Friday, February 25, 2011

February Was a Good Month For Georg Friedrich Händel

Whether it was the season calendar that dictated dates of premieres or Händel just loved winters in London, the German composer had a plethora of his operas debut in the month of February over three decades. A look at some of the operas celebrating the anniversary of their first performances this month are listed below along with a history of the King's Theatre, eerily similar to New York City Opera problems of late, and listening clips after the jump. Also worth noting is that Händel filed for (and received) British citizenship on February 24, 1727.
Rinaldo and Armida in the Garden by Giambattista Tiepolo (c. 1752)

Nero (February 25, 1705)*
Rinaldo  (February 24, 1711)**
Giulio Cesare (February 20, 1724)
Rodelinda (February 13, 1725)
Siroe (February 17, 1728)
Partenope (February 24, 1730)
Poro (February 2, 1731)
Sosarme (February 15, 1732)
Giustino (February 16, 1737)***
Alessandro Severo (February 25, 1738)

All operas were performed at the King's Theatre unless otherwise indicated. *Hamburg, Theater am Gänsemarkt **London, Queen's Theatre ***London, Covent Garden Theatre

Her Majesty's Theatre is a West End theatre, in Haymarket, City of Westminster, London. The present building was designed by Charles J. Phipps and was constructed in 1897 for actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who established the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the theatre. In the early decades of the 20th century, Tree produced spectacular productions of Shakespeare and other classical works, and the theatre hosted premières by major playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Synge, Noël Coward and J. B. Priestley. Since World War I, the wide stage has made the theatre suitable for large-scale musical productions, and the theatre has specialised in hosting musicals. The theatre has been home to record-setting musical theatre runs, notably the World War I sensation Chu Chin Chow and the current production, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, which has played continuously at Her Majesty's since 1986.

"Lascia ch'io pianga" Rinaldo (Sandrine Piau)

The theatre was established by architect and playwright John Vanbrugh, in 1705, as the Queen's Theatre. Legitimate drama unaccompanied by music was prohibited by law in all but the two London patent theatres, and so this theatre quickly became an opera house. Between 1711 and 1739, more than 25 operas by George Frederick Handel premièred here. In the early 19th century, the theatre hosted the opera company that was to move to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1847, and presented the first London performances of Mozart's La clemenza di TitoCosì fan tutte and Don Giovanni. It also hosted the Ballet of her Majesty's Theatre in the mid-19th century, before returning to hosting the London premières of such famous operas as Bizet's Carmen and Wagner's Ring Cycle.

"Pompe vane di morte...Dove sei, amato bene?" Rodelinda (David Daniels)

The name of the theatre changes with the sex of the monarch. It first became the King's Theatre in 1714 on the accession of George I. Most recently, the theatre was known as His Majesty's Theatre from 1901 to 1952, and it became Her Majesty's on the accession of Elizabeth II. The theatre's capacity is 1,216 seats, and the building was Grade II listed by English Heritage in January 1970. Really Useful Group Theatres owned the theatre building from 2000 until 2010 when it was sold to the GradeLinnit consortium; the land beneath it is on a long-term lease from the Crown Estate.

"Che sento? Oh dio!...Se pità di me non senti" Giulio Cesare (Lisa Saffer)

The end of the 17th century was a period of intense rivalry amongst London's actors, and in 1695 there was a split in the United Company, who had a monopoly on the performance of drama at their two theatres. Dramatist and architect John Vanbrugh saw this as an opportunity to break the duopoly of the patent theatres, and in 1703 he acquired a former stable yard, at a cost of £2000, for the construction of a new theatre on the Haymarket. In the new business, he hoped to improve the share of profits that would go to playwrights and actors. He raised the money by subscription, probably amongst members of the Kit-Cat Club:

"Va tacito" Giulio Cesare (Ann Murray)

"To recover them [that is, Thomas Betterton's company], therefore, to their due Estimation, a new Project was form'd of building them a stately theatre in the Hay-Market, by Sir John Vanbrugh, for which he raised a Subscription of thirty Persons of Quality, at one hundred Pounds each, in Consideration whereof every Subscriber, for his own Life, was to be admitted to whatever Entertainments should be publickly perform'd there, without farther Payment for his Entrance."
—John Vanbrugh's notice of subscription for the new theatre

He was joined in the enterprise by his principal associate and manager William Congreve and an actors' co-operative led by Thomas Betterton.

