Sosarme, re di Media

Image

Baroque Ensemble Hofmusici's production of
Sosarme, re di media at Mnichovo Hradiste,
Castle Theatre, Czechoslovakia, May 2003
© Baroque Ensemble Hofmusici.

SOSARME, RE DI MEDIA (HWV 30)

Libretto: Unknown, after Antonio Salvi

First performance: 15th February 1732, King's Theatre, London

Cast:

Sosarme - Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino" (Alto-castrato)
Haliate - Giovanni Battista Pinacci (Tenor)
Elmira - Anna Maria Strada del Pò (Soprano)
Erenice - Anna Bagnolesi (Contralto)
Argone - Antonio Gualandi, called "Campioli" (Alto-castrato)
Melo - Francesca Bertolli (Contralto)
Altomaro - Antonio Montagnana (bass)

Synopsis

Melo, son and heir to Haliate, King of Portugal, has rebelled against his father, believing him to favour his illegitimate son Argone.  Heliate has taken up arms against his son's forces, who are now under siege in the city of Coimbra, where they hold control of the royal palace. Within the palace are Melo's mother, queen Erenice, and his sister Elmira, who is promised in marriage to Sosarme, king of Castile. Sosarme has come with his army to Coimbra in an attempt to resolve the dispute between father and son.

Act I

Within the walls of Coimbra Melo addresses his army. The citizens of Coimbra are starving, yet the beseiging army outside the walls has adequate provisions. Melo determines to launch an attack on it.

Inside the palace, Erenice tells her daughter of a dream in which the holy martyr Irene appeared to her and promised an end to the war, but that peace would come as a result of Melo shedding royal blood. Elmira takes heart at this ambiguous message, but is then distressed to learn that Melo is preparing a sortie from the city to attack their father's forces. Erenice resolves to stop him, either with tearful pleas or, if necessary, with her life.

In the encampment outside the city Heliate's trusted adviser Altomaro encourages Argone - who is his own grandson - to profit from the current discord and promote himself as Heliate's legitimate heir. Argone nobly scorns the suggestion. Sosarme tells Argone that he is ready to enter the city and negotiate with Melo; if this fails he will at least have the chance to see his beloved Elmira. Argone wishes his enterprise well.

Sosarme's first interview is with Heliate, who remains resolute in his determination to disinherit his rebellious son and to prosecute war against him. Sosarme warns Heliate that he cannot support such capricious and tyrannous behaviour. Heliate curses the fate that unites his own family and friends against him, but is determined to punish Melo.

Melo prepares for the assault on his father's beseiging forces, but is stopped by Erenice and Elmira, who plead with him not to hurt his father. His resolve starts to weaken, but a sudden shout from his army rouses him to action and he leaves for battle. Erenice is distraught, expecting to lose either her husband or her son; Elmira prays to Irene that her prediction may prove untrue.

Act II

From the battlements Elmira watches as Melo's forces are met at the gate by Sosarme's army; then dust and smoke conceal the fighting. Now she waits in the palace apprehensively for news of the outcome. Triumphant music signals Melo's victory and Erenice fears that her son has killed her husband. Melo returns, a bloody sword in his hand. He begins to explain that the blood is Sosarme's - at which Elmira collapses, and Erenice, in anger and distress, refuses to listen further.

Heliate accuses Argone of refusing to support his cause, but Argone protests that his greatest wish is to preserve the honour of his king, and suggests that Heliate might best punish Melo by offering him a pardon. Heliate reluctantly agrees to send Altomaro as an envoy to Melo with terms of peace. Alone with Argone, Altomaro accuses him of throwing away his chance of the throne, but Argone steadfastly refuses to act dishonorably. Altomaro secretly forms a plan to further his own cause.

Sosarme was only slightly wounded and is recovering in the palace, tended by Elmira. They are grateful for a misfortune that has brought them closer together. Heralds carrying a flag of truce are seen approaching the palace and Erenice asks Sosarne to plead with Melo, which he agrees to do: it was for this reason that he allowed himself to be injured and taken prisoner.

Melo agrees to be reconciled with his father if Heliate will name him as his rightful heir, and is reunited with his mother and sister. Altomaro is brought in, but his astonishing message is that Heliate regrets the injuries to both armies and now proposes to resolve the dispute in single combat with Melo. Melo angrily accepts and storms out; Erenice leaves at once to plead with Heliate, while Sosarme undertakes to pacify Melo. Sosarme promises Elmira that they will soon enjoy their love in peace; Elmira tentatively hopes that the combined efforts of her mother and her lover will restore peace to her family.

