Terpsicore and Oreste

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French dancer and choreographer Marie Sallé.

TERPSICORE (HWV 8b)

Ballet prologue to Il Pastor Fido

First performance: 9th November 1734, Covent Garden Theatre, London 

ORESTE (HWV A11) Pasticcio

Libretto: Unknown, after G. G. Barlocci, 1723

First performance:  18 December 1734, Covent Garden Theatre, London

Cast:

Oreste - Giovanni Carestini, called "Cusanino" (Alto-castrato)
Iphigenia - Cecilia Young (Soprano)
Hermione - Anna Maria Strada del Pò (Soprano)
Pylades - John Beard (Tenor)
Philoctetes - Maria caterina Negri (Contralto)
Thoas - Gustavus Waltz (Bass)

Synopsis

Act I

At the beginning of the opera Ifigenia finds Oreste in the sacred grove of Diana without realizing that she is in the presence of her brother. She wants to save him from the danger of sacrificial death, and Filotete, Toante’s captain, with whom she is in love, supports her in order to win her. In the meantime Ermione, Oreste’s wife, reaches the harbor of Tauris in her search for her husband. She encounters Pilade, Oreste’s true friend, and both are arrested by Filotete, for they are foreigners and therefore sentenced to death. Toante, however, falls in love with Ermione and desires her. Ermione rejects his advances.

Act II

Oreste is in the forecourt of the temple when Pilade is dragged in by the guards. Oreste enlists himself in his cause, and Toante orders to have him killed too. Oreste is ready to fight, but Ifigenia, in an effort to save him from ruin, forbids the fight. He delivers himself up. She exploits Filotete’s love, frees the imprisoned Oreste, and shows him the way to the sea, but he hesitates to flee without his friend Pilade. Finally, Ermione, following her husband’s trail, encounters Oreste. Toante surprises them while they are embracing and has both taken prisoner.

Act III

Toante offers Ermione Oreste’s life and freedom if she is willing to be his, but she rejects his offer and prefers chains. Toante urges Ifigenia to sacrifice Oreste on the sacrificial altar. Ermione intervenes, demanding that she be killed, but she is removed from the temple. Pilade pretends to be Oreste in order to die in his place. Oreste will not accept this sacrifice, and now both claim to be Oreste. Ermione is brought back to identify Oreste, but she is not prepared to do so, even when threatened with death. As a final complication of the situation, Ifigenia reveals that she is Oreste’s sister. When Toante thereupon demands that she kill Pilade and Oreste, she threatens to kill him first. Filotete takes her side, and the conflict comes to a head. A fight ensues, and Toante is killed. The people have been liberated, Oreste and Ermione have been reunited, brother and sister have been brought together, and Oreste has overcome his emotional torments.

***

Handel's five-year agreement with Heidegger for the use of the King's Theatre came to an end in the Summer of 1734.  Immediately, his rivals the Opera of the Nobility moved in, and Handel was forced to look for a new home.  He found this in John Rich's Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.  This new theatre had largely been built with the money Rich had made through the original production of The Beggars Opera in 1728, which itself had rivalled the popularity of Handel's Italian operas.  Rich offered the composer two nights a week for his performances, and gave him the use not only of the building but also his chorus and dance company.  Rich was a great believer in theatrical spectacle, and had equipped his new theatre to the highest possible technical standards.  Handel would exploit all these possibilities in his attempt to recapture the audience that had deserted him in recent years.

The 1734-35 season opened with a spectacular re-working of Il Pastor Fido, with a new prologue featuring the famous French dancer Marie Sallé , who was resident at Covent Garden.  The prologue featured Sallé as Terpsicore, the Goddess of Dance, and consists of a series of short arias, choruses and dance pieces in which Erato and Apollo encourage the Goddess to display her skills.  Handel had revised Il Pastor Fido considerably for a revival at the King's Theatre in Spring 1734, and it was this version with additional dances added for Salle, that he now presented at Covent Garden.

Although he had already completed a new opera, Ariodante, by early November 1734 he chose to follow Il Pastor Fido with a revival of his last King's Theatre opera, Arianna in Creta.  He then created his first pasticcio made up entirely of his own music, which he presented at Covent Garden for just three performances.  For Oreste, based on the familiar story of Oreste and his sister Iphigenia, Handel raided his back catalogue for arias to insert between newly composed recitatives.  Although he had done this successfully with other composers' music in previous seasons, this was the first time he had used his own compositions in this way.  Looking back as far as Agrippina and Rinaldo, and including arias from operas right up to Sosarme from 1732, the music of Oreste combines some 27 years of Handel's output, seamlessly bound together in the telling of a new story.

Despite the disruption of the move to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the competition established by the Opera of the Nobility, Handel was now entering one of the most productive and succesful periods of his operatic career.