
“Aber dieselbe Sache zeigt ihr auch, daß sie Jason am empfindlichsten treffen kann, wenn sie ihm
seine Kinder tötet. Sie empfängt hier die erste Anregung zum Kindermord.” (42)
her children, since they may remain in Corinth, after the princess took pity on them. But in her ensuing monologue Medea is torn between love and hatred. Her monologue proves that she is not entirely certain of the action itself. First she loses her strength and resolves not
to kill her children: “Women, my courage is all gone. Their young,
bright faces -
/I can’t do it. I’ll think no more of it” (1045
-1046). Immediately however
she changes her mind again, and tries to talk herself into the act: “I must steel myse
lf to it. What a coward I am,/E
ven tempting my own resolution with soft talk” (1052
-1053). No sooner have the children reached the door to the palace, when Medea again
cries to herself: “Spare your children!” (1058), while one line further down she
changes her mind aga
in: “No! No! By all the fiends of hate in hell’s depths, no!”
(1059). The audience has witnessed two murders, which she performed with steady resolution. It has seen how she tricked men into trusting her, without ever showing a sign of weakness. But now she almost refrains from completing the task she herself
has brought into motion. Shirley Barlow explains: “For in relation to her children at
least, if not to Jason, she is uncertain, fearful, emotional, aware of her own
vulnerability and wrong” (164) and Aristide Tessitore adds: “When the moment for
the final and most brutal act of revenge arrives, Medea is torn asunder by feelings of
maternal love” (594). When Medea finally performs the infanticide, then Schlesinger very accurately points out that: “Medea,
the human being, is dead; in her stead the
triumphant Goddess of Revenge has emerged” (51)
. Furthermore she has become a strange and repulsive kind of being that does not belong in human civilization.
Aristide Tessitore observes: “As the terrified scream
s of the children give way to
deadly silence, the once sympathetic heroine has become a repulsive and alien being”
(591). The murderess of her own children is completely rejected by society,
“Der Mensch Medea ist tot; an ihre Stelle ist die siegreiche Rachegӧttin getreten.”
represented in the play by the Chorus: “The Chorus finds the infa
nticide alone unacceptable
in fact, absolutely condemnable” (Durham 56).
After having rejected her own nature even, the audience expects that she will be punished. However, Euripides in yet another twist of dramatic genius, allows her to escape with divine assistance. Her third and final encounter with Jason is the ultimate culmination of the tragedy: MEDEA: What god will hear your imprecation, Oath-breaker, guest-deceiver, liar? JASON: Unclean, abhorrent child-destroyer! MEDEA: Go home: your wife waits to be buried. JASON: I go
a father once; now childless. MEDEA: You grieve too soon. Old age is coming. JASON: Children, how dear you were! MEDEA: To their mother; not to you. JASON: Dear
and you murdered them? MEDEA: Yes, Jason, to break your heart. (1388-1397) Here again, in this final scene, Medea triumphs, although her triumph is a
short one. The gender reversal takes place one more time, since “it is the man who is
weak, the woman strong; the man begging for mercy, and the woman triumphantly superi
or” (Musurillo 73). At the same time however, Medea knows she too has lost
something extremely important to her. Her revenge was towards Jason, but in a sense, she punishes herself as well. She escapes on her dragon chariot, but the psychological burden she carries with her is certainly more terrible than a life in prison. Barlow
observes regarding this: “Medea may escape physically unpunished at the end, but
there is irony because the mental and emotional punishment she has inflicted on herself more than c
ounterbalances this apparent freedom” (170) and Burnett adds quite significantly that: “The murder of the boys is an act of violence against herself with which Medea the erinys punishes the woman Medea” (22
-23). This self-inflicted punishment then is the only satisfaction the audience can hope as a punishment for the protagonist.
Before continuing the comparison of Euripides’ and Handel’s Medeas, I must
ly turn my attention to the divine and magical element in Euripides’
. Throughout the play we are constantly being reminded that Medea is a potent sorceress. However no actual incantation takes place on stage and the murder of the princess through the poisoned clothes and diadem is something which a deep knowledge of herbs and poisons might easily
pull off. Medea’s magical powers then in
this play are mostly associated with her intelligence and not so much with actual magic scenes. Of course, all her intelligence and divine powers do not prevent her from throwing her life into the abyss. Carolyn Durham explains and I do agree with
this opinion that: “Originally the source of her superiority, magic becomes in Euripides’ ‘humanized’ view of Medea a metaphor for intelligence in a world in which female intelligence is little valued” (56). Medea’s only tr
ue show of force happens during her escape, where a chariot drawn by dragons makes its appearance. Even then it is not certain whether she herself summoned this, or it was a divine intervention, considering that she is the granddaughter of Helios. Another question that remains partly unanswered is whether Medea is a goddess or a semi-goddess or a mere mortal. S. P. Mills gives us a little insight in this matter: One of these functions [assigned to deities] is the establishment of cult. Thus Medea in the role of
ordains the commemorative ritual for her children, with the result that
by the murderess’ own dispensation her guilt and sorrow for
her crime are transferred onto the city. Medea will first
establish the children’s tomb in the
of Hera Acraea; then, in return for this impious murder, Corinth is to observe for the rest of time a solemn festival and ritual in the
children’s honor.” (295)
In this act then of “establish
of cult” Medea is presented as a divine entity. Thus it
is explained through and through why Medea keeps escaping punishment for every crime she has committed and for every crime she is going to commit in the future.
Euripides, in his Medea, crafted a character so controversial and powerful that it is impossible to do her justice in such little space. A lot has been left out and only a small portion of what has been said about her can be found here. It is clear however that Medea has layers upon layers of elements; all of which make her such an appealing character. And although Aristide Tessitore is right in observing that:
“Medea is hardly a character whom one could love” (587), she is definitely a character
that can inspire. Such is
also the case with Handel’s sequel.
It is only natural that a character as rich and extreme as Medea should inspire composers to important operas. However, as we have pointed out already, Medea possesses a very complex personality, which in turn creates a lot of problems for
anyone attempting to expand the storyline. Silke Leopold observes: “Within the
magically endowed women in opera she
brought to shame without being guilty, the murderess of her own children
the most problematic” (277)
. This difficulty can
be clearly observed in G. F. Handel’s version of
. Handel had suffered a failure with his opera
Il Pastor Fido
in 1712 and needed a quick success to rebound from that financial and artistic disaster. He
changed his librettist, employing Nicola Haym. Lang comments on Haym’s contribution that: “like da Ponte with Mozart, [Haym] studied his composer, carefully
estimating his gifts and leanings. The libretto he prepared,
, was a ‘heroick’ piece designed to bring out the best in Handel. Haym’s sagacity was rewarded with a resounding success” (128). This “resounding success” however cannot be attributed to the libretto itself, but mostly to Handel’s musical skill
s and the scenic representation. Nicola Haym did not write an entirely new libretto for this opera. Instead he adapted
“Unter den zauberkundigen Frauen in der Oper ist sie –
die schuldlos gedemütigte F
Mörderin ihrer Kinder –
die problematischste” (277)
Handel finished the composition of the opera in December 1712, however the premiere took place in January 1713 (Dean & Knapp 248).
Vittima sarà l’empia al mio furore. (47)
Medea threatens the couple in the exact same way she threatened her former husband and his new bride. She resorts to the same methods she has always used; and she gives us a glimpse of what she is like when she is vexed in a very dramatic way. Her
aria di vendetta
that closes the act is merely the confirmation of her previous words and
Dean’s and Knapp’s comment that: “Medea is a fearsome creature in this mood” (
emphasizes this. Medea vows to either be happy or kill Agilea: “O stringerò nel sen quel ben’ che adoro, o la rival cadrà, con l’ira mia” (48
It is in the final three acts that Medea’s magical powers unfold in all their
splendor and horror. During the fifth scene of the third act Medea literally kidnaps Agilea with the help of a demon she has summoned and transports her to a magical place. Before doing this, she attempts to convince Agilea to marry Egeo and become Queen, rather than provoke Mede
a’s rage upon her: MEDEA: Romperò questo amore.
