The shape of a Handel aria

Wednesday 2 November 2011


Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny and mezzo soprano Julia Riley talk about ETO’s production of Handel’s Xerxes.
Courtesy of BBC Radio 3 In Tune. All rights reserved.

Opera seria, the generic title of the Italian form in which Handel composed his stage works, consists of an alternation of recitative (conversation) and aria (song); arias being composed, in general in da capo form. Handel enjoyed this framework since it offered balance and continuity, yet gave scope for contrast.

A standard da capo aria can be illustrated as follows:

First section
ritornello (introduction) vocal entry ritornello

Second section
Usually voice and continuo (harpsichord and cello) alone

da capo
Reprise of the first section with vocal ornamentation (“from the head”)

Handel did not follow this pattern slavishly but found ways to colour his arias to give them dramatic validity. He could vary them in terms of their dimensions: Bradamante’s shorter-phrased “All’alma fedel” (“When two hearts that love”) is sandwiched between Ruggiero’s bravura “Sta nel Ircana” (“Trapped by a hunter”) and Alcina’s expansive “Mi restano di lagrime” (“My tears alone remain with me”).

Sometimes the vocal entry would employ contrasting though related material to the orchestral ritornello: after the extraordinary opening to Tolomeo’s ravishing “Stille amare”, the voice enters with a sinuous line of its own. Or the ritornello could throw out several thematic ideas, not all of which will be taken up by the singer: in Ariodante, Polinesso’s “Se l’inganno” (“Though in heaven”) has four different ideas in the ritornello, only one of which is taken up by the voice, which instead introduces a couple more! At other times, the ritornello may be omitted completely as in Emilia’s “Parto, si” (“I depart”) in Flavio or Medea’s “Dal cupo baratro” in Teseo.

Ariodante includes an example of Handel frustrating the audience’s expectation of a da capo aria to dramatic effect in the duet “Prendi da questa mano” (“Take from me love undying”) as Donald interrupts the lovers’ reprise of the first section and their da capo is never finished.

In the alternation of recitative and aria, Handel’s methods were in tune with the artistic conversations of the time – the doctrine of Affects where a particular passion is explored to its limits in one statement. A character reveals one aspect of himself in an aria, a different aspect in the next, and so on. By the end, the character often exits after an aria: having thoroughly explored an emotion, to remain would only weaken the impression.

In the hands of a master, the da capo aria suits the needs of the audience, the singers, the composer, and most importantly, the drama. Handel’s contemporary Burney commented that his arias are “a canvas a great singer only can colour”.

The reprise of the first section drives home the message of the aria, with the ornamentation giving brilliance to a furious mood, and making a tragic mood utterly heartrending. The audience could be excited by a singer’s taste and virtuosity – and Handel could compose satisfying structures that gave the audience a second chance to leave the theatre humming the hit tunes!

Jonathan Peter Kenny, Conductor (Flavio, Xerxes)

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