Act III

In the camp outside Coimbra Heliate waits for his son's response. Affecting great distress Altomaro now reports that Melo has rejected his father's terms and demands to meet him in single combat. Erenice is seen approaching, and Altomaro tells Heliate that she is behind the plan; thus when she arrives Heliate angrily refuses her a hearing and has her arrested. Argone sees through the confusion to Altomaro's deceit and determines to outwit him by taking Heliate's place in the forthcoming duel. Meanwhile he places Erenice under guard in his own quarters, where she waits in despair.

Melo has found a secret route out of the city to his father's camp. Sosarme and Elmira attempt to reason with him, but he leaves in a fury. Sosarme determines to follow him to the camp and prevent the duel; Elmira momentarily despairs, but gathers her resolve to follow and do her best to avert imminent diaster.

On the field set aside for the duel Heliate waits with Altomaro, who fuels his anger against his son. Argone attempts, but fails, to persuade Heliate to let him fight in his stead. Melo presents himself; he and Heliate take up swords and, encouraged by Altomaro, the duel begins. Almost at once Erenice and Argone rush forward to intervene and both are wounded, Erenice by Melo and Argone by Heliate. The men throw down their weapons in horror, while Altomaro slips away unnoticed.

Heliate learns that both he and Melo have been betrayed by Altomaro. Sosarme arrives, and reports that Altomaro has committed suicide. Melo and Heliate are reconciled, and Sosarme and Elmira reaffirm their love. The final chorus celebrates the end of discord and the restoration of peace.

© 2007 EMI Records Ltd./Virgin Classics

***

We are not sure when Handel began work on Fernando, Re di Castiglia, as the autograph score is undated. It was based on a 1707 libretto by Antonio Salvi, 'Dionisio re di Portogallo', which Handel had probably seen in it's original setting by G. A. Perti in Florence. After the failure of Ezio, it seems that Handel was keen to remove even more of the recitative passages, to which London audiences were growing extremely hostile, and slashed Salvi's 1,095 lines to a mere 520. Unfortunately, as with Ezio, this meant that the dramatic structure was severly compromised. Handel compensated by writing exceptional music, concentrating his skills on creating arias that would capture the attention of a restless audience.

Having completed the composition of most of the first two acts, it must have been pointed out to Handel that an opera depicting a dynastic struggle within the fourteenth-century Portuguese royal family could create a diplomatic incident. King John V of Portugal was Europe's richest monarch at the time, amassing a fortune through the exploitation of Brazil's mineral wealth, and the Portuguese were Britain's oldest European allies. So Handel hurriedly changed the names of his characters, crossing them out in the autograph score, and moved the setting to mythical Sardis, inventing the name 'Sosarme' to replace that of the historical Ferdinand of Castille.

In it's new guise the opera was a great success, running for eleven performances. Colman's 'Opera Register' reported: 'In Febry Sosarmes - a New Opera - took much by Hendell - & was for many Nights much crowded to some peoples admiration - '. And Viscount Percival recorded in his diary for 22nd February 1732: 'I went to the opera Sosarmis, made by Hendel, which takes with the town, and that justly, for it is one of the best I ever heard.'

The following day the Viscount was to record another musical event that, although no one knew it at the time, was to be a turning point in Handel's career as a composer, and indeed the future of British music. 'From dinner I went to the Music Club,' he wrote on 23rd February, 'where the King's Chapel boys acted the 'History of Hester' writ by Pope, and composed by Hendel. This oratoria or religious opera is exceeding fine, and the company were highly pleased, some of the parts being well performed.'

The 'History of Hester' was in fact the oratorio Esther written by Handel for private performance at Cannons during his residence there in 1718 as part of the Duke of Chandos' household. The performance on 23rd February 1732 was also a private performance, arranged by Bernard Gates, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, to celebrate Handel's birthday at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. It was probably acted with limited scenery and costumes, and was successful enough to inspire a public performance by another (unnamed) company on 20th April. Handel responded quickly to this pirating of his work by mounting his own production, expanding the music to include two of the popular Coronation Anthems, and presenting an un-staged performance in accordance with legal restrictions on the public theatrical presentation of Biblical stories. The 'Daily Journal' of 19th April 1732 carried an advertisement for the unofficial performance the next day at the 'Great Room in Villars-street York Buildings', as well as the following:

'By His MAJESTY'S Command At the King's Theatre in the Hay-Market, on Tuesday the 2d Day of May, will be performed, 'The Sacred Story of ESTHER: an Oratorio in English. Formerly composed by Mr. Handel, and now revised by him, with several Additions, and to be performed by a great Number of the best Voices and Instruments.
N.B. There will be no Action on the Stage, but the House will be fitted up in a decent Manner, for the Audience. The Musick to be disposed after the Manner of the Coronation Service.'

Handel's Italian opera company was joined by three English singers to create what was the first ever public performance of an English oratorio. With six performances in total, all very well attended, London had seen the birth of a new musical form that would come increasingly to dominate Handel's musical creativity.