AGILEA: Cruda sarai l’impresa.
MEDEA: Bramo portarti al trono.
AGILEA: N’abborrisco l’onore.
MEDEA: Vuo che cangi pensier.
AGILEA: Ciò non fia mai.
MEDEA: Proverai l’ira mia. (61)
Agilea naturally does not change her mind, thus forcing Medea to use magic. Medea
plunges into an incantation scene that is “one of the grandest of Handel’s incantation
scenes and strongly prophetic of
” (Dean & Knapp 241)
. The act closes with
Medea’s aria “Sibillando, ululando”, which is a “spectacular showpiece” (241) and once again points out Medea’s raging character. In the second part of the aria Medea
“Anger, Disdain, and Fury/Rise up within my Soul,/O cruel Jealousy!/That a contemned Lover
/Cannot unrevenged find Repose:/I’ll invent new Tortures,/Contrive new Inchantments/For perfidious
Lovers;/And if he cruelly neglects my Grief,/She shall be
the Victim to my Rage.”
“Thus shall I win back the Heart that has deserted me, or my Rival shall go down with my Rage.”
“M: I must confound this Passion
. A: The undertaking will be cruel. M: I would set you on the Throne. A: I abhor the Honour. M: You must change your Mind. A: It is impossible. M: Will you provoke my Rage?
With the difference that Medea’s incantation succeeds in summoning the demons and Alcina’s fails
, as we shall see in the next chapter.
exclaims: “Nè à punirla vi stancate, ch’il tormento fà contento questo cor ch’ella tradi”
. Disappearing with the stunned Agilea into the darkness, this extremely powerful sorceress has stunned not only the other characters on stage, but the audience itself.
Three scenes remain to be discussed. The first is Medea’s second incantation
scene in act four, scene four. The two rivals are in a magical place, where Medea brings Teseo, who has fallen into a magically induced sleep. While Agilea attempts to wake him up, Medea summons her demons who bring forth a knife and a torch. Her short summoning aria is an impressive piece
of music: “Dal cupo baratro venite, oh furie, quelle mie ingiurie a vendicar” (76)
. The plan is to blackmail Agilea into giving Teseo up by claiming that the demons will kill him. The plan works. Medea wakes Teseo from his sleep and disappears from the scene, to see whether Agilea will
keep her word and reject Teseo’s amorous advances. Of course Agilea is unable to do
so and the two lovers are reunited and promise to die together, if Medea decides to destroy them. At this point we have one of those extremely unrealistic moments that often occur in opera seria and are the result of the
convention. For some unexplained reason, Medea, who has overheard everything, decides to let them be:
“Non vi lagnate più, fidi amanti! Non lungi il tutto intesi, finger non è più tempo. […] Teseo, t’amo, e lo vedrai frà poco. Stanca de’falli miei nodo si grato apprezzo; se vana è l’ira mia contro tanta virtù, ch’in voi risede, felice almen faro d’un altra il core, giacchè felice non mi vuole Amore” (83
. To the 18
century audience this sudden change of heart would not have come as a surprise; but to a contemporary
“Do anything to punish her, since my reviled
Heart knows no other Bliss, than to magnify her
“Come, o Furies, from the dark Abyss to avenge my wrongs.”
“Complain no more ye Faithful Lovers; Not far from hence, I’ve overheard you: ‘Tis time, no longer to dissemble. […]
, You soo
n shall see my Love. Tir’d with my Contrivance, I approve this happy Union. My Anger’s all in vain against thy shining Virtues. At least I’ll make another bless’d, tho Love denies his Happiness to me.”
audience this seems entirely out of character for Medea. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the whole must be understood as a theatrical convention, nothing more. The two lovers must at the end of the opera be united and the biggest obstacle to their union cedes her place.
This little exhibition of benevolence on Medea’s part
does not last long. The second scene that concerns us is in the very beginning of the fifth and final act. Medea is alone once again
as she was in the beginning of the second act
and this time her thoughts are not of Love and Peace, but of Revenge and Death. In a long recitative she decides finally to destroy Teseo and Agilea and
since she will have lost everything
finally die herself. The last sentence of the recitative is ominous: “Teseo mora, giacc’il suo amore oblio” (89)
. After this recitative follows Medea’s last aria in the opera: “Morirò, mà vendicata! E Vedrò pria di morire lacerate, trucidata la rival e l’infedele, che crudele m’oltragiò” (91
. She decides to make Egeo kill Teseo. It must be
made clear here that Egeo is still unaware of Teseo’s true identity: the King does not
know yet that Teseo is his son. Medea easily convinces Egeo to poison Teseo, since both are still in love with the same woman. But, luckily for both men, Egeo quickly recognizes his son by his sword and throws the poisoned cup away. He also blesses the union between Teseo and Agilea, thus renouncing his claim on the girl. Medea loses. This brings us to the last scene that is of interest and stands in direct contrast
to Euripides’ ending. Medea appears once more above the palace in a chariot driven by
probably the one she used when she escaped from Corinth
curses all around: “Essenti del mio sdegno ancor non siete; preparate queste pompe non furo a favorire un abborrito amore. S’armi dunque l’inferno! S’armi pien doi
shall dye, since he has forgot his Love.”
“I go to my Death, but I will have Revenge first. Before I dye I will destroy, wound, annihilate those ungrateful people that outraged me, my Rival and her Lover.”
rabbia e furore, strugga ciò che fù mio! Così partendo fò l’ultimo addio” (105)
. While her dragons carry her of towards new adventures, the entire palace seems like it is on fire. But this time the gods do not stand idly by. Minerva, the protector of Athens, sends her Messenger, who declares to everyone that they are under her
blessing and Medea’s charms immediately
cease to have any power. Once more the
is upheld. At this point, one may pose the logical question: Why did not Medea marry Egeo
as was the original plan all along
and stay in Athens and thus the opera would have an even happier ending? The answer is quite simple: the
allows for some structural inconsistencies, but there is just so much that an
can take. If Medea, after everything she had done to Teseo and Agilea, were to be rewarded with Egeo, then we would have a really serious breach of operatic decorum!
To further this argument however and return to Euripides: Medea in Euripides’ version
escapes unpunished and that clearly is a violation of the rules of tragedy; why cannot
the same thing happen in Handel’s version as well? The answer to this question is clearly connected with Handel’s position in London in 1713 and the expectations his
audience had of him.
was only one more opera he composed for London at the beginning of his London career. He had not yet established himself so firmly as both to demand a different ending from his librettist and to go that extra step in breaking with conventions, as he was to do in 1733 with his
There is perhaps another, deeper reason to this
; a reason that is directly connected with Handel’s sense
for dramaturgy and theatricality
. Clearly Handel’s Medea is a sorceress that impresses
the audience. Essentially she is the true protagonist of this drama. As Beate Heinel observes:
“As yet you are not freed from my Rage; This Pomp was not prepar’d/To grace a hated Love.
then arm’d/Full of Rage and Fury,/Of my own Contrivance./Thus parting I bid ye the best Farewell.”
Which was a financial disaster for Handel and almost ruined him!
Despite the horrible things the sorceress does, the audience finds itself more attracted to her than to any of the other leading characters, as is the case in so many other magic operas, where she is the essential protagonist, even though the work does not carry her name in the title. (137)
If Medea then is the true protagonist of this opera, then Handel has already breached the conventions; his protagonist remains unrewarded in the end, desolate and filled with hate. What more realistic situation then could emerge from such a plot, other than the one Haym and Handel prepared? Naturally someone has to be left out. It has to be Medea, because she is not integrated into the kind of society that the Athenians represent in the opera. She is rejected because she is different, not because she is evil. Some last comments need be made now for both heroines. Euripides took a popular myth of his time and turned it into a grim vision of disorder. Pietro Pucci
observes in this respect: “Euripides’ Medea m
ay be said, in sum, to be the incarnation of disorder. Social order, civic order both fall before her triumphant
” (109). At the same time his Medea is a model of the contemporary human being: “Medea too is
a rampant individualist, ruthlessly declining to set aside one whit of self-interest to
subscribe to the familial and civic codes which are the fabric of social living” (110).
