There is perhaps no other Baroque composer with as wide a repertory as George Frideric Handel. Though a handful of his operas are still widely performed in Europe, his operas don’t typically get much attention from the major houses in the United States. Even the few shows that are still regularly staged are recycled in succession, such as “Giulio Cesare,” “Alcina” and, of course, “Messiah (not an opera, but close enough).”
Born on Feb. 23 1685, the German-born composer is more than just the king of da capo style. He has an expansive array of operas that seem to have fallen into obscurity over the last two centuries. In honor of his 333rd birthday, here is a list of five operas composed by Handel that deserve the spotlight once more.
Like other great Handel operas such as “Alcina” and “Ariodante,” this fantasy-inspired opera is also derived from Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso.” The tale of the heartbroken knight was brought back to life in England the 1960s with Dame Janet Baker in the title role, and has since seen other great mezzos and countertenors as Orlando, such as Patricia Bardon and Bejun Mehta.
“Agrippina” is not nearly as obscure as the others on this list, but it is surprising that this fiery opera seria isn’t performed more than it is. Those familiar with Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” see the return of many of the same characters, though obviously in a different context. And though “Agrippina” contains some of Handel’s trickiest music, many collegiate productions have shown the early success of stars in recent years, including Angela Meade at University of Southern California in 2004 and Samantha Hankey in The Juilliard School’s 2017 production.
Though “Tolomeo” also features some of the same characters from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” there is little relation to the opera. In fact, many of Handel’s operas see the same characters again and again (see above). The story takes place during the reign of Ptolemy IX (Tolomeo) in Egypt, where the themes of false/mistaken identities and betrayal are seen at the forefront. However, it’s the title character’s heartwrenching aria “Stille amare gia vi sento” that Tolomeo is well known for.
“Admeto” saw a brief resurgence in Europe in the last six or seven years, but has fallen off the radar for most houses once again. In fact, the last professional recording of this opera happened almost 10 years ago, with countertenor Tim Mead in the title role (he also appeared in an earlier recording of “Ademto” as Trasimede three years prior). The opera may not have many arias that are commonly sung today, but the final chorus in the last scene will have everyone tapping their toes.
This opera, which chronicles Alexander the Great in India, is not as much opera seria as it is a romantic comedy. Sure, Alessandro deals with the common themes of war and betrayal, but this opera is ultimately a love story — and at times holds elements of a farce. Both Rossane and Lisaura vie for the love of Alessandro, and he is unable to choose one as his bride. He eventually makes his decision in Act three, but not before avoiding his own assassination.