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Silla, the opera seria here recorded, was one of the earliest Handel created after settling in London, though oddly enough the circumstances of its first performance are obscure. Composed in 1713 to a libretto by Giacomo Rossi with whom Handel had already collaborated, it bears a dedicatory epistle addressed to the Duke D'Aumont, whom Louis XIV had recently appointed French ambassador to the court of Queen Anne, reestablishing diplomatic relations after the Spanish Succession. It was thus overtly a political piece designed for an important state occasion: which makes it the more remarkable that there is dubiety as to precisely when and where it was first performed, and virtually no information about its subsequent destiny. Ambiguities were, however, inherent in the formalities of opera seria.

Of the many ways in which man may try to play God the most rudimentary is in portraying an unbenevolent Absolute Despot as a hero. Handel or his librettist found the story in Plutarch's chronicles of Roman notabilities, which had been magnificently Englished, in the 17th century, by Sir Thomas North. Silla is a hero only in the ruthlessness with which he pursues self-interest, which leads to his total command over the imperial city of Rome, achieved by the murder of everyone who threatens to get in his way. He also makes savage sexual advances to any woman around, including the genteel wife Flavia and the lovely maiden Celia, who both rebuff him with the dignity befitting gentlewomen. Why the story of so unscrupulously repulsive a tyrant should have been considered fit entertainment for the ambassador of tyrannical Louis XIV is obscure, unless it were intended as a tactful reminder to French despots of Britain's 'middle way'. But we don't need to take the tale literally: the point is that it reminds us of how desperately evil mankind, left to its own devices, may be. There are always men like Silla, eager vaingloriously to display their would-be-insuperable power; but there is also a chance that man as a domestic being -- like the socially and morally exemplary man-and-wife Lepidus and Flavia and the Roman maiden Celia, who is touchingly in love with Claudio -- may, though seemingly impotent, win through by simple honesty and truth, in this case with the help of the tyrant's noble but much-abused wife.

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Copyright © 31 March 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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