Alexander the Great – born 356 BC, Pella (Macedonia), died 323 BC, Babylon, king of Macedonia. He overthrew the Persian empire, marched with his army up to the border of India and laid the foundations for the Hellenistic world of territorial kingdoms. Alessandro (HWV 21) – opera composed by Georg Friederich Händel in 1726 for the Royal Academy of Music. Paolo Rolli’s libretto is based on the story of Ortensio Mauro’s La superbia d’Alessandro. This was the first time the famous singers Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni appeared together in one of Händel’s operas.
I will not even attempt to sketch the synopsis of the opera, since it would make this post unnecessarily long. Suffice to say that Händel does not glorify the king of Macedonia but rather presents an ambiguous picture of Alexander: courageous in battle, vain and pompous as a leader, hesitating in personal matters. A useful reminder that political leaders projecting might and will power may actually be hidden cowards. It’s not the plot that makes this opera interesting, since we see this each day in politics, it is – as you may expect – the music, or more precisely, the perfect integration of vocal and instrumental elements in a first-class Baroque opera.
What shall I say, I never was too fond of Händel as a composer, but once I had listened to this opera a couple of times, I made my peace with the man and with his music. He was certainly as much a towering figure in the music world as his colleague Johann Sebastian Bach. He ruled England while the other ruled Germany. Up to the time Händel arrived in London, the opera as a genre struggled to become popular with the audience and a rewarding venture for composers and impresarios. During the 17th century the English theatre had a dominating position, and the lack of sufficiently rich patrons did not exactly courage producers. It was only around the turn of the century that the Italian opera seria* started to become popular.
London was known to pay the highest wages for singers and scene painters and attracted both the best castrati and the best female singers. Händel made sure in his opera “Alessandro” to give the two prima donnas Faustino Bordini and Francesca Cuzzoni parts of equal length. While the singers seem to have managed the competition rather well, it appeared that the respective admirers of the ladies engaged in fights over the issue – I sincerely hope they clashed outside the academy and not during the performance. The opera as such was a huge success, it was performed no less than eleven times, and it could have gone on if it hadn’t been for the castrato Francesco Bernardi aka Senesino who declared himself indisposed.
Now, if you’re looking for a good, no an excellent recording, I would like to recommend the production by Parnassus Arts production released by Decca in 2012 with Max Emanual Cencis as Alessandro, Adriana Kucerova/Laura Aikin as Lisaura and Blandine Staskiewics/Julia Lezhneva as Rosanne. Händel’s music is so beautiful that you do not need to see any acting or a opulently decorated stage. The music speaks for itself.
© Charles Thibo