"Son nata a lagrimar - Son nato a sospirar" Giulio Cesare (Sarah Connolly & Marie-Nicole Lemieux)

The theatre provided the first alternative to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, built in 1663 and the Lincoln's Inn, founded in 1660 (forerunner of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, built in 1728). The theatre's site is the second oldest such site in London that remains in use. These three post-interregnum theatres defined the shape and use of modern theatres.

"D'ogni amator la fede" Siroe (Patrizia Ciofi)

The land for the theatre was held on a lease renewable in 1740 and was ultimately owned, as it is today, by the Crown Estate. Building was delayed by the necessity of acquiring the street frontage, and a three bay entrance led to a brick shell 130 feet (39.6 m) long and 60 feet (18.3 m) wide. Colley Cibber described the audience fittings as lavish but the facilities for playing poor.

"Gelido in ogni vena" Siroe (Lorenzo Regazzo)

Vanbrugh and Congreve received Queen Anne's authority to form a Company of Comedians on December 14, 1704, and the theatre opened as The Queen's Theatre on April 9, 1705, with imported Italian singers in Gli amori d'Ergasto (The Loves of Ergasto), an opera by Giacomo Greber, with an epilogue by Congreve. This was the first Italian opera performed in London. The opera failed, and the season struggled on through May, with revivals of plays and operas. The first new play performed was The Conquest of Spain by Mary Pix. The theatre proved too large for actors' voices to carry across the auditorium, and the first season was a failure. Congreve departed, Vanbrugh bought out his other partners, and the actors reopened the Lincoln's Inn Fields' theatre in the summer. Although early productions combined spoken dialogue with incidental music, a taste was growing amongst the nobility for Italian opera, which was completely sung, and the theatre became devoted to opera. As he became progressively more involved in the construction of Blenheim Palace, Vanbrugh's management of the theatre became increasingly chaotic, showing "numerous signs of confusion, inefficiency, missed opportunities, and bad judgement". On May 7, 1707, experiencing mounting losses and running costs, Vanbrugh was forced to sell a lease on the theatre for fourteen years to Owen Swiny at a considerable loss. In December of that year, the Lord Chamberlain's Office ordered that "all Operas and other Musicall presentments be performed for the future only at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Hay Market" and forbade the performance of further non-musical plays there.

"Ch'io mai vi possa" Siroe (Johanna Stojkovic)

After 1709, the theatre was devoted to Italian opera and was sometimes known informally as The Haymarket Opera House. Young George Frederick Handel was produced his English début, Rinaldo, on February 24, 1711, at the theatre, featuring the two leading castrati of the era, Nicolo Grimaldi and Valentino Urbani. This was the first Italian opera composed specifically for the London stage. The work was well received, and Handel was appointed resident composer for the theatre, but losses continued, and Swiney fled abroad to escape his creditors. John James Heidegger took over the management of the theatre and, from 1719, began to extend the stage through arches into the houses to the south of the theatre. A "Royal Academy of Music" was formed by subscription from wealthy sponsors, including the Prince of Wales, to support Handel's productions at the theatre. Under this sponsorship, Handel conducted a series of more than 25 of his original operas, continuing until 1739. Handel was also a partner in the management with Heidegger from 1729 to 1734, and he contributed to incidental music for theatre, including for a revival of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, opening on January 14, 1710.

"T' appresta forse amore" Partenope (Andrew Foster-Williams)

On the accession of George I in 1714, the theatre was renamed the King's Theatre and remained so named during a succession of male monarchs who occupied the throne. At this time only the two patent theatres were permitted to perform serious drama in London, and lacking Letters patent, the theatre remained associated with opera. In 1762, Johann Christian Bach travelled to London to première three operas at the theatre, including Orione on February 19, 1763. This established his reputation in England, and he became music master to Queen Charlotte.

