It seems strange, that with so many Voices at command, so little advantage should have been taken of the opportunity of combining them; but the law was absolute, and no doubt owed its origin to the desire of popular singers rather to shine alone, at any cost, than to share their triumphs with rival candidates for public favour.
The effect of these formal restrictions, pressing with equal severity on the Composer and the author of the Libretto, was fatal to the development of a natural and consistent Drama. Of the numerous Poets who wrote for the Lyric Stage, during the earlier half of the 18th century, two only, Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio, succeeded in producing really good pieces, in spite of the difficulties thrown in their way. Goldoni would probably have been equally successful, had he been equally persevering; but after one or two vexatious failures, he threw up the Opera in disgust, and devoted his attention to Comedy. Among Composers, Handel alone so far overcame the trammels of pedantry as to suffer them to exercise no deleterious influence whatever upon his work. When it suited his good pleasure to submit to them, he did so with such exceeding grace that they seemed to have been instituted rather for his convenience than otherwise. When submission would have interfered with his designs, he followed the dictates of his own clear judgment, and set both Critics and Singers at defiance. For instance, contrary to all precedent, he enriched the third Act of 'Radamisto' with an elaborate Quartet; while, in 'Teseo'—the Scenes of which are distributed into five Acts—he seems, from first to last, to have made it a point of conscience to assign two Airs in succession to each of his principal Characters, as often as it was possible to find an opportunity for doing so.
That Critics should attack, and Singers openly rebel against a Composer who shewed so little consideration for their prejudices was only to be expected: but, meanwhile, the jealousies he excited, and the opposition he provoked, served the double purpose of bearing testimony to the greatness of his genius, and stimulating him to the most strenuous exertions of which it was capable. His famous contest with Giovanni Battista Buononcini was triumphantly decided, in the year 1721, by the verdict unanimously passed upon 'Muzio Scevola,' of which he composed the third Act, Buononcini the second, and Attilio Ariosti the first. A full description of the work will be found in Burney, vol. iv. pp. 273–278; and the student who desires to form his own conclusion on the subject will scarcely feel inclined, after consulting the MS. Score preserved in the Dragonetti Collection in the British Museum, to dispute the fairness of Burney's criticism. This however was by no means one of his greatest successes. He was continually working at high pressure; and, as a natural consequence, even the weakest of the 42 Grand Operas he has bequeathed to us contain beauties enough to render them imperishable. The four produced at the Opera House in the Haymarket between the years 1711 and 1715, rank among his best. In 1717 a change took place in the arrangements at the Theatre, followed, three years later, by the inauguration of the 'Royal Academy of Music,' of which he undertook the entire direction, and for which he wrote a series of fourteen Operas, beginning with 'Radamisto,' in 1720, and terminating, in 1728, with 'Tolomeo, Re d'Egitto.' Soon after the production of this last-named work, the Company became bankrupt, and the Theatre passed into the hands of a Swiss, named Heidegger—one of the heroes of Pope's 'Dunciad'—for whom Handel wrote six Operas between the years 1729 and 1733. Heidegger's management was brought to an untimely close by a quarrel between Handel and Senesino. A large party of the nobility espoused the cause of the popular Sopranist; and, under their patronage, a rival Opera Company was established at the 'Little Theatre, in Lincoln's Inn Fields.' Nearly all the Singers previously engaged at the Haymarket deserted to the opposition. Handel endeavoured to make good their defection by the engagement of the celebrated Contralto, Carestini. The rival Company secured the still more famous Farinelli. But, the result was equally disastrous to both parties. We need not enter into the details of the feud. Suffice it to say that Handel fought the battle bravely; took the Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and, afterwards, Covent Garden, on his own account; and only succumbed at last under the pressure of expenses which resulted in the loss of his entire fortune, and but for the success of his Oratorios, would have reduced him to beggary. It is difficult to understand how his Singers could have been so imprudent as to quarrel with him; for no man then living understood so well as he how to make the most of their several capabilities. We see this very clearly in the Airs he wrote for Isabella Girardeau, Mrs. Robinson, Cuzzoni, Faustina, Strada, Margherita de l'Epine, and Durestanti, the artificial Sopranos, Nicolini, Bernacchi, Valentini, Valeriano, Senesino, and Carestini; and the host of illustrious Vocalists who took part, at different times, in his Operas, and no doubt benefitted largely by his advice—for he always insisted on having his own Music sung in the way which seemed to him best. In his power of adapting the most difficult melodic phrases to the varying range of the vocal register he has indeed been equalled only by very few of the best Composers of any age, and surpassed by none; and to this rare though indispensable quality his Operas are indebted for some of their most irresistible charms. It has been said that they have had their day, and can never again be placed upon the Stage; but much remains to be said on the opposite side. While preparing our materials for the present article, we subjected the entire series to a most careful and minute re-examination; and the more closely we carried out our analysis, the more deeply were we impressed by the dramatic power which proves
- Chrysander attributes the first Act to Filippo Mattel. In the Dragonetti Score it is said to be by 'Signor Pipo.'