No one can deny that our society today is driven by individualism and that many of us are willing to sacrifice familial and civic bonds, in order to succeed. Without knowing it Euripides depicted in his heroine a fairly realistic image of our contemporary society. This could be one reason why this particular play is so popular today. Handel on the other hand had to work with a
libretto that is certainly weaker than Euripides’
play. It served a certain purpose
as we have already said
and it served it well.
Albeit a sequel to Euripides’ version, this particular opera has some strong points as
well and they are all located in
Medea’s character. This Medea is the expected
“Trotz der Grausamkeiten der Magierin fühlt sich der Zuschauer deshalb, wie in
vielen anderen Zauberopern, eher zu ihr hingezogen, die ja stets, wenn auch die Oper nicht nach ihr benannt ist, die
eigentliche Protagonistin ist, als zu den anderen Hauptpersonen.”
continuation of Euripides’ heroine. She too is cunning, clever, powerful and desires vengeance. Her only differences with the original version are that, unlike Euripides’ Medea, Handel’s Medea is clearly only a
woman; she never breaks any gender boundaries and limits and all her actions are typical of a scorned woman; and (again unlike the first Medea), she fails in everything she sets out to do; even the gods, who in Euripides are almost co-conspirators, turn against her in the opera. I would even go one step further and claim that
despite the obvious weaknesses of the libretto
Handel’s Medea is far more human than Euripides’ in every aspect. I am also certain that Handel’s version contributes a great deal t
o the character of the sorceress, allowing her to evolve into something more familiar to the audience that can relate to her passion, without feeling guilty for doing so. There exists a strangely parallel line between Euripides and Handel. In his time, Euripides was the rebel among tragic poets; he was the playwright who refused to follow the paths that Aeschylus and Sophocles had set out in their works. His
was a failure when it premiered. Even in later generations he would always have to compete with the other two tragic poets and he was severely criticized, most prominently by Friedrich Nietzsche (Pucci 13) for breaking tragic conventions. His plays however have managed somehow to reach deep into time; his heroes, with all their human flaws inspired other artists who developed them even further. In the end, Euripides managed to escape oblivion and precisely the fact that so many controversial things have been said about him, is what matters most: he is important; his views matter. Handel on the other hand was extremely popular in his own time. After his death however, he was all but lost
save for those anniversary performances of his
and that incredible evergreen “Ombra mai fu” from
. When he was rediscovered sometime in the 20
century he always stood in the shadow of J. S. Bach,
his contemporary and fellow German
. It took the musicologists a lot of time to
realize that there was more to him than just the “Hallelujah”. He too however has
returned to the place where he belongs: the stage. And just as
in Euripides’ case, we
are always eager to hear what he has to say.
Incidentally, both composers where born in 1685, only a few kilometers apart, but Handel was by a few months older than Bach and he died nine years later.
Alcina: the illusion of love and the reality of loss
Her loss lamenting, shedding bitter tears, And many times she longs with her own hand To all her suffering to put an end. (
, X, 55)
Ah! Mio cor! Schernito sei!
Stelle! Dei! Nume d’amore!
Traditore! T’amo tando; Puoi lasciarmi
sola in pianto, oh Dei!
, Atto II, Scena VIII) One of the most interesting episodes from Ludovico Arios
albeit a rather small one, comprising only three and a half canti (VI, VII, VIII and a few stanzas in X)
is, without a doubt, the episode that takes place on the island of the great witch Alcina. It is most peculiar that an incident that takes place at the beginning of this great epic
a total of forty-six canti as the result of a twenty-five year labor (Reynolds 18)
and is scarcely remembered throughout the remainder of the epic
should capture the readers’
imagination and turn it into a story that can stand on its own. Handel too seems to have been captivated by this particular story, turning it into one of his last successes in London in 1735. Through the comparison of the literary figure of Alcina and her operatic counterpart,
Handel’s probably most
powerful female character, I intend to point out the elements that make Alcina stand out in both works, particularly as the symbol of material values, vanity, eternal youth and illusion. Ariosto places the action on a far-away island,
suggest[ing] from the outset that the Alcina episode will be a significant digression from the main plot of the
(MacCarthy 325). Alcina
’s character is introduced
through the direct narration of the knight Astolfo
who has been turned into a myrtle bush
to Ruggiero (VI, 32-53). This is particularly interesting for two reasons: first, Ariosto abandons the
The English translation that I use as a primary source is by Barbara Reynolds.
Oh, my heart, you are scorned! Oh, you stars! Oh ye gods! Deity of love! Betrayer! I love you so; How can you leave me alone, in tears, oh Gods! All English translations of the libretto are by Peggie
Cochrane and can be found inside the CD booklet accompanying Alan Curtis’ recording of the opera.
In fact the last mention of Alcina’s name hap
pens in the XII canto. Ariosto, Ludovico.
Orlando Furioso Part One
. Trans. Barbara Reynolds. London: Penguin Classics, 1973. 688.
immediate first person narration that governs most of the poem, as Barbara Reynolds
points out: “
For all the major events of his poem h
e is himself the narrator”
second it increases the reader’s expectations about this very powerful witch. Astolfo’
erience of Alcina is narrated from his point of view and not Ariosto’s, because it is
a secondary plot. Again Reynolds explains in her second introduction:
always refrains from intruding into a function from which he has temporarily withdrawn
(10). What Astolfo describes to the stunned Ruggiero is indeed marvelous: Alcina is the sister of the Fay Morgana, the wise and just Logistilla and last but not least, King Arthur himself (VI, 38, 45); she is also cunning, treacherous and
the fruit of incest
(VI, 38, 50, 43); and her powers are so great that even beasts
of the sea obey her will: “
The dolphins at her call come quickly leaping; / The tunneys flounder, gasping at her feet; / Sperm whales and seals are startled from their
(VI, 36). But her greatest power is that of her female charms. Astolfo warns Ruggiero of the danger, reminding him of his own fate:
On you Alcina will devolve her sway, / And bliss beyond all mortal joy award; / But, be advised, the time must surely come / When rock
or tree or fountain you become”
(VI, 52). There is no need
to point out that Ruggiero, despite all of Astolfo’s warnings, is du
ped by the witch. His fall from grace, as one could call it, is not entirely unexpected. It is also accompanied by certain losses: manliness, virtue, constancy and most importantly his memory of his one true love, Bradamante, who is a contrasting female character to
Alcina. Alcina’s spell is so powerful that:
The image of the Maid whom he so loved Was in his heart no longer to be found. The sorceress by magic has removed All trace of any former amorous wound. By her alone the cavalier is moved, By her his heart engraved. (VII, 18)
As a symbol, Bradamante always represents the virtuous and pious woman, who is at the same time valorous, beautiful, just, pure and carries many manly qualities, as she is herself a very potent warrior, who often defeats male knights during her own adventures
. She also represents the Western ideal of a good wife that keeps her virginity for her destined husband. By contrast, Alcina represents lavishness, excessive beauty, sensuality, sexuality, injustice, impurity, trickery, eternal youth and base emotions. However, for the duration of the Alcina episode
until at least Ruggiero is returned to his senses with the help of Melissa
as William J. Kennedy observes
“Bradamante becomes the sickness and Alcina the cure” (60). What Kenne
dy is implying here is, that Bradamante stands for a reality that is violent, unpleasant, hard and inevitably leads to death, whereas Alcina is loving, pleasing, sweet and carries the promise of eternal youth and perhaps even immortality with her. The Western world that Bradamante represents is the reality from which Ruggiero is trying to escape,
without realizing it on his own. Kennedy on this issue suggests that: “[…] Alcina
represents neither carnal delectation simply nor unrestrained sensuality totally, but
rather an alternative, and a wholly attractive one, to Ruggiero’s destiny” (61), which is an early death as the readers of Ariosto’s poem would know
. As Sergio Zatti
suggests: “Ruggiero is the character who most completely embodies deferral with his irresolute, undecided, and often interrupted behavior, […] forever at the crossroads […] between Logistilla and Alcina” (32). This inability to choose is the result of
magic that works all around Ruggiero for the most part of his early journeys.
magic spell is one of these things that keep Ruggiero from having
his own free will. That is also the reason why the narrator excuses Ruggiero’s
See for example canti: IV, 16-26; XIII, 45; XXII, 71-75; 96-97; XXXII 72-77; XXXIII, 66-69; XXXV, 47-50; XXXV 67; 68; 69-72; 79-80; XXXVI, 16-20; 46-50.
