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Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 8pm | Purchase Tickets

Emmanuel Church, Boston

PROGRAM NOTES - Handel and Vivaldi: Fireworks


Love and Rage: Operatic Fireworks from the Eighteenth Century

“Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket.
What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear!”
—Roger Pickering, London, 1755

Tonight’s concert is a tale of two cities—two great Baroque cities that attracted the greatest composers and singers of the time. Though eighteenth-century Venice and London boasted wealth and sophistication, it was their opera stages, above all, that made them the spotlights of the world.

Venice was a city of cosmopolitan decadence. On a given day, Handel and Scarlatti might be found playing a duel as keyboardists at a lavish party, while down the street, foreign tourists listened to a famous virtuoso orchestra of orphan girls, led by Vivaldi. Music was the supreme attraction—especially opera, which flourished in eight opera theatres.

In this magical city lived Antonio Vivaldi, a priest (of sorts) who served as music master for the orphaned girls of the famous Ospedale della Pietà, while pursuing an ambitious international career as soloist and opera composer. And in this city, for about five years, visited the young George Frideric Handel—equally ambitious, equally international, and equally fascinated by opera. Both composers were destined for tumultuous successes, failures, and upheavals in their careers as they pursued that passionate art form of love and rage: opera.

A Priest Misunderstood

Many people think of Vivaldi as the composer of the Four Seasons. In reality, though, we are still in the early stages of getting to know his work. His forty-nine operas and approximately thirty sacred works are still in the process of being published. It is therefore surprising to hear prominent musicians talk about Handel as being “the only important Baroque opera composer,” and to hear people toss Vivaldi aside as merely a composer of violin concertos. When I ask these people how many of Vivaldi’s operas they know, they look blank. Likewise, we tend to talk about Vivaldi as a composer of youthful, light music, forgetting that we are primarily acquainted with his concertos, which he wrote for performance by orphan girls. His operas and sacred music could hardly be described as light or playful.

Vivaldi had a meteoric career, achieving the popularity of a rock star and then crashing to complete oblivion. In his concertos for his orphan protégées, he was the great developer of ritornello form—the form that became the model for concerto writing by all European composers of the century, including J. S. Bach. The Italian word “ritornello” means something that returns. The same word is used to mean the refrain in pop music—and indeed, Vivaldi’s ritornellos convey the bold and driving sense of rhythm and melody found in pop music. Like pop composers today, he was writing for teenagers. The Concerto in A minor for Two Violins combines spirited ritornellos with fiery solo writing and a poetically rhetorical slow movement.

Scholars believe that the great follia or folia dance-tune originated in Portugal, where girls would engage in the “folly” of a mad dance around the fire. The follia is a ground bass in haughty sarabande-like rhythm, traditionally growing faster and faster toward the end. It was said that the girls finished in a state of frenzied collapse. The theme is full of the tension of courtship and seduction, and has served as inspiration for variations by dozens of Baroque composers, including Corelli, Marais, Geminiani, C. P. E. Bach, and of course, Vivaldi. Vivaldi’s version, which I believe is the finest of them all, was originally a trio sonata; I arranged it as a concerto grosso so that all of us could join in the fray.

Divas and Castrati

Opera performances in eighteenth-century Venice resembled the atmosphere of a casino—people chatting, playing cards, and shouting their approval or annoyance with the show. The operas were formulaic and the public demanded new ones every few weeks. This was the pop music of the times. Into this circus walked Handel and Vivaldi, both with ambitions to conquer the fickle public. In 1712 Handel indeed had the Venetian public at his feet with his wildly successful opera Agrippina, performed twenty-seven times that year.


Fifteen years later, we see Vivaldi, already an international operatic star, producing perhaps his greatest masterpiece for the stage: Orlando furioso. With this opera, Vivaldi declared war on the trivial and formulaic operas that were all the rage. Based on the sixteenth-century epic poem by Ariosto, Orlando furioso is a tragic and heroic dramma per musica that explores the fragile strength of humanity. It can be seen as Vivaldi’s manifesto, proclaiming boldly that great music can and should be in the service of great drama.

London, too, was a city of rival opera companies and a fickle public. Handel made London his home after his Italian studies were completed, and during his checkered career in the opera world he both made and lost a fortune. In 1729 he became joint manager of the Theatre in the Haymarket, and travelled to Italy to engage seven new singers. But he failed to compete with the rival Opera of the Nobility, who brought in more famous singers such the castrato Farinelli.

Six of the seven arias performed tonight were written for the great castrato singers of Italy (several of whom went to London to work with Handel). Castrati had entered the musical world in the late sixteenth century, when papal decree established them in the cathedral choirs. (Women were banned by the Vatican from performing.) By 1680, castrati were the rage. An Italian opera not featuring at least one renowned castrato would be doomed to fail. Singers such as Farinelli and Carestini became the first operatic superstars, earning enormous fees and hysterical public adulation.

By presenting Vivaldi’s neglected arias alongside the well-known ones of Handel, we hope tonight to give you, our Noble Publick, the chance to decide for yourselves: Does Vivaldi deserve a place beside Handel on the Baroque opera stage?