ALESSANDRO (HWV 21)
Libretto: By Paolo Antonio Rolli, after Ortensio Mauro
First performance: 5th May 1726, King's Theatre, London
- Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino" (Alto-castrato)
- Faustina Bordoni (Soprano)
- Francesca Cuzzoni (Soprano)
- Antonio Baldi (Alto-castrato)
- Giuseppe Maria Boschi (Bass)
- Luigi Antinori (Tenor)
- Anna Dotti (Contralto)
During his triumphal Asian campaign, Alexander the Great suddenly finds himself in dire danger in the city of Sidrach, which he is the first enemy general ever to invade; he is rescued by his supporters, the most prominent of which is the general Cletus, a Macedonian prince.
Back at Alexander’s camp two women fear for the hero’s life: Lisaura, a princess of Scythia, and the Persian princess Roxana, who is Alexander’s prisoner. They are rivals: both of them love Alexander and are plagued by jealousy, for Alexander, who is affectionate to both of them, does not yet seem to have made up his mind as to which of the two he will choose. The Indian king, Taxiles, who owes Alexander both his throne and his life, reports that Alexander has escaped the danger unharmed. Both of the princesses are overjoyed at this news, much to Taxiles’s dismay, for he is in love with the princess Lisaura.
Alexander’s fame as an invicible world conqueror has gone to his head. He allows himself to be worshipped in Jupiter’s temple as the son of the divine father. The only one who dares stand up to him is the upright Cletus; but at the entreaties of all the others, Alexander is appeased.
Alexander is still incapable of choosing between the two princesses, who pursue him with their love. Whenever he meets one of them, he seems to nourish her hopes, but the two see through him. Roxana, his beautiful Persian captive, reminds him of his fame and his generosity, and begs him to grant her her freedom. Perhaps she can win him in this way. Alexander fears that he will lose Roxana and only consents with misgivings to her freedom.
General Leonatus and his friends are appalled at Alexander’s inordinate arrogance. They resolve to remove the tyrant.
In his quarters, Alexander announces to his assembled generals that he intends to divide all of the conquered territories among them. He, the son of Jupiter, is content with his own immortal glory. Once again, the courageous Cletus confronts Alexander. He vehemently disputes the divine origins of the megalomaniac. Enraged, Alexander is on the verge of killing Cletus with his spear, when suddenly, at a pre-arranged sign of the conspirators, the house caves in. No one is injured, including Alexander, who is convinced that his father Jupiter – divine providence! – has saved him from a certain death. He orders the flatterer Cleon to lead Cletus off to captivity.
Roxana has learned of the attempt on Alexander’s life. In despair, she weeps for her lover, whom she presumes dead. Alexander overhears her mourning and is deeply moved; he realises how much she loves him and makes up his mind for her. The conspirator Leonatus rushes in breathless, purporting to have learned that the vanquished peoples are staging an uprising. Alexander wants to return to his army and is forced to leave Roxana behind in a state of renewed uncertainty.
Leonatus succeeds in freeing the honourable Cletus and imprisoning this jailer Cleon; however, the latter is once again liberated by his followers. The conspirators now intend to defeat Alexander in open battle, with the help of Macedonians who are loyal to them.
Alexander has yet another interview with Lisaura. By means of flattery, and no lack of ingenuity, he explains to her that he must renounce her love to clear the way for the Indian king Taxiles, his dearest friend, who is himself enamoured of the Scythian princess. Taxiles is delighted at Alexander’s decision.
In the meanwhile, the conspirators have assembled their forces for battle. Taxiles, with his troops, supports Alexander, and the conspirators are defeated. They all plead with the great Alexander for mercy, which is magnanimously granted.
(c) 1990 harmonia mundi
The much-anicipated London debut of the Italian soprano Faustina Bordoni finally took place on the opening night of Handel’s new opera Alessandro. For months Londoners had been following the apparent backstage arguments between Faustina and Francesca Cuzzoni, who had been the soprano star of the Italian opera stage since 1722. Newspapers and satirical pamphlets breathlessly followed the preparations of the ‘Rival Queens’, and attended the opening night in a fever of anticipation.
Perhaps, in one way, they were disappointed on that first night. For what they saw were not two duelling divas, but rather a pair of supremely professional performers, each with her own style and vocal specialities, performing at the peak of their careers. Indeed, despite the supposed tensions reported by the press, Faustina and Cuzzoni had already performed together with great success, and without any sign of personal rivalry, in Venice. And despite speculation, again fuelled by the press, that Faustina would ‘replace’ Cuzzoni, it seems that it had always been the intention of the directors of the Royal Academy of Music that both women would appear together. Indeed, they set out to model their opera company on those of the most successful Italian cities, which generally included two leading soprano performers in each opera. There might be some truth in the rumours that the Academy encouraged, or at least did not discourage, the talk of rivalry which was sure to boost ticket sales. And it is perhaps no accident that their first opera was based on an incident in the life of Alexander the Great, already familiar to London audiences through Nathaniel Lee’s regularly-revived tragedy The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great (1677). But there is little direct evidence that the two women harboured any ill-will toward each other, and certainly did not see their continued professional engagement together as an arena for the public display of rivalry.
Handel concentrated on providing music of equal brilliance for both women. He was familiar, by now, with Cuzzoni’s range and character, but had to write much of Faustina’s music based on assumptions of her vocal abilities drawn from other operas in which he knew she had sung. He was careful to ensure that the roles were of approximately equal length, and wrote only one short duet for them (‘Placa l’alma’). Later in the initial run of 13 performances he replaced two of Faustina’s arias, perhaps at her request, or because he had become more familiar with her technique and abilities and felt that he could exploit them more fully.
The first appearance of the ‘Rival Queens’ was a tumultuous success, and the city waited to see what Handel would create for them in the next season.