George Frideric Handel



About this work

Alessandro was Handel's ninth opera for the Royal Academy of Music, which had been formed "for carrying on Operas" in London in 1719. Under the joint directorship of Handel and the poet Paolo Antonio Rolli, the company was initially so successful that by the 1722-1723 season it had attracted some of the greatest singers of the day. They included the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (later the wife of the composer Hasse) and the castrato Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino. By the fall of 1725, however, the novelty of the Academy's productions was over, and in an effort to boost flagging fortunes Handel engaged (at the huge fee of £2,500) another of the great prima donnas of the day, Faustina Bordoni. The vehicle chosen for the Academy's three fabulous stars to make their first joint appearance was Alessandro, the libretto of which was provided by Rolli.

The plot is set in the time of the victorious Asian campaigns of Alexander the Great. At his camp there are two intensely jealous rivals (thus reflecting the real life rivalry between Bordoni and Cuzzoni, which culminated in a famous onstage fight) for his affections: the Scythian princess Lisaura, and Roxana, a Persian princess who is a captive of Alexander's. It is the great conqueror's inability to make up of mind between the two that provokes the ensuing tale of intrigue and plotting. Cast in the usual three acts, Alessandro follows the familiar pattern of recitative and da capo aria, but there are also a number of ariosos, accompanied recitatives, and ensemble numbers. The care taken by Handel and his librettist to preserve absolute parity between his stars is nowhere better reflected than at the end of the opera, where in a continuous sequence leading up to the final chorus each soprano is given a duet with Alexander, after which the three join in a trio. Much of the story is treated in lighthearted fashion, with understandably dazzling coloratura arias to keep the three stars content. If Alessandro hardly counts among the greatest of Handel's London operas, it remains a superb vehicle for virtuoso singing and a highly enjoyable experience for its audience. Handel completed the score on April 11, 1726, and the first performance took place at the King's Theatre, London just over three weeks later on May 5. Given the enormous public interest in the first joint appearance of Cuzzoni and Bordoni, Alessandro was predictably a great success. The opera enjoyed a run of 11 consecutive performances that would probably have continued had not Senesino, perhaps feeling overshadowed, decided to make a sudden return to Italy for "health" reasons.