132. Arminio (Handel)

  • Dramma per musica in 3 acts
  • Composer: George Frideric Handel
  • Libretto after Antonio Salvi
  • First performed: Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London, 12 January 1737

A brooding and bewigged Max Emanuel Cencic, cloak billowing dramatically behind him, levels a pistol straight at you. This is the striking cover of Decca’s Arminio. George Frideric Handel, licence to thrill.

Posterity has not been kind to this late opera about the German chieftain Hermann, who massacred three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD.

Arminio was one of three new operas Handel produced for his Covent Garden theatre in the first six months of 1737; it appeared in January, Giustino followed in February, and Berenice in May.  None were successful.

Handel composed Arminio in a month, adapting Antonio Salvi’s libretto for Scarlatti (Florence, 1703).  Arminio is a brave freedom fighter resisting the might of Rome; the Roman general Varo [Varus] is in love with Arminio’s wife Tusnelda; and her father Segestes is a traitor who sides with Rome and calls for Arminio’s murder.  We are more used to the Roman version – whether through Tacitus or Robert Graves – where the Teutoburg Massacre is a catastrophe.  Here, the death of Varo provides the happy ending.  If anything, it’s like the close of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, where the downtrodden Swiss revolt against the tyrannical Gessler, and peace returns to the land. (Porpora’s Germanico in Germania (Rome, 1732), which features many of the same characters, ends with the Germans reconciled with Italy. The Saxon Handel understandably preferred a story of German heroism!)

Despite introducing the castrato Domenico Annibali to London, Arminio only lasted six performances.  Some praised it – writer Newburgh Hamilton even called it “a miracle”; Lord Shaftesbury found it “in every respect excellent and vastly pleasing,” but foresaw its fate. “The opera is rather grave, but correct and labour’d to the highest degree… But I fear ’twill not be acted very long.  The Town dont much admire it.”

The opera was not resurrected until 1935, and modern critics have almost unanimously panned it.  E.J. Dent complained that the opera was deplorably feeble; “the music is for the most part unworthy of Handel, and can only be passed over in silence”.  Jonathan Keates thought the score lacked originality and good tunes, while Piotr Kaminski places it among Handel’s least interesting operas, because of its schematic, clumsy libretto and the monotonous lack of inspiration.

With my customary perversity, I enjoyed it more than Giulio Cesare or Rinaldo.

Countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic produced the opera for the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in 2016.  He not only sings the title role; he directs, too.  Is there nothing he can’t do?  His production is a gripping Revolution-era thriller.

Arminio is a dark work; most of the arias are in the minor, and the shadow of the scaffold (or in Cencic’s production, the guillotine) looms over the action.  True, it’s the kind of opera where people are led on to be executed – and aren’t; where they threaten to stab their fathers, or poison themselves – and don’t; but there’s more sustained dramatic tension than in some of his earlier, more popular works. It’s as if we’ve suddenly been catapulted from the Baroque into full-blooded Verdian melodrama.

It opens with an urgent, frantic duet, “Il fuggir, cara mia vita”,  as Arminio and Tusnelda flee from the Romans.  A chained Arminio steels himself to meet his judges (“Duri lacci, voi non siete per me rei di crudeltà”); hurls defiant volleys of notes at the Romans (“Sì, cadrò, ma sorgerà”); and bids a slow, loving farewell to wife and life (“Vado a morir, vi lascio la pache ch’ho nel cor”). 

Act III opens with a menacing sinfonia; later, sword in hand, Arminio goes to fight Varus in the heroic “Fatto scorta al sentier della gloria”.  At the opera’s end, a second husband/wife duet “Ritorna nel core vezzosa/Risplende nell’alma amante” leads into an exquisite chorus “A capir tante dolcezze troppo angusto è ’l nostro cor”.

Nor is it fair to say that the opera lacks tunes.  Sigismondo, the castrato secondo uomo (originally sung by Gioacchino Conti), has a brooding entrance aria, “Non son sempre vane larve”; is torn between his father Segeste and love in “Posso morir, ma vivere,” which closes the first act; and a big aria “Quella fiamma, ch’il petto m’accdende”, with an oboe solo in Act II.

Ramise has some of the opera’s liveliest arias: the delightfully giddy, helter-skelter “Sento il cor per ogni lato”; “Niente spero, tutto vedo”; and “Voglio seguir lo sposo”.  Note also a lovely duet, “Quando più minaccia il cielo”, for Ramise and Tusnelda in Act III, almost 17th century in harmony.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Edward Blakeman, The Faber Pocket Guide to Handel, Faber & Faber, 2009
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and His Music, Pimlico, rev. 2008
  • David Vickers, “Handel’s Arminio“, Decca

SUGGESTED RECORDINGS

Listen: Max Emanuel Cencic (Arminio), Layla Claire (Tusnelda), Petros Magoulas (Segeste), Juan Sancho (Varo), Vince Yi (Sigismondo), Ruxandra Donose (Ramise), Xavier Sabata (Tullio), with George Petrou conducting Armonia Atenea. Athens, 2016, Decca.

Watch: Max Emanuel Cencic (Arminio), Lauren Snouffer (Tusnelda), Pavel Kudinov (Segeste), Juan Sancho (Varo), Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk (Sigismondo), Gaia Petrone (Ramise), Owen Willetts (Tullio), with George Petrou conducting Armonia Atenea. C Major.

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