Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas, 1720-1728

Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas, 1720-1728

Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas, 1720-1728

Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas, 1720-1728


From the early eighteenth-century until the present day, opera seria as practiced by Handel and his contemporaries has been the subject of satire and even derision for its dramatic artifice and virtuosic vocal displays. Close examination of Handel's autograph manuscripts, the librettos upon which they were based, and other contemporary documents reveal the extent to which Handel was influenced by his singers and their abilities in creating his commercially successful and dramatically effective operas. Drawing on ideas and evidence from these sources, this study demonstrates the fact that Handel's singers were the single most important influence in his opera composition during his tenure as composer and music director of the Royal Academy of Music from 1719-28.


Although Senesino's arrival in London does not appear to have fundamentally altered Handel's approach to opera composition, the presence of a first-rate Italian castrato in his cast clearly affected his thoughts about the details of Radamisto's characterization. the changes in Radamisto's part between the April 1720 début and the December 1720 revival (see Chapters 4 and 5) reveal both the differences between Durastanti's and Senesino's musico-dramatic abilities and Handel's willingness to alter parts to suit the abilities of specific singers. Yet in spite of the differences between Durastanti and Senesino, Handel's compositions for them throughout their careers with the Royal Academy betray a similarity of compositional approach: rather than create parts that were dictated by their musical strengths, Handel utilized their individual abilities as specific dramatic circumstances required. As a result, the types of characters Durastanti and Senesino played determined the types of arias they sang.

With new singers came new voices and dramatic abilities, often requiring new compositional approaches. in addition to the specific requirements of individual singers, however, a change in Handel's opera aesthetic in general is evident in his Royal Academy operas from the second half of the 1722-3 season. the first signs of this change are coincident with the arrival of Francesca Cuzzoni in London in 1723, but it is not in her début role as Teofane in Ottone that they are found; instead, it is in the role of Matilda and the correspondence of Anastasia Robinson, the English alto who played the part, that they first appear.

Although we know of very little correspondence by singers in the Royal Academy company, two important letters by Robinson to the Modenese diplomatic representative Giuseppe Riva survive. Because of the importance of these letters to our understanding of the changes that were ultimately made to Robinson's part, and because of the implications these changes have for our understanding of Handel's opera composition at that time, extensive quotations from them are given here.

Now I want your advice for my self, you have hear'd my new Part, and the more
I look at it, the more I find it is impossible for me to sing it; I dare not ask Mr.
Hendell to change the Songs for fear he should suspect (as he is very likely)
every other reason but the true one. Do you believe if I was to wait on Lady
Darlington to beg her to use that power over him (which to be sure she must . . .

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