Atalanta

ATALANTA (HWV 35)

Libretto: Unknown, after Belisario Valeriani, 1715

First performance: 12th May 1736, Covent Garden Theatre, London

Cast:

Atalanta - Anna Maria Strada del Pò (Soprano)
Meleagro - Gioacchino Conti, called "Gizziello" (Soprano-castrato)
Irene - Maria Caterina Negri (Contralto)
Aminata - John Beard (Tenor)
Nicandro - Gustavus Waltz (Bass)
Mercurio - Henry Theodore Reinhold (Bass)

Synopsis

Act I

King Meleagro of Aetolia, who lives the carefree life of the shepherds under the psudonym Tirsi, is looking for his sweetheart, Atalanta.  He meets the shepherd Aminta and they complain of their lovers' cruelty.  Then the shepherdess Irene, Aminta's beloved, appears.  She scolds Aminta bitterly, and Meleagro supports him in vain.  When Irene and Aminta are left alone, she continues to rebuke him.  Aminta replies defiantly, that if it gave the girl pleasure, he would chose death without hesitation, but even in his death he would remain faithful to her.

Then Irene's father Nicandro, who is also Meleagro's confidant, appears.  It emerges from their conversation that Irene also loves Aminta, but that she wants to put his fidelity to the test.  Nicandro warns his daughter not to be too cruel.  Left alone, Irene relates in song that her lover, whom she compares to a dove, will have to yearn a great deal before the hour of consummation arrives.

Princess Atalanta of Arcadia appears, who is posing as a shepherdess called Amarilli.  The company prepares to go hunting, but Atalanta does not allow Meleagro to remain at her side and protect her, even though she confesses to herself that she loves the youth.  Aminta enters, and true to his decision, wants to throw himself before the approaching boar, but he is held back by the other shepherds.  Atalanta finally wounds the boar, and then sings that although she has been victorious, she is still worried about the struggle to come. 

Later Meleagro remians alone and we learn from him that amid fear and doubt he still entertains a constant hope.

Act II

The shepherds are celebrating, but Atalanta draws aside and broods over her hapless love.  Meleagro overhears her and learns that the royal princess in disguise does not dare to show her true feelings because she does not know that Tirsi is in fact King Meleagro.  Atalanta sings an aria about her woes; Meleagro comes up to her and wishes to clear up the situation, but both are so shy that they express themselves too obscurely, thus it is not made apparent that there are no obstacles to their love.  Atalanta departs.

Irene enters and pretends to confess love for Meleagro, but only as another means of torturing Aminta.  Meleagro asks her to take his present of a ribbon to Atalanta, and even persuades her to intercede with Atalanta on his behalf.  After Irene has left, Meleagro, alone, confesses that Irene has importance for him only as long as she helps him conquer Atalanta.

Now again we see Irene, who pretends not to notice that she is being watched by Aminta and also pretends that Meleagro has given her the ribbon as a gift.  Aminta appears and calls her to account for all that has happened.  Irene departs and Atalanta enters.  She asks Aminta to give a present of an arrow to her love, Meleagro, but without mentioning her name to him.  Aminta wants to send bitter reproaches to Irene by her, but himself shrinks back from the weight of his words, and hope gains the upper hand again.

He departs and Meleagro enters.  Atalanta rejects him scornfully.  The young man, who knows his beloved one's secret, sings an aria which is playful rather than desperate, and then departs.  Left to herself, Atalanta is more grieved still that although she is in love with all her heart, she must still feign coldness.

Act III

Irene presents Atalanta with the ribbon that Meleagro has sent.  Again in a somewhat obscure way, Atalanta sends word to Meleagro that he can learn all about her from Aminta.  But despite her uncertainty, she too is hopeful.

Irene now encounters Aminta, who has the arrow Atalanta has sent Meleagro.  In an unexpected turn of events he decides to make Irene feel jealous by telling her that he loves Amarilli-Atalanta and that he has received the arrow from her.  Irene walks into the trap, and Aminta immediately snubs her.  Meleagro has heard all and now steps forward.  Irene tells him that she has only feigned love for him and that she really loves Aminta; both, however, believe that Atalanta is burning with love for Aminta too.  Irene becomes almost mad with jealousy.  Meleagro, when left alone, is again seized with despair, but then falls asleep.

Atalanta arrives.  She muses over the fact that the ribbon which she believes she has received from Tirsi closely resembles the ribbon of the king, Meleagro.  She notices Meleagro, who is tossing about even in his sleep, and she prays that he may be calmed.  Suddenly the young man wakes up; Atalanta is unable to keep her secret any longer and confesses her feelings.  The lovers are united in a blissful embrace.

Nicandro also arrives with Irene and Aminta, who have meanwhile made it up.  Nicandro reveals the identity of the two disguised royal lovers, and the couple start singing a happy duet.

At this point the god Mercury, surrounded by Graces and Cupids, descends on a cloud as the messenger of Jupiter to give his blessing to the earthly marriage and sound the praises of the future ruler of the British peoples, predicting a happy future for him surrounded by his loving subjects.  Finally the people, the chorus, glorify the young couple.  The opera ends amid general cheering, jubilation, fireworks and bonfires.

(c) János Malina, Hungaraton

***

The Spring opera season of 1736 was to be Handel's shortest.  It started on 19th February with the premiere of his new oratorio Alexander's Feast, which proved enormously successful.  He followed this with revivals of Acis and Galatea and Esther.  The shortness of the season was a reflection of his growing financial problems, and the machinations of various members of London Society to undermine his company.  The Opera of the Nobility, the rival company that had taken up residence in Handel's old theatre in Haymarket, was proving to be more successful and Handel probably decided to cut his losses and shorten his season.

But the announcement of the engagement of Frederick, Prince of Wales, to the German Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha galvanised Handel into creating a new work in celebration of the royal couple's nuptials, which took place on 27th April 1736, a little earlier than expected.  Handel had only completed the score of this new work, Atalanta, on 22nd April and so it was not ready in time to be performed on the day of the royal ceremony.  The season opened on 5th May with two performances of Ariodante,  and Atalanta finally took the stage on 12th May.  It is perhaps not surprising that the Prince of Wales and his new bride stayed away from the first night - Frederick was, after all, the main supporter of the Opera of the Nobility and one of its driving forces.  But the King and his daughters continued to show their loyalty to Handel by attending a number of the eight performances that Handel's company gave.

For this new work Handel returned to the pastoral theme that he had last explored in Il Pastor Fido in 1712, and which had proved so popular in the Covent Garden revivals of 1734.  The pastoral was a popular choice for the celebration of royal weddings, and Handel skillfully wove some of his most celebratory opera music into the plot.  The festive overture featuring solo trumpets sets the tone for what is to follow, and as with all his operas he continues to explore both the darker and lighter emotions experienced by his characters.

The finale, in which the singers step out of character to praise the royal couple, was accompanied by spectacular fireworks, which were described by the poet Thomas Gray in a letter to Horace Walpole:

'...(in) the last act...there appears the Temple of Hymen with illuminations; there is a row of blue fires burning in order along the ascent to the temple; a fountain of fire spouts up out of the ground to the ceiling, and two more cross each other obliquely from the sides of the stage; on the top is a wheel that whirls always about, and throws out a shower of gold-colour, silver, and blue fiery rain.'

The royal couple finally saw Atalanta when Handel revived it 'by Command of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales' in November 1736.  Handel's friend Thomas Harris reported to his cousin the Earl of Shaftesbury that the opera 'was performed to-night in order to give their royal Highnesses a view of ye Fire-works which went off with great Applause, tho' I don't think with that Splendour I have seen them formerly'.