PORO, RE DELL'INDIE (HWV 28)
Libretto: After Pietro Metastasio
First performance: 2nd February 1731, King's Theatre, London
- Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino" (Alto-castrato)
- Anna Maria Strada del Pò (Soprano)
- Antonia Maria Merighi (Contralto)
- Francesca Bertolli (Contralto)
- Annibale Pio Fabri, called "Balino" (Tenor)
- Giovanni Giuseppe Commano (Bass)
Handel’s opera takes as its historical setting the period around 327 B.C. when Alexander the Great was conducting his Indian campaign. By the river Hydaspes, a tributary of the Indus, he came up against the proud-hearted Indian King Poro who, although defeated by Alexander, proved to be a worthy adversary.
The opera begins with the Indian defeat, upon which King Poro, in his despair, is intent on taking his own life. At the last moment his friend Gandarte intervenes, reminding Poro of his love for Queen Cleofide and of the duties he holds towards his land. They decide to change places, with the King’s royal insignia to be worn instead by Gandarte, who then flees. Poro is unable to escape, however, and is taken captive by Timagene, Alexander’s second-in-command. Claiming to be the Indian warrior Asbite, he is instructed by Alexander to inform King Poro that