In choosing a scene from an opera seria that I find dramatically effective, I of course was inclined to choose an opera by Handel. He was, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, one of the most remarkable Baroque composers of his time. He was a master of opera; of every type of melody, with scarcely a rival at any period. The flexibility of his rhythmic paragraphs was exceptional even in an age that had not fully succumbed to the clamp of the four-bar phrase. He used chromatic and dissonant harmony sparingly, but this only enhanced the moments of dramatic and emotional conflict it was used for. One of the things that made Handel a master of opera was his devotion and care in the finer details of characterization and dramatic structure. He used his music to create memorable characters who interact, develop, and grow in stature, and fused the musical and the dramatic together as one.1
Opera seria had a conventional format, which the 18th century audience would have expected to hear and see. The da capo aria, the secco recitative, the convenience of a madrigal conversion: these were the chosen materials of all composers of opera seria. But it would be imprudent to suggest that Handel found these ingredients a restriction. Handel was not fettered by the rules; we need to note when he flouts convention, and why. We need to look with him beyond the
predictability of forms to the development of human characters and emotional situations, and to the manipulation of a musical architecture serving dramatic ends. The essence of Baroque is to stretch the forms but not to break them.2
The da capo aria was one of the essential virtues of opera seria. For one thing, it was perfect for demonstrating virtuosity, with it’s A-B-A form enabling singers to show off their talents. More than that, it became, especially for Handel, the primary dramatic medium within the opera. Duets, trios and other ensembles are rare in opera seria not because they are musically inappropriate, but because they create a communal sentiment rather than an individual effect. In Handel’s operas, the tensions between characters are worked out in the succeeding arias, rather than simultaneously declaimed.3 Yet the aria is usually confined to a single mood, or two if the B section is contrasted, making it hard to express the development and emotional charge of the character. But Handel tackles this problem by building up the character facet by facet in the course of the arias until he or she stands complete. For example, Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare in Egitto begins as a tease and a scheming minx; when she falls in love with Caesar she passes through passion, anxiety and desolation before emerging as a mature woman.4
The opera seria that I have chosen is Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, and the scene I have chosen that I find dramatically effective is Act 3 scene 3. In this scene the character Cleopatra sings a da capo aria entitled Piangeró la...