In canto IV, 29, the warlock Atlante explains to Bradamante who has just defeated him that he is trying to protect Ruggiero, who will meet an untimely death soon after he has converted to Christianity:
“That by a traitor’s hand he’ll meet his death / Ere long, converted to the Christian faith” (185).
inconstancy while on the island: “Ruggiero must exonerated be / Of any blame for his inconstancy” (VII, 18). Wh
at precedes this small excuse is a lengthy description of
Alcina’s charms: “the most beautiful by far” (VII, 10); or “[h]er person is as shapely and as fine/ As painters at their most inspired can show” (VII, 11); and she possesses “a face of perfect symmetry” (VII, 11); her smile is “a paradise” (VII, 13); and “[h]er bosom, pure as milk, is large and full” (VII, 14); generally her body is from head to toe perfect and “[n]o blemish or defect disfigures it” (VII, 15)
. Essentially the witch is a moving man-tr
ap: “In every part of her there lurks a snare” (VII, 16). As a result
smitten. He is captured by the perfect illusion that Alcina has created; an illusion that extends to the gardens and the palace itself
. What follows is the con
summation of their love, where “Alcina’s attractions are veiled in the imagery of flowers seen through glass” (Reynolds 49). There is no doubt that Alcina is one of
the most exquisite femme fatales of European literature; and like all such women, she has an evil plan. Clearly, Ruggiero has found himself in a very difficult and compromising situation. Bradamante needs to seek help for him, before it is too late. This help comes in the form of the witch and prophetess Melissa, who tricks Ruggiero back into reality by giving him the magic ring of princess Angelica, that possesses the power to break any magic spell (VII, 64). The outcome of this is that both Ruggiero and the reader acknowledge for the first time the true countenance of Alcina and of her land: S
he was an agèd and a hideous crone;
No uglier in all the world was known. In truth, Alcina was, without a quibble, Wrinkled and frail; her hair was sparse and white, Scarcely six palms did she attain in height.
Older than Hecuba or Cumae’s Sibyl,
Ariosto was inspired for the descriptions of the realm and gardens of the island by the great architectural achievements that were all around him in Ferrara (Reynolds 18).
She had outlived all other women quite. (VII, 72-73) The narrator, who first used the most beautiful language to describe the once perfect projection of female beauty, now is disgusted by the sight, much as Ruggiero and the reader are too. But this old and ugly witch is still a woman; and when she is abandoned by her lover, she suffers. Alcina tries unsuccessfully to win Ruggiero back, by sending out her entire army to the realm of her half-sister Logistilla, to whose kingdom Ruggiero has fled (VIII, 10). The narrator observes that: Alcina, who has meanwhile heard the news Of how Ruggiero forced the outer gate
Dismayed, the desperation of her state. She rends her clothes; in torrents of abuse She blames her own stupidity, too late. (VIII, 12) The once powerful witch is now left completely on her own. The narrator is not inclined to show her any kind of sympathy, at least at this point. It seems that the narrator believes she needs to be punished for the illusions she has created and the fact that she took up lovers indiscriminately and then turned them into bushes, trees and animals when she had had enough of them
just like Astolfo. The last significant mention of Alcina in the epic happens right after
Logistilla’s army has defeated Alcina’s invading
force and her attempt to regain Ruggiero has failed completely. Here at last we have a very subtle tone of compassion on the part of the narrator: She flees; and her ill-fated company Have died by burning or are prisoners. Yet, of them all, the worst calamity Is that Ruggiero is no longer hers. By day, by night, she grieves most piteously, Her loss lamenting, shedding bitter tears, And many times she longs with her own hand To all her suffering to put an end. But sorceresses cannot ever die, Long as the sun revolves and planets tread In age-long style their pattern through the sky. (X, 55-56)
In regard to this change in tone, Ita MacCarthy observes rightly: “She suddenly
becomes a human-like figure demanding more compassion and far more attention than she
usually gets from scholars” (343). Truly, an observable change happens in this last
mention of the witch: now, finally, she represents all the women in the world that have fallen deeply and truly in love, and are eventually abandoned by their lovers. Unfortunately for her, her suffering will be eternal, since she is an immortal in
Ariosto’s universe. In regard to all the other symbolic features of the heroine MacCarthy suggests that: “
As Ruggiero returns to Europe, Alcina is left behind as an enduring symbol of those impulses and tendencies that man cannot and, more to the point, will not wholly reject
” (344). We can conclude from this then, that the exotic,
mystic and forbidden will always appeal to mankind and mankind will always struggle against it, in an attempt to both assimilate and condemn it. As for Ruggiero, he hardly feels any sympathy for the suffering Alcina; instead, he tries to escape her as quickly as possible and enter into a kind of apprenticeship to Logistilla, who is supposed to teach him
logic! Kennedy points out that, “[…] as it turns out in fact the separation will be relatively painless” (61). Ruggiero will have to struggle some more
before he can finally unite with his Bradamante, but at the same time the reader knows that once he does that, his bliss will be cut short, because the prophecy of his early demise still stands. Throughout the narration concerning Alcina and her realm, it is true that the reader can observe what is closest to the animalistic nature of human bei
ngs: “It is the contemplation of things ‘base’ and terrestrial that has produced the greatest poetry and music in the Alcina episode” (MacCarthy 342). Essentially what happens in Alcina’s
world is that reason and rational thinking are abandoned and only the strongest instincts find expression; those instincts being eating, drinking and preserving
mankind through intercourse. I would like to add to this observation the fact that for a very brief moment the reader is reminded of the ancient matriarchal communities that
existed before males dominated politics; of course Ariosto’s matriarchy is twisted and
evil, because he lived in a male dominated world and the ideal woman in those times had to be more like Bradamante and less like Alcina. In the end, however, what Ariosto achieved
perhaps without even desiring it
was a lasting impression of a scorned woman, whose life expanded greatly and managed to find her way into other works of art. To one of those examples we now turn our attention.
In the introduction we made a reference to the most famous operas that were inspired by the Alcina episode before the classical period in music sets in. While the subject was used as early as 1625, it only reached its musical culmination in 1735, in
G. F. Handel’s opera of the same title. The history of the creation and performance of
this particular work is almost legendary: Handel, forced to move his theatre business to the newly opened Covent Garden Theatre run by John Rich, had acquired a very good castrato
Giovanni Carestini, who was no match for Farinelli
, but still could satisfy the demands of the English audience
and a dance troupe under the infamous
French ballerina Marie Sallé, who caused a lot of controv
ersy during her stay in England. As for the libretto of
itself, it is impossible to pinpoint who composed it and when Handel first acquired it. The first question has still not received a satisfying answer
. Regarding the second question, nowadays most scholars seem to
agree upon a year of acquisition: 1729. Riccardo Broschi’s opera
L’isola di Alcina
rinelli had been employed by the Opera of the Nobility, the competing company to Handel’s own, to which company most of Handel’s old singers had defected.
John Rich’s new theatre at Covent
Garden gave Handel the opportunity to regain for a while the upper hand in the operatic scene of London. See
Vickers, David. “Handel’s
Accompanying CD Booklet. Handel, George Frideric.
. Perf. Joyce DiDonato, Maite Beaumont et. al. Cond. Alan Curtis. Rec. 9/2007. Archiv Produktion, 2007. CD and Dean, Winton.
