A Letter from the Earl of Shaftsbury Concerning Handel's Armino
I was at Arminius last Saturday […] Mr Handel has a much larger orquestre […] than last year & the loss of Castrucio is abundantly supplied by Martini […]  The overture is a very fine one & the fuge I think as far as I can tell at once hearing it not unlike that in Admetus; it (the overture) ends with a minuet strain . The first song is a duet between Annibali & Strada & it is but short , but like the whole piece in every respect excellent & vastly pleasing.
To tell you my real opinion of Annibali I found him widely different from the idea I had conceiv’d of him but it was on the right side that I was mistaken for he prodigiously surpassed my expectations. His voice it must be confess’d is not so good as some we have had; the lower notes of it are very weak & he has not the melowness [sic] of Senesino (nor as far as I can guess) the compass , but the middle part of is clear strong & many & very tunable. It must be owing to the songs for Porus being too low for him that Couzin Hooper could imagine he sung out of tune, for though I did not hear him I will venture to contradict it, as he is by far a greater master of musick than any man I ever heard sing on a stage. He is as exact in his time as Corporali who plays the base, though he sings with greatest ease imaginable & his closes are superiour [sic] to them all (but Strada); he comes to them in the most natural, rational way, always keeps within the air & scarce ever makes two alike throughout the opera. One is never in any pain about him, he enters so thoroughly into what he is about both as to action as well as the song. His action indeed is incomparable & he sings with all the passion his voice will admit. – Upon the whole he pleases me the best of any singer I ever heard without exception.
I need but mention Strada’s name, you know her excellencies. She has a charming part. As for Conti he sings I think better than last year in that he keeps more within his voice […] Martini has a solo upon the hautboy with only Conti singing to it. Indeed Martini exerts himself mightily through the whole opera. Beard has but two though two too many songs for he is absolutely good for nothing:  Bertoli’s & Negri’s songs are pleasing firm compositions & they perform them extremely well. The base [sic] has but one song .
The opera is rather grave but correct & labour’d to the highest degree & is a favourite one with Handel. The bases & accompaniment if possible is better than usual. But I fear ‘twill not be acted very long. The Town dont much admire it . But as my father says “Harmony is Harmony though all the world turn Goths”, & I add, or fine gentlemen. This delightfull piece of musick will come out by the middle of next month […] I cannot leave this agreeable subject without repeating my commendations of the opera: I think there is rather more variety & spirit in it than any of the preceding ones & tis admirably perform’d. There is a life & vigour in Annibali I am sure you will like . Experto credite quo turbine torqueat hastam may be applicable to him with regard to the vigour of his action .
The Handel scholar Donald Burrows describes this letter, written by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 4th Earl of Shaftesbury to his cousin James Harris on 18 January 1737 as ‘the best surviving first-hand description of one of Handel’s opera performances’ . It is therefore worth examining in some detail as to what it tells us regarding not just contemporary reception of Handel’s operas, but what was important to his audiences, and – equally as importantly – what was not important to them. It is worth noting that like James Harris, Shaftesbury knew Handel personally and was one of his keenest supporters.
The first thing we notice is that Shaftesbury’s overwhelming interest is in the singing. He provides detailed observations on the newcomer Annibali, extravagantly praising him for his musicality rather than the actual quality of his voice or his range, finding his lower register weak. Shaftesbury has special praise for Annibali’s treatment of cadences (‘closes’), admiring the natural manner with which he approaches them, the avoidance of excessive departure from the melodic line and the variation brought to cadential embellishment. There is high praise, too, for Annibali’s acting, his ability to integrate his action with vocal expressivity.
The other singers receive less attention, Strada since Shaftesbury considers her attributes by this stage to be so well established as to need little further comment. Few today would describe the role of the long-suffering Tusnelda as ‘charming’. Conti of course was also a new singer to Handel’s company, but the writer had already reported on him to Harris with great enthusiasm the previous May (letter of 8 May 1736) after hearing him in a revival of Ariodante. At that time Shaftesbury excitedly reported that although the young man (he was only 22) would improve ‘he is all things consider’d the best singer I ever heard’. His voice is ‘perfectly clear’ being ‘certainly sweeter’ than that of Farinelli, although he ‘does not yet go quite so low’. Conti’s ‘execution is inimitable’ and, he tells Harris, he also acts well. The remaining singers are dealt with summarily, but the oboist Giuseppe Sammartini’s contribution is especially noted. It is not known if the reasons for Shaftesbury’s disapproval of John Beard were musical or personal; the tenor, later much admired, was still very young at the time.
