Almira

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Title page of the wordbook for 'Almira', Handel's
first opera (c) Stiftung Händel-Haus, Halle.

ALMIRA, Königin von Castilien, or Der in Kronen erlangte Glücks-Wechsel (Almira, Queen of Castille, or The Change of Fortune Gained with a Crown) (HWV 1)

Libretto: Friedrich Christian Feustking after Giulio Pancieri

First performance: 8th January 1705, Theater am Gänsemarkt, Hamburg

Cast not known

Synopsis

The action takes place at the palace of Almira, the Queen of Castille, in medieval Valladolid.  The confused emotions and relations of the persons at her court, revolving around Almira herself as the principal figure, form the action of the opera.  At the end of it all, she marries the man whom she loves.

Act I

After her father's death, Almira is crowned queen and learns from Consalvo that her father's last wish was that she marry a man from this wise councillors house, namely his wayward son, the military commander Osman.  This is unhappy news for Almira, whose heart belongs to her secretary Fernando, a youth of unknown origin.  Although Osman is pleased at the prospect of the royal wedding he vows to remain true to his beloved Edilia.  Almira misinterprets a fragmentary message which Fernando has cut on a tree trunk in the woods as a declaration of his love for Edilia, a royal princess.  When Fernando pays too much attention to Edilia at a court party, Almira becomes extremely jealous.  The bored Osman makes his way to a party given by Bellante, the Princess of Aranda.

Act II

While Bellante, who has fallen in love with Osman, resists Consalvo's advances, Osman tries to get Fernando to put in a good word for him with Almira.  Raymonda presents himself at court as the Mauretanian ambassador and woos Almira.  Almira goes to Fernando to tell him of her love, but Osman turns up and challenges Fernando to a duel.  Almira intervenes to steal Osman's dagger.  Edilia finds the dagger in Almira's room and makes a jealous scene in front of Osman.  Tabarco, Fernando's servant, opens and reads letters of the courtiers.

Act III

During the ceremonies in Raymonda's honour, Fernando, Osman and Consalvo represent the three continents Europe, Africa and Asia. Tabarco represents Folly.  Raymondo tries to win Edilia's hand, but she is still pining for Osman.  Bellante is brusque with Consalvo and once again refuses his advances.  Consalvo has Fernando locked away in the dungeon; he too has heard of his 'forbidden love' for Edilia.  Tabarco delivers a farewell letter and a ruby from Fernando to Almira, who now wavers between love and jealousy.  Osman tries to win back Edilia, who now is attracted to Raymondo.  Almira informs Fernando that he has been sentenced to death.  But when he tells of his love for her, she sets him free.  When Consalvo sees the ruby, he realises that Fernando is his long-lost son.  Now nothing stands in the way of marriage between Almira and Fernando.  At the end Almira and Fernando, Osman and Bellante, and Raymondo and Edilia come together for a triple wedding.

***

Handel left his home town of Halle in Saxony in 1703, at the age of 18, to take up a position in the orchestra of the opera in Hamburg, the only public opera house in Germany.  He played both harpsichord and violin, and soon became friends with the orchestra's other harpsichordist, Johann Mattheson.  From the beginning there seems to have been a friendly rivalry between them, but things came to a head during a performance of Mattheson's opera Cleopatra in early December 1704.  Mattheson, who also sang in the opera, having completed his role returned to the orchestra pit expecting to resume his place at the harpsichord for the remainder of the performance.  But Handel, who had led the performance while Mattheson sang, refused to give way.  Legend tells us that the two fought a duel, and that Handel's life was only saved from a deadly blow by a button on his coat.  By the end of December, according to Mattheon's memoirs, the two had become greater friends than before, and they were to correspond for many years after Handel left Germany initially for Italy, and then ultimately for England.

By the time of the duel the 19 year old Handel's first opera, Almira was in rehearsal.  It seems to have been a huge success, and played for 20 performances at the Theater am Gänsemarkt.  Writing in the current fashionable style, Handel created arias in both German and Italian.  This is the only one of his operas that has no role for a castrato.  Handel never revived 'Almira' when he was in England, but he did re-use some of the music for later works, and most famously the short Sarabande played during the masque in Act III.  This was to re-appear first as 'Lacia la spina' in Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, and finally as 'Lascia ch'io pianga' in Rinaldo.

Handel was to write three more operas for Hamburg:  Nero (HWV 2) in 1705, and Florindo and Daphne (HWV 3 and 4) both in 1706. Unfortunately,  almost none of the music of these three early operas has survived.