Handel’s Operas 1726
Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007. Print
“Handel’s immediate source was a libretto by an unknown author,
L’ isola di
first performed in 1728 in Rome (Dean 315). Handel was in Italy early in 1729, in search of new singers for his company (Lang 235). If those accounts are true, and they seem to be, the composer must have
had the libretto and possibly Broschi’s music in
his hands as early as 1729; yet, for six years, he never sat down to work on it. It seems that only after his operatic business was beginning to deteriorate, did he decide it was time to give a few magic operas again: the first was
in 1733, that turned out to be a flop, and two years later his last magic opera,
. When at last he decided to develop a project out of it, the result proved that it was well worth the wait. Again it is very difficult to say exactly when he began composing the music for this new opera
. Winton Dean suggests on musicological evidence that composition began sometime before April 1735. Also during the last week before the premiere on the 16
of April, Handel took the liberty of adding the character of Oberto, a crucial change in the original libretto he had in his hands (326). We have already mentioned that the libretto was by an anonymous author and even though the c
hanges between Broschi’s and Handel’s operas are not extreme, they give us a possible insight into Handel’s way of thinking and are further proof of the genius the
. It is now almost certain that Handel himself made the changes to the libretto, that consist of moving arias from one hero to another, moving pieces from one act to another, reducing parts for some heroes and adding parts to others and performing one gender change, allowing for the use of a bass, instead of yet another high voice
. Both Winton Dean and David Vickers agree that Handel improved the
“dramatic content” of the original text without external collaboration (Dean 315; Vickers 15); again, Dean exclaims: “It is difficult to find serious fault with this libretto
set it” (317). The final result, and by final I mean the score that is today
Let us not forget that he composed very quickly, as the incident from
See Dean, Winton, the discussion of
Handel’s Melisso was originally a Melissa in Broschi’s opera.
preferred by most conductors when performing this opera, is probably the closest to what Handel had given his audience in 1735: a powerful story, with well designed characters and a strong, at times heart-wrenching music. The introduction of the witch in this opera happens in the most impressive
style, immediately capturing both Alcina’s magical powers and the beauty of her realm. We are informed by the score that the “desert Pla
ce [with] high craggy
Mountains” that opens the scene of Bradamante and Melisso’s arrival on the island, is transformed into the “beautiful Palace of Alcina” where she sits “adorning herself”,
surrounded by servants
. At her side are pages, servants and both Ruggiero and Oberto. In her first recitative with the newcomers, Alcina presents herself as a
benevolent and kind queen. It is important to remember here that, unlike Ariosto’s
Ruggiero who is warned about her, the audience of this opera knows very little about Alcina; especially nowadays, where it is not a common thing to have read the
before going to the opera. Alcina’s language is calm and seductive. Also,
without shame, she asks Ruggiero to show the newcomers every place where they have
expressed their love for each other: “E tu odi, Ruggiero, anima mia, mostra lor la mia reggia, e caccie, e fonti. Veggan dove scoprimmo all’ombra amica d’un scambievole amor fiamma pudica” (21)
. Immediately after, she plunges into a love aria, where she openly declares her love and passion for Ruggiero:
Di’, cor mio, quanto t’ amai,
Mostra il bosco, il fonte, il rio, Dove tacqui e sospirai,
Pria di chiederti mercé.
Dove fisso ne’ miei rai,
Sospirando al sospir mio,
The English translations for the scenic descriptions are taken from Winton Dean, who gives a very analytic argument of the story, based
in this case
on Chrysander’s edition. This edition is the only
one in the series that Chrysander published containing both the Italian original and a German translation of the libretto and stage directions.
“And you, Ruggiero, my dearest, show them my
palace, the chase, the springs. Let them see where,
in the friendly shade, we shyly discovered the chaste flame of mutual love.”
Mi dicesti con un sguardo: Peno, ed ardo al par di te. (22-25)
These words clearly show a woman that enjoys the act of love making. There are only few references to a deeper emotion. At this point Alcina only speaks of the carnal pleasure of love, not the psychological. In this respect Han
del’s Alcina is still a lot like Ariosto’s. We are only beginning to realize the tragic outcome of this piece. The
heroine then disappears for four scenes. Upon her next entrance at the beginning of scene IX, the illusion which she has created for herself is already beginning to crumble. Her lover accuses her of infidelity with Bradamante/Ricciardo. She attempts to appease him, but her words in
the recitative show that she is slowly losing power over Ruggiero’s false love: “Mio
tesoro, mio ben, anima mia! C
hiami Alcina infedele? […] Tu geloso m’offendi, e piaci ancora”
. When a few seconds later Bradamante/Ricciardo enters and
compliments her on her beauty in front of Ruggiero, she immediately clarifies: “Bello è sol per Ruggiero” (42)
, but he still doubts her constancy. At this point, the heroine
begins a sorrowful lament, attempting to change Ruggiero’s cruel accusations to love
Sì, son quella, non più bella,
Non più cara agli occhi tuoi;
Ma se amar tu non mi vuoi,
Infedel, deh! Non m’odiar.
Chiedi al guardo, alla favella, Se son quella, dillo ingrato Al tuo core mentitore, Che mi vuole rinfacciar. (43-45)
Tell them, dear heart, how much I loved you,/show them the grove, the spring, the brook,/where I sighed in silence/before asking for your pity./Where, gazing into my eyes,/your sighs answering mine,/you told me with a look:/I suffer, I burn like you.
“My dear, my darling, my heart’s delight! You call Alcina false? […] Jealous man, you offend me and yet I am fond of you.”
“Lovely only for Ruggiero”
Yes, I am still true, though no longer beautiful,/no longer dear in your sight./But if you can no longer love me,/faithless man, oh, do not hate me!/Ask my gaze, my words,/if I am true, tell it to your/lying heart, ingrate,/that would reproach me.
Already we observe a change in Alcina. From the happy, lustful first aria, she now loses the ground beneath her feet. The accusations are something she never expected, because she was confident in the illusion of love she has created. But her magic has played a nasty trick on her. Yes, Ruggiero was falsely in love with her, but she is actually truly in love with him. Donna Leon makes a comparison between Alcina and
the Feldmarschallin from Richard Strauss’
(1911): “Just like the
Marschallin, Alcina too is older than her lover
but how much older? 10 or 200 years? (She is, of course, a witch.) And just like the Marschallin, she too is only too
well aware of this age difference” (53)
. In my opinion, this comparison is both valid and farfetched. Alcina is definitely older than Ruggiero, but her problem is not the age difference. It is the fact that she herself has created a spell that she lost control over. The Feldmarschallin trumps Octavian in age, but she is perfectly aware of that, and knows that one day her lover will leave her for someone more suitable
as is the case.
Handel’s Alcina on the contrary has never experienced
true love; instead she would take up lovers and then turn them into something else, ridding herself of the problem altogether. What this shows is an inability to compromise, to take up responsibility, to admit defeat. She still clings onto her magic powers. Therefore, this second aria gives the audience a glimpse into the effect those true emotions have on her. Alcina then exits the stage, and returns only in scene IV of the second act. The second act is a very interesting one, from a dramatic point of view. The
action now focuses on Ruggiero’s release from Alcina’s magic powers. Melisso hands
him the magic ring that has the power to destroy any magic spell. Ruggiero returns to his original state of mind; but he must continue to pretend love to Alcina, in order to
“Wie die Marschallin ist auch Alcina älter als ihr Geliebter –
aber um wie viel? Um 10 oder um 200
Jahre? (Sie ist ja schließlich eine Zauberin.) Und wie die Marschallin ist auch sie sich des
Altersunterschiedes nur allzu sehr bewusst
ensure his escape from the island together with Melisso and Bradamante/Ricciardo.
