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How Handel and opera conquered London

Opera has a long history of shaping national identity – much to the annoyance of some. PATRICK SAWER looks at its impact in Italy and, perhaps more surprisingly, in the UK

Arriving in Britain from his native Germany in 1710, George Frideric Handel wasted no time making an impression on what would now be called the host community.

Within a few years this cultural migrant had taken London audiences by storm with his exhilarating compositions. In one month alone his Water Music was performed three times on the River Thames, in front of King George I. Indeed, the enthusiastic reception his opera Rinaldo received in 1711 was an early example of this country’s enduring love affair with ‘world music’.

The story – based on an epic Italian poem about the liberation of Jerusalem during the First Crusade – was written by Aaron Hill, an Englishman; translated into Italian by Giacomo Rosso; and set to a German’s tunes to be performed by Italian singers for an English audience.

But while Handel’s music made him a star at the age of 25 – and one whose enduring popularity is still evident at weddings, fireworks displays and Christmas concerts – his arrival was not universally welcomed.

In fact many reacted with a familiar and recurring British impulse to turn our backs on the Continent and its strange customs. There was resentment in some quarters that the popularity of Handel’s ‘foreign’ compositions, along with the mania for Italian opera, was robbing British playwrights of the opportunity of seeing their own works performed.

A contemporary engraving by William Hogarth depicts a barrow load of manuscripts by Shakespeare and other Anglo-Saxon writers being carted off, while crowds flock to watch the peacock preening and posing of Italian opera singers. Commentators predicted that future generations would be mystified at Londoners’ embrace of an alien culture.

Writing in the March 1711 edition of the Spectator magazine, Richard Steele, said: ‘Our great grand-children will be curious to know the reason why their forefathers used to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own country to hear plays acted before them in a tongue which they did not understand.’

Plus ca change, as they might say today across the Channel.

This intense, but until now largely forgotten, culture war over the popularity of both Handel’s music and Italian opera in 18th century London, is chronicled in Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Opera made its way to London from Venice, where it had been first performed for the exclusive entertainment of the nobility in the salons of the gran palazzi before being staged in public theatres – its unique marriage of stirring music, emotional lyrics and dramatic plot set against exotic or classical scenery appealing to the Italian psyche.

London was emerging as a world city, a centre of international trade and commerce, and the merchants, writers and craftsmen who made their way there brought with them new tastes in fashion, food and music – just as generations of migrants would over the following centuries.

‘There was a real backlash against Handel precisely because he was so popular,’ says Kate Bailey, senior curator of theatre and performance at the V&A.

‘This exotic European art form led to a fear and resentment among some commentators that we would lose our sense of Britishness.

‘Of course what happened in the end was that Handel and Shakespeare sat together. Handel survives the backlash and becomes a Londoner and his work has a huge influence on The Beggar’s Opera, the profits from which built Covent Garden. There’s a pleasing circularity to that.’

The audience who flocked to Covent Garden or the Haymarket to hear performers sing of faraway places in a foreign tongue was relatively small and drawn from the country’s nobility.

But if anyone thinks that opera is, and has always been the preserve of the elite – remote from the concerns, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people – their misconception will soon be dispelled by the V&A’s exhibition, with all the force of the arias and choruses on its audio soundtrack.

A century on, and 800 miles south of Covent Garden, opera’s culture wars continued and it became an expression of national identity, rooted in the hopes and aspirations of its audience, an audience drawn from across the social divide.

Listen to the strains of Verdi’s Va, pensiero, the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from his 1842 opera Nabucco, and you’ll hear the cry of a people yearning to be free.

Giuseppe Verdi wrote it about the Hebrews held captive in Egypt, dreaming of a homeland. But, as he may have intended, Italian audiences seized on it as an evocation of their own aspirations.

The country was still carved up between the empires of Europe; the Austro-Hungarians who ruled Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto in the north; the Spanish Bourbons, whose corrupt, stultifying regime held Naples and the South; and the Papal State, which governed Rome.

Va, pensiero became the anthem of the Risorgimento, the intellectual, cultural and political movement which culminated in the unification of the country in 1861.

Giuseppe Mazzini, the revolutionary ideologue of the Risorgimento, who with the statesman Cavour and the military leader Garibaldi ‘made Italy’, even drew parallels between an opera’s chorus and the political turmoil of the age.

In 1836 he wrote: ‘Why can’t the chorus be like the people and attain an independent and spontaneous life of its own?’

The audiences said to have chanted ‘Viva Verdi’ (long live Verdi) in the auditoriums of Italian opera houses were not just expressing their delight at the master’s compositions. They were also goading their Austrian occupiers.

As many an Italian child learnt over the following decades, it was one of those fortuitous coincidences that Verdi’s surname spelt out the first letters of ‘Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia’, in acclamation of the man who, in 1861, would go on to become the first king of the newly-unified nation.

Va, pensiero became the country’s unofficial national anthem, a more spiritual and melancholy alternative to the martial and bombastic Inno di Mameli.

So woven was opera into the weft of the country that English visitors to Italy would frequently comment that the arias and choruses of Verdi, Puccini and Rossini could just as easily be heard sung by washer women and market sellers in town squares as in the local opera house.

One hundred years on the wheel had turned and the left-wing students and radicals of 1968 would protest outside the first night of Milan’s La Scala opera house, as Italy once again descended into internecine conflict over its future.

To them the event – with its audience of bejewelled heiresses, starlets and captains of industry – represented the ultimate transformation of opera from what was once popular art form into the preserve of a rotten bourgeois elite.

The convulsions of 1968 would lead to demands for opera to again reflect the concerns of contemporary life. ‘Nabucco’s themes of exile and migration are as relevant today as they were in 1842,’ says Bailey.

‘And it’s still the job of composers and librettists to find those relevant themes and for their work to address political and societal challenges, the way traditional operas can.’

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is at the V&A until February 25

Patrick Sawer is a senior reporter with the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

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