"Barbaro fato si" Partenope (Kurt Streit)

In 1778, the lease for the theatre was transferred from James Brook to Thomas Harris, stage manager of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and to the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan for £22,000. They paid for the remodelling of the interior by Robert Adam in the same year. In November 1778, The Morning Chronicle reported that Harris and Sheridan had:

"Io seguo sol fiero" Partenope (Tuva Semmingsen)

"... at a considerable expence, almost entirely new built the audience part of the house, and made a great variety of alterations, part of which are calculated for the rendering the theatre more light, elegant, and pleasant, and part for the ease and convenience of the company. The sides of the frontispiece are decorated with two figures painted by Gainsborough, which are remarkably picturesque and beautiful; the heavy columns which gave the house so gloomy an aspect that it rather resembled a large mausoleum or a place for funeral dirges, than a theatre, are removed." -November 1778, The Morning Chronicle

"Furibondo spira il vento" Partenope (Marilyn Horne)

The expense of the improvements was not matched by the box office receipts, and the partnership dissolved, with Sheridan buying out his partner with a mortgage on the theatre of £12,000 obtained from the banker Henry Hoare.

"Nacque al bosco" Giustino (Jennifer Lane)

One member of the company, Giovanni Gallini, had made his début at the theatre in 1753 and had risen to the position of dancing master, gaining an international reputation. Gallini had tried to buy Harris' share but had been rebuffed. He now purchased the mortgage. Sheridan quickly became bankrupt after placing the financial affairs of the theatre in the hands of William Taylor, a lawyer. The next few years saw a struggle for control of the theatre, and Taylor bought Sheridan's interest in 1781. In 1782 the theatre was remodelled by Michael Novosielski, formerly a scene painter at the theatre. In May 1783, Taylor was arrested by his creditors, and a forced sale ensued, with Harris purchasing the lease and much of the effects. Further legal action transferred the interests in the theatre to a board of trustees, including Novosielski. The trustees acted with a flagrant disregard for the needs of the theatre or other creditors, seeking only to enrich themselves, and in August 1785 the Lord Chamberlain took over the running of the enterprise, in the interests of the creditors. Gallini, meanwhile, had become manager. In 1788, the Lord Chancellor observed "that there appeared in all the proceedings respecting this business, a wish of distressing the property, and that it would probably be consumed in that very court to which ... [the interested parties] seemed to apply for relief".[6] Performances suffered, with the box receipts taken by Novosielski, rather than given to Gallini to run the house. Money continued to be squandered on endless litigation or was misappropriated.[6] Gallini tried to keep the theatre going, but he was forced to employ amateur performers. The World described a performance as follows: "... the dance, if such it can be called was like the movements of heavy cavalry. It was hissed very abundantly."At other times, Gallini had to defend himself against a dissatisfied audience who charged the stage and destroyed the fittings, as the company ran for their lives.

"Rend'il sereno al ciglio" Sosarme (Veronica Cangemi)

"Le porte del tormento" Sosarme (Bejun Mehta & Rosemary Joshua)

The theatre burnt down on 17 June 1789 during evening rehearsals, and the dancers fled the building as beams fell onto the stage. The fire had been deliberately set on the roof, and Gallini offered a reward of £300 for capture of the culprit. With the theatre destroyed, each group laid their own plans for a replacement. Gallini obtained a licence from the Lord Chamberlain to perform opera at the nearby Little Theatre, and he entered into a partnership with R. B. O'Reilly to obtain land in Leicester Fields for a new building, which too would require a licence. The two quarrelled, and each then planned to wrest control of the venture from the other. The authorities refused to grant either of them a patent for Leicester Fields, but O'Reilly was granted a licence for four years to put on opera at the Oxford Street Pantheon. This too, would burn to the ground in 1792. Meanwhile, Taylor reached an agreement with the creditors of the King's Theatre and attempted to purchase the remainder of the lease from Edward Vanbrugh, but this was now promised to O'Reilly. A further complication arose as the theatre needed to expand onto adjacent land that now came into the possession of a Taylor supporter. The scene was set for a further war of attrition between the lessees, but at this point O'Reilly's first season at the Pantheon failed miserably, and he fled to Paris to avoid his creditors.

"Chi vive amante sai che delira" Poro (Bernarda Fink)

By 1720, Vanbrugh's direct connection with the theatre had been terminated, but the leases and rents had been transferred to both his own family and that of his wife's through a series of trusts and benefices, with Vanbrugh himself building a new home in Greenwich. After the fire, the Vanbrugh family's long association with the theatre was terminated, and all their leases were surrendered by 1792.

Overture Alessandro Severo