Alcina’s part, until the last scenes then, is reduced to simple recitatives and dialogues,
but no big showpieces. In the fourth scene, where the witch reappears, she prepares to turn Bradamante/Ricciardo into a beast, to prove her constancy to Ruggiero. She never finishes the spell, because both Morgana, her sister, and Ruggiero stop her. When she is left alone with Ruggiero, again in the recitative she exclaims her love, while
allowing him to go hunting: “Al tuo voler sempre s’unì mia mente. Vanne, ma sia per pocco: e pensa al mio martiro. Temo; partir ti lascio, e ne sospiro” (75)
. For the first time in the opera, Alcina admits that she is afraid to lose Ruggiero. The thought that had been crossing her mind, but was never openly expressed is finally out in the open. At this point we could even claim that her instincts warn her that something is going to happen. However, she lets Ruggiero go. After Ruggiero has left, we have one important scene between Alcina and Oberto. As mentioned above, the part of Oberto was a last minute addition by Handel
himself. The young boy is Astolfo’s son –
who in this opera is turned not into a myrtle bush, but a lion. Oberto is constantly in search of his father, while at the same time enjoying the many enchantments of the island. In the second act he has one first encounter with Alcina. One wonders why Alcina does not turn Oberto into a magical creature, but in their small scene here, the answer is obvious: she feels like a mother to him. When Oberto admits that nothing can make him happy, unless he is reunited with
his father she exclaims: “Al mio materno amore così mal corrispondi?” (79)
. Feeling pity for the boy, she also promises him that he will see his father soon:
“Ascolta: vedrai in breve il tuo padre, io tel prometto” (79)
. The insertion of Oberto
“My mind was ever at one with your desires. Go; but do not be long away; think of my torment. I am afraid; I let you go, but sigh for it.”
“Do you repay my maternal affection so unbecomingly?”
“Harken: you will see your father soon, I promise you.”
by the composer was clearly a stroke of genius. Alcina assumes through this a more human aspect, a more female kind of character; som
ething that Ariosto’s heroine lacks
completely. The illusion is reinforced through this; Alcina desires a family, but can only achieve it through magic, there is no viable reality in all of this. Only her emotions, which will very soon overpower her and make her come to a tragic downfall.
The news of Ruggiero’s betrayal reach Alcina at the beginning of scene VIII in the second act. What follows is “one of the most beautiful arias in the history of opera” (Starobinski 191). Roughly for ten to fifteen minute
depending on the speed the conductor chooses to perform it
this aria is a heart wrenching piece, with very simple words, that target directly the soul: Ah! Mio cor, schernito sei!
Stelle, Dei! Nume d’amore!
Traditore, t’amo tanto;
Puoi lasciarmi sola in pianto,
Oh Dei, perché?
Ma, che fa gemendo Alcina?
Son regina, è tempo ancora:
Resti, o mora, peni sempre, O torni a me. (82-87)
It is difficult to explain with words the emotions that this aria can produce in a receptive listener. Yes, the heroine complains about losing her lover. She implores the gods and the heavens to restore him to her. She is unable to understand why this happens. In the second section she reminds herself of her royal pedigree and tries to be cruel. But the ritornello of the da capo
sung a capella
haunts her immediately and takes her back to the abyss, a place she reaches for the first time. During the slow first
part of the aria, the singer repeats key words like “sola”, “oh Dei”, “traditore” and of
Oh, my heart, you are scorned!/Oh, you stars! Oh ye gods! Deity of love!/Betrayer! I love you so;/how can you leave me alone, in tears?/Oh gods! Why?/But what is Alcina doing, complaining?/I am a queen, and there is yet time./He shall stay or die,/suffer eternally, or return to me!
course “perché”. Ultimate
ly however, the heroine understands painfully that she is alone with her pain to keep her company. The act closes with Alcina having composed herself a little and attempting to use her magic powers to bring Ruggiero back. The recitativo accompagnato in scene XIII is a tribute to conjuring scenes in magic operas (Heinel 171); this time however, the spirits and furies do not obey their mistress. By the end of this recitative, Alcina
admits defeat: “Vinta, delusa Alcina, e che t’avanza?” (100)
. The Italian word
“delusa” is an excellent choice at this point; Alcina feels deceived. She fails however
to recognize that the instigator of this whole illusion was herself, not someone else. A tragic irony, no doubt. The aria di vendetta that follows is directed towards the
disobeying spirits and not Ruggiero. Alcina’s powers are tremendous, but not even she
can defeat or control the greatest power of all: that of Love. As a result, she loses
command over her spirits. In the end, she breaks her “verga”, since it cannot
provide any help any more
. The third act resolves pretty quickly for everyone involved. However, the change that has begun for the witch, is completed here. She has the chance to display her jealousy to Ruggiero at the very beginning of the act, where she accuses him of
abandoning her for the sake of another woman: “Fuggi da me, per darti ad altra amante” (115)
and warns him in her aria that he will receive only cruelty from her,
when he returns to her, after spending some time in the real world: “atten
di pur da me /
rigore e crudeltà” (116
. In her last aria she is stripped of everything she once
“Defeated, deceived Alcina, what have you left?”
Donna Leon suggests a different reading of the word “verga”, since it has a double meaning in
Italian: both magic wand and penis. However, the imagery of Alcina holding a phallic symbol and breaking it is not favored by the rest of the libretto, nor the music itself. The idea of castrating the lover f
or abandoning the woman is somewhat extreme, especially since the “verga” appears only this once in
the entire opera.
“You are deserting me for another lover.”
“look only for harshness / and cruelty from me.”
had. Ruggiero in addition to abandoning her, has also defeated her troops. Not only does she lose her lover, she loses her kingdom as well. The only thing she has left, are her tears: Mi restano le lagrime,
Direi: dell’alma i voti,
Ma i dei resi ho implacabili,
E non m’ascolta il ciel.
Potessi in onda limpida
Sottrarmi al sole, al dì!
Potessi in sasso volgermi,
Che finirei così
La pena mia crudel. (129-132)
Here, finally, the witch longs only for a hiding place. She possesses nothing and feels that even this small thing, to be able to disappear from the face of the earth, is being denied her. She wishes to resort to magic, only to do to herself what she had been doing to her lovers. But she has broken her magic wand and her spirits do not obey her
anymore. Completely desolate, she wishes to end her suffering, but, just like Ariosto’s
Alcina, she cannot do that.
Another tribute to Handel’s genius is the fa
ct that he delivers the final blow to his heroine not through Ruggiero, but through Oberto. Immediately before resolving the opera, Oberto appears once more, in search of his father. Alcina is not in any mood to accommodate the boy. Instead she summons the lion that is Astolfo and orders Oberto to kill it. The boy recognizes his father and turns instead to face Alcina. The witch is now ready to face her executioner, but Oberto spares her, only to prolong her suffering. The final showdown takes place in front of the magic urn that contains
Alcina’s powers. There she makes one last attempt to gain Ruggiero’s trust again. She
tries to convince him to stay on the island, because his life is destined to be short, once
Only tears remain to me,/tears that I would call my heart’s desires,/but I have made the gods
implacable/and heaven is deaf to me./If only I might hide myself/in limpid water from the light of day;/if only I could change myself into stone,/thus ending/my cruel suffering.
he leaves. Her warnings fall on deaf ears: both Bradamante and Ruggiero ignore her and degrade her. At this point, Alcina is no longer a threat, nor is she trying to win Ruggiero back for herself. She knows she has lost him, but she also has seen his future and knows that he will meet an early death
: “Che inganni? Anzi ho pieta; piango il suo fato”
; she tells him of his early death: “A morir tu ten vai”
and further down
to Bradamante she says: “Tu, vedova dolente, lo piangerai”
(139). In the beautiful terzetto that follows this confrontation, wher
e the ménage a trois is resolved she explains: “Non è amor, né gelosia…/è pieta […] [è] desio che lieta godi. […] [n]on t’offendo […] [n]on t’inganno!” (140
. Finally, Ruggiero strikes down the
magic urn and essentially destroys Alcina’s island, relea
sing all her doomed lovers from their enchanted forms. What happens to the witch remains a mystery; Handel simply makes her and Morgana abandon the stage. The audience remains with the
question: does Alcina die? Or is she like Ariosto’s heroine, forever mo
urning her fate, cursed never to die?
