The Operas of Handel

Background and Style

Handel was not a revolutionist in opera.  He accepted the forms he found but filled them with his own inimitable genius.

The subject matter is conventional, drawn from history ("Tolomeo"), mythology ("Admeto"), or romantic legend ("Orlando").

His operas, as was the custom, are based on the presentation of moods not mixed and modified as in "real" life, but each pure, so that a character at any given moment of expression is for the time being simply the incarnation of a certain state of mind and feeling.  The questions of consistency and plausibility in the plot are secondary.  It is of little importance what a situation is or how it comes about, provided that it gives occasion for expression of a mood.

One trait which Handel shares with all composers of his epoch is the constant use of tone painting and musical symbolism.  This ranges all the way from naive, playful imitation of natural sounds to such awe-inspiring effects as Claudio's "Cade il mondo" ("Let the world fall") in "Agrippina" (Act II, scene 4) with its downward plunge through two octaves.

The orchestra in Handel's operas is important chiefly (aside from the overtures) for its part in the accompaniment of the solo voice.  The basic instrumental group is formed by the strings and continuo, to which various instruments are frequently joined for obbligato parts.  The principle of opposition between ripieno and concertino is retained;  accompaniments during the singing are entrusted to the smaller group, while the full orchestra joins in at cadences and for the ritornello.  Horns, trumpets, and trombones are used only with the chorus or for special effects.

The overtures are, for the most part, of the French type, frequently with added movements after the allegro.  One of the best overtures is that to "Agrippina".  In "Ottone" the allegro is followed by a gavotte, and then closes with a fast movement in concerto grosso style with solo passages for two oboes.

As a general rule, the choruses are neither numerous nor distinctive.  Dramatic use of the chorus, as in the pastorale "Acis and Galatea" and in the operas "Ariodante" and "Alcina," is exceptional.

Ballets are also few and of little importance.

The favorite ensemble form is the duet.

The recitatives are remarkable for the richness and variety of their harmonic patterns, taking full advantage of modulatory possibilities and of the expressive quality of chords such as the Neapolitan sixth and the diminished seventh to underline the dramatic situation.  Accompanied recitatives are rare.  At times the recitative encloses distinct arioso passages or is combined with an aria in a free manner which relieves the prevailing regular alternation between the two styles.

With few exceptions, Handel's opera arias follow the da capo pattern, but within this framework there is inexhaustible variety.  The principle of musical development is the unified working out of one or two basic motives, by voice and instruments jointly, in a continuous flow, within which the various periods are organized by a clear key scheme and systematic use of sequences.

One of the most beautiful of Handel's arias is Cleopatra's "Se pietà di me non senti" ("Giulio Cesare", Act II, scene 8), which is preceded by an accompanied recitative (notable for its wide range of modulations) and introduced by an orchestral ritornello, from which the characteristic "drooping" motif of the obbligato violin is derived.


(not a complete list) Between 1712 and 1741, Handel produced 36 operas in London, of which the most notable were: Handel's last operas were produced in London between 1738 and 1741.