For all his enthusiasm for an opera in which he finds ‘rather more variety & spirit in it than any of the preceding ones’, Shaftesbury tells his correspondent little about the work itself, giving only a brief description of the overture. Otherwise he finds the opera ‘rather grave but correct & labour’d’, by which he means skilfully composed. The observation that it is ‘a favourite one with Handel’ is presumably based on the composer’s having told Shaftesbury this in person.
Equally as interesting is what Shaftesbury does not discuss. There is no mention of production for the simple reason that it did not exist in the terms of modern convention. While it is not uncommon to have stage directions printed in the librettos of 18th century operas, stage movement was in the hands of the librettist (if he was present for the first run), the choreographer, the stage designer or the stage manager. Metastasio, the greatest of all 18th century librettists, was not only much involved with staging when he was present, but also sent detailed advice on it to others producing operas set to his librettos . Singers employed a set of conventional gestures and movements (also applicable to spoken drama) that needed little instruction for specific operas. The best of them, as Shaftesbury makes clear in his praise of Annibali, were able to fuse vocal and physical acting to convey powerful emotions to their audience, who we should remember were in arias addressed directly from the front of the stage. There is, too, no mention of set design, again because although not infrequently spectacular – though often rather less so than in 17th century opera – there were formulaic designs for stock interior and exterior locations. Indeed it was common practice for sets to serve for any number of operas.
While we can thus find straightforward explanations for Shaftsbury’s lack of comment on such features as production and stage design, what is perhaps most striking to a modern reader is that given he is attending a new opera he makes no mention of the dramatic veracity of the plot or characterisation. Neither should it be thought he is any way unusual in this respect. While comment on the quality of the poetry itself is occasionally made and although word books were available to the audience prior to the performance, I am not aware of any recorded contemporary instance where the plot itself is discussed. Even fifty years later Charles Burney’s extensive consideration of Italian opera in England includes no description of the plot of an opera, his concerns being almost solely on the accomplishments and vocal quality of the singers and the music they were singing.
Why should this be? Firstly, we have to remember that plots were frequently on mythological or historical events that were known to audiences of the day far better than they are today. There was no need to explain them. More importantly, however, I think we have to realise that what happened in a Baroque opera was infinitely less important than providing opportunities to express a wide range of emotions. Thus what may seem to modern observers an absurdly convoluted or even silly story line merely served as a tool to set up opportunities for characters to express their feelings at a particular point in the action. This also of course explains two other features of Baroque opera that frequently trouble observers and commentators in our greatly more purist age: the pasticcio opera that includes arias by a number of composers and the use of the so-called ‘suitcase aria’, the convention whereby prominent singers inserted their favourite arias into whatever opera they happened to be singing. So long as the emotion expressed was suited to the dramatic sense neither kind of insertion or replacement caused an audience of the Baroque era the slightest concern. Indeed, one of the attractions of going to hear a star singer was the hope that he or she might chose to regale you with a favourite aria, which might serve almost as a kind of theme song. The pull was what he or she did with that aria, the decoration of which might differ from performance to performance.
The use of the Shaftsbury letter to illustrate aspects of performance reception that differ greatly from expectations today helps us better understand how we can further enhance our understanding of Baroque opera. While great strides toward have in this respect been made in the past half century or so, we still have some way to go before we can claim to experience this exotic art form in all its former glory.
1. Pietro Castrucci, a pupil of Corelli who led London opera orchestras from 1720. The oboist Giuseppe Sammartini (‘Martini’), who as noted later has a prominent solo in Arminio (‘Quella fiamma’)
2. Admeto (King’s Theatre, 31 January 1727).
3. The castrato Domenico Annibali was new to Handel’s company. He had made his debut in a revival of Poro on 8 December 1736. He sang the title role in Arminio. Anna Maria Strada del Pò, who sang Tusnelda, was the leading soprano in all Handel’s operas (and oratorios) from 1729 until 1737.
4. The also castrato Francesco Bernardi (‘Senesino’) sang in Handel’s Royal Academy from 1720 until its collapse in 1728, taking the principal role in 13 Handel operas.
5. The soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti was another new singer to Handel’s company. He sang the role of Sigismondo in Arminio. Burney notes that Conti was the first soprano primo uomo Handel had used, his other leading men all being mezzos.
6. The tenor John Beard, who sang the role of Varo.
7. Francesca Bertolli, contralto (Ramise); Maria Caterina Negri (Tullio). The bass Henry Reinhold who sang the part of Segeste.
8. Arminio received only six performances and was never revived by Handel.
10. Arminio was first performed at Covent Garden
11. ‘Believe one who knows with what force he hurls his spear’, Virgil, Aeneid.
12. See Robins, ‘Origin of the Species’, Opera, June 2016, pp. 689-94