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ROBERT HUGILL investigates the fascinating world of opera in eighteenth century London


In 1740, Handel produced his penultimate opera, Imeneo, at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is a slightly artificial pastoral, which needs only small forces and much of it is in the lighter, more melodic vein that Handel employed in many of his later operas (the London Daily Post announced it as an operetta). It ran for a meagre two performances, this was a period when internecine disputes had not only weakened the opera companies but had temporarily tired out the appetite of the rather small operatic audience. Though it is not a grand opera, it is by no means a weak work and when Handel presented in Dublin (in concert form as a serenata) it went down a storm. The story concerns the heroine, Rosmira's problems trying to decide between two suitors, Tirinto (mezzo-soprano) and Imeneo (baritone).

The main curiosity of the opera is that, in the end, the baritone gets the girl. This was virtually unheard of in opera seria. When he did have strong bass or tenor soloists, Handel could and did write strong parts for them. The bass Antonio Montagnana created the part of the magician Zoroastro in Orlando and the tenor Francesco Borosini had the part of Bajazet in Tamerlano specially extended for him, including the dramatic on-stage death scene. But no matter how big the roles are, they are still in the fathers, generals, magicians and villains categories. If Handel wanted a young lover then he wrote for castrato or female mezzo-soprano. This even applied at the end of his life when in Solomon, the title role is a contralto part and in Theodora, the role of Didymus was written for an alto voice.

But the title role of Imeneo was sung by William Savage (1720-1789). Five years earlier, in 1735 as a treble, he had sung the role of Oberto in Alcina. As a child, Savage must have been a remarkable singer. He first comes to notice in the 1735 performances of Athalia, singing Joas. These were the first London performances following its première in 1733 in Oxford. Whilst Joas is an important role, it is by no means extensive; the London Daily Post reported on 3 April that 'the youth (a new voice) who was introduced in the Oratorio of Athalia last night ... met with universal applause'. Something in Savage must have impressed Handel, because he proceeded to insert four new scenes for him into his new opera, Alcina. Handel had more or less completed Alcina and the new character of Oberto does not occur in the opera on which Handel's is based (Broschi's L'Isola d'Alcina, Rome 1728). These four scenes for Savage are quite significant, involving not just recitative but a sequence of strong da capo arias. The effect is to add a second sub-plot to the opera making Alcina one of the most multi-layered of any of Handel's mature operas.

Savage was about fourteen when he performed Oberto so he was only nineteen when he sang Imeneo. We can presume he had a personable stage presence, making him suitable for playing a young, romantic hero even if his voice was not quite the type expected. We can almost see Savage's voice settling down during the extended composition of Imeneo as the earlier parts of the role are notated in the tenor clef whilst the later parts are notated in the bass clef. We can presume that when he sang the title role, Savage had a light, lyric baritone; a type of voice that we don't really see in Handel's opera seria.

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Copyright © 28 December 2003 Robert Hugill, London UK


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