As Winton Dean observes: “Alcina is the most fully developed of Handel’s sorceresses and one of opera’s great tragic heroines” (318). There is no doubt this
statement is true. Handel took a very popular literary figure and created an entirely
new and very realistic work, where the protagonist suffers for real. Ariosto’s Alcina is
two dimensional. She has some moments of humanness, but she never really reaches out to the reader. She is memorable mostly because of her physical transformation: the
beautiful woman who is in reality an ancient hag. Handel’s Alcina on the other hand is
Again Donna Leon suggests that Alcina is trying to win Ruggiero back through cunning words and
false promises. But Alcina’s words both in the recitative and the terzetto are true warnings, not cunning
words and false promises.
“What lies? Indeed, I am filled with pity and bemoan his fate.”
“You are going to your death.”
A grieving widow, you will weep for him.”
“This is not love nor jealousy, but compassion…[…] and concern for your happiness. […] I mean you no harm […] I am not deceiving you!”
very different. Perhaps she is older than Ruggiero, perhaps she is not. Nothing in the libretto or the original stage directions even suggest that Handel had the age difference in mind. For Handel she is yet another scorned woman, one that does not deserve the things that happen to her. It is not only the good libretto that Handel possessed, but primarily his music that makes the audience feel for Alcina. As Silke Leopold observes: Handel portrays the development of Alcina from a self-assured mistress, all the way to complete hopelessness musically, in ways that nearly break the borders of the opera seria genre with an almost explosive emotional intensity and reaching far out into the future with a capacity to enter into the psychological elements [of the character]. (18)
To this statement I feel that Starobinski’s observation on the heroines’ music makes a perfect addition: “Alcina’s voice con
trols, in the area of emotions, the immense register that goes from superiority to despair and from tenderness to fury
Taking the “voice” of Alcina as the final starting point in this comparison, there is yet
another contrast between the literary
and the operatic figure. Ariosto’s Alcina never
speaks directly. The reader never hears her voice; save for one moment, during the original narration of Astolfo, where he retells some things she said to him, in order to seduce him (VI, 39-40). Nowhere else does she come to any kind of speech, which is very interesting, especially when she is seducing Ruggiero. On the other hand, an operatic heroine cannot be mute
unless she is
Rusalka, who spends an
entire act in silence. Handel’s Alcina speaks directly to the audience. We hear her
voice and her music. We allow ourselves to be seduced by it; and we suffer alongside
her for her fate. This is not to diminish Ariosto’s inc
redible literary skills. On the
Mit einer die Grenzen der Gattung Opera seria nahezu sprengenden emotionalen Intensität und
einem weit in die Zukunft weisenden
psychologischen Einfühlungsvermögen zeichnet Händel die
Entwicklung Alcinas von einer selbstegewissen Gebieterin bis hin in die totale Hoffnungslosigkeit musikalisch nach.
“Im Bereich des Gefühls beherrscht Alcinas Stimme das gewaltige Register, das von der Souveränität bis zur Verzweiflung reicht und von der Zärtlichkeit bis zur Raserei.”
contrary, if his own imagination were not complete enough, then his epic poem would have failed to inspire so many people. Critics have recognized the immense power the character of Alcina has, both in her literary form and
her operatic counterpart. While Ariosto’s heroine is the
protagonist of a side story, she does not fail to convey many symbols and meanings to the reader: vanity, superficiality, external beauty, illusion are all things that have excited our imaginations for millennia. But attributing the wrong amount of importance to them, we become entrapped in a self-made illusion. Alcina is the warning sign of what can happen if we immerse ourselves too much in this, and forget reality. I would like to conclude this chapter with the
most quoted letter
in the history of criticism of Handel’s
one might even substitute Handel’s name and put Ariosto’s in its place. Mrs. Pendarves, a close friend of the composer,
was privileged enough to attend a dress rehearsal of the opera, before its premiere. Afterwards, she wrote: I think it the best [opera] he ever made, but I
have thought so
, that I will not say positively
tis the finest
, but tis
I have not words to describe it. Strada
has a whole scene of charming recitative
there are a thousand beauties. Whilst Mr. Handel was playing his part, I could not help thinking him a necromancer in the midst of his own enchantments. (Dean 327)
Anna Strada del
Pò was the first singer who portrayed Handel’s Alcina.
“Händel konnte den ganzen
Kosmos menschlicher Gefühle in Musik umsetzen. Er brannte für die Oper. Das faszinierende ist, dass er wie Mozart den stärksten dramatischen Effekt erzielte, wenn er seinen Helden für die Momente des Schmerzes
und der Trauer langsame, ruhige und damit ums
o intensivere Musik schrieb.”
Vesselina Kasarova, “Arias for Carestini” (7)
It was pointed out in the introduction that one of the most important elements of the
genre is the
. As a result, most of the plots are very loose, highly improbable and almost never psychologically valid. The emotional changes a character can go through during the opera are so many and happen so quickly, that a modern day audience can only laugh at them; one might call these serious operas farces instead. The
, however, was not just a rule every composer had to abide by; it was an ideology that sprang from the stylized life aristocrats and upper class families had cultivated for themselves. While the poets who composed the libretti for the operas were under their patronage, the plot had to portray an ideal that was embraced by the patrons: the aristocratic heroes of operas would brave any kind of difficulty and come through triumphant in the end. It is not a coincidence that many dramaturgic rules of the
covertly, most of the times
broken by Handel, who is considered as the first composer-businessman, working as a freelance entrepreneur and often taking high financial risks. He did not have to please an aristocratic audience that could fire him, if the plot was not standard. In this use of
the absurdities of the genre lies Handel’s great gift to mankind, as Sir Peter Jonas observed: “The great skill of Handel, however, is that this element of farce is always
juxtaposed with moments when time stands still, because the characters suddenly change into being people who portray the agony of a love in such a moving way that
“Handel’s music expresses a whole world of human emotions. He was consumed by a re
al passion for opera. What is so fascinating is that like Mozart he achieved his most powerful dramatic effect when he wrote slow, calm and correspondingly intense arias for his heroes at times of anguish and
grief” Translation is by Stewart Spencer.
the audience is breathless.” Handel’s witches certainly manage to take our breaths away…
This break with tradition is obvious in his magic operas. One might wonder why only there he chose to tread on different paths and did not do this in all his operas. The answer to that is, in my opinion, a simple one: a magical creature does not abide by the rules of society; therefore it is not subject to the rules of poetry and opera. At the same time the magical creature can potentially be made more human than the actual human being, because there the emotions are being experienced in a more innocent, a more direct kind of way that has all the elements of uniqueness and novelty. Strangely enough it is through magic that people often realize the importance of being human. So, what does Handel do with his witches? His first witch, Armida, is the only one that gets out of the twisted and unrealistic plot almost unscathed. But only in the 1711 version of
. In 1731 she leaves the stage, together with Argante, cursing the Christians who have defeated their heathen forces. A much more realistic ending, that took Handel two decades to realize. It is curious that Handel did not demand from his literary collaborators this kind of ending as early as the first version
. Perhaps he felt that the audience would respond better to a complete and total victory of the Christians against the heathen or perhaps he simply was so busy planning his first London appearance that he dismissed the issue as quickly as he composed the music. Yet one year later this position changes dramatically: his Medea
the true protagonist of
fails to obtain her goals. She is the first significant break with
Two reasons stand out: first, Handel never drastically altered plots of his operas when he re-worked them; he only changed music and arias. Second, even though there might be some truth in the claim made by Dean and Knapp that he was too young to be able to demand things of his librettists, I believe that a man of his convictions would not be afraid to state his mind; especially since his sense for dramaturgy and theatre was so well developed already.
the tradition of the
; however, since the opera was not named after her, the audience is not entirely disappointed. Not only that, but Medea, even though she is undoubtedly the strongest character in the opera, is portrayed in a darker light; true, the audience has some moments when it feels sympathy for her, but both the prehistory of the character and all the awful things she attempts during the opera bias the audience more negatively than positively towards her. At the same time, however, Medea is not entirely a suffering woman: she is far too powerful and a distance is developed between her and the audience. The balance was not perfect yet for the libretto and the music to work wonders. This balance is somewhat fine-tuned with the next magic opera that Handel composed which was not part of our discussion, but will concern us briefly here. In 1715 the opera
premiered in London with some success
. The plot focuses around Amadigi and his destined love Oriana and the plans that are construed by
Dardano, a knight and main rival to Amadigi for Oriana’s love and the sorceress
Melissa, who keeps Oriana locked up in a magical tower and falls in love herself with Amadigi. By the end of the opera Dardano is killed by Amadigi and Melissa commits suicide in front of the couple, in one of the most beautiful and tragic moments in the entire history of opera. Again the libretto has several weaknesses, but this time the plot is slightly more consistent than in the two previous cases. Melissa is once again
the highlighted character: “She has a good deal in common with Armida and Medea, but is a more subtle creation than either because she is so much more human” (Dean
& Knapp 278). While again the plot is filled with inconsistencies and improbable
resolutions, Melissa manages to capture the audiences’ imagination. I find it
impossible for anyone to remain neutral to her suffering, especially in her death
It was performed for at least two more years, but was dropped from the repertoire in 1717 (Dean & Knapp 287-289).
agonies, while she still sings her “Addio, crudo Amadigi” and “Io gia sento”
Melissa demands the composers’ attention and the treatment she receives is worthy of
her character. That happens because, as Sir Peter Jonas has said,
I’ve always thought that Bach is music for the Gods and
Handel is music for mankind, for
, for people. I’m a
person and I can relate much more directly to Handel,
because he is music for human beings. […] Certainly for the
theatre it is indisputable that Handel was one of the greatest theatric composers that ever lived and I say that without any apology to Mozart, Wagner, Strauss (R) or Verdi. With
and more particularly with Melissa’s character, Handel came one step
closer to the perfect analysis of the female soul. He almost succeeded in unraveling the mystery that emotions hide and once again composed music that touched deeply the human
soul. But then, something strange happened: Handel stopped composing magic operas altogether! This is extremely peculiar, since his magic operas were important successes that made a lot of money for him. For some reason, after 1715 he only revisited magic operas he had already composed, never attempting to write a new one. What is also interesting is that from 1715 to 1732 when at last he brings
to the stage he has no scenes of magic; there are no invocations, no summoning of furies, no talking busts or even ghosts! Nothing remotely magical happens during that time. This does not mean, of course, that the operas he composed during those years are not import
ant or even magnificent; certainly not, since the ‘20s were his most productive
period with operas such as
(1725). But it is interesting, considering that he was composing for a public that was extremely
well acquainted with magic on stage, both from Shakespeare’s plays and
Unlike other heroines that sing and sing and never die, de
laying their departure from this “world”,
Melissa dies gracefully, without any grandeur or pompousness. Indeed her suicide is one of the most realistic moments in the history of operatic deaths, making this situation truly dramatic, without any hint of irony or farce.
from Henry Purcell’s masques and one semi
. It is also improbable that he was not provided with at least a few libretti featuring magic, because the magical element was extremely popular in every sense. If he was given the opportunity by his librettists
to compose a magic opera in the ‘20s and he did not, I have to assign the fault with the
texts, not the lack of inspiration. Unfortunately, this huge gap cannot be explained adequately and one can only guess. Thankfully he would compose two new magic
operas in the ‘30s, both of them exceptional pieces
. With both these last magic
operas Handel returns to what Winton Dean says: “Handel had shown long before in
his first London days a particular susceptibility to magic subjects, which released an exceptionally fertile, even a romantic strain in his imagination and at the same time
helped him to bring out the intense humanity of his characters” (241). Also in these
two last magic operas
both of them great hits in our modern times
Nicholas Hytner confirmed: “I think what contemporary audiences have discovered,
particularly in Handel, is his simultaneously ironic and deeply sympathetic way with the human heart, particularly with the female heart. He is not a teary-
eyed romantic.” Handel’s greatness as a reader of the “female heart” is exemplified in his
. I have already pointed out in my discussion of
that Handel had the libretto in his hands as early as 1729 and that, by all accounts, he made the changes that resulted in this magnificent piece himself. Without a doubt this particular heroine
is the culmination of Handel’s achievements in characterization. She comes at the end
of a line of strong and passionate women
and tops them all. Alcina’s suffering is
deeper than any of the other heroines of Handel
both magical and non magical; and
this intensity of her suffering is the result of the composer’s own magic touch upon the
I am referring to
The Fairy Queen
and of course
Dido and Aeneas
, based again on Ariosto, is a work with a great deal of musical innovations that were not appreciated by his contemporaries, but nowadays it is cons
idered one of the “most original of Handel’s operas in design. It is also one of the richest in musical invention” (Dean 242).
text. It seems to me that everything that preceded
in Handel’s operatic work
was merely the preparation period that would eventually result in this dramatic masterpiece. Inevitably, I have to talk about the ending of this opera. We have no clue
whatsoever as to Alcina’s fate after Ruggiero
destroys her magic urn. She disappears from the stage, leaving a terrible void. The remaining characters rejoice in happiness, but their first choral piece is more dramatic than happy, whereas the final Coro is clearly an ironic comment by the composer. These people are not happy; they might be for a short while, but in the end they will all suffer losses and die an unhappy death: the sorceress has predicted the outcome. Where, then can the
be found? An uneasy reality emerges in these four characters: one may be happy for a while, caught in an illusion that is Love. But that illusion can easily be destroyed, when reason and realism catch up. At the same time, through these magic operas, Handel makes yet another ironic comment towards every other work
both his and those of his contemporaries
that conforms to the
. True, his Caesar marries Cleopatra, but history tells us that the romance was doomed from the start; his Arianna is united with Teseo by the end of
Arianna in Creta
(1733), but mythology informs us that she was later abandoned by her lover on a desolate island; his
(1709) succeeds in her political schemes against her husband, placing her son Nero on the throne of Rome, but she too suffered a terrible death at the hands of him who was so favored by her. Georg Friedric
ndel did break the rules of
more often than most musicologists give him credit for. The problem is that he did it in such a great
manner that one can hardly perceive the “unlawfulness” o
f his actions; and he also decided to do so more openly in his magic operas than in his more down to earth ones. By following the literary origins of his witches and keeping true to their respective
Medea fleeing Athens, Armida converting to Christianity and Alcina abandoned
Handel found the perfect means to express his concerns about the genre and leave everyone wondering about his true intentions. This wondering about him is still around, even after so many centuries of
Handel’s music. Altho
ugh we seem to know a lot of things about Handel, simultaneously we are unable to answer some key questions about him and his work; something that is not the case with Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss.
Only the time machine would be able to satisfy our curiosity about the “caro Sassone”, the “dear Saxon” as his Italian worshipers called him. Handel was the first true citizen
of a unified Europe; unified in arts, not politics, in a time when art and music were still regarded as a vital part of human culture and education. As Dieter Schickling
observes: “His time was the early 18
century. […] his time has not
(267). Perhaps, when we finally decide to li
sten carefully to the witches’
laments, we might discover the true magic contained in life and music.
Melissa is a unique operatic creation. She is an amalgam of certain magical characters that appear in the original texts by Mo
ntalvo and Ariosto’s benevolent witch of the same name (Dean & Knapp 275
“Seine Zeit war das frühe 18. Jahrhundert. […] seine Zeit ist noch nicht wieder da.”
Works Cited Primary Sources: Ariosto, Ludovico.
Orlando Furioso Part One
. Trans. Barbara Reynolds. London: Penguin Classics, 1973. Print. Euripides.
Medea and Other Plays
. Ed. & Trans. Philip Vellacott. London: Penguin Classics, 1963. Print.
Händel, G. F.
. Ed. Friedrich Chrysander. Leipzig: Deutsche Händelgeselschaft,
. Web. 02 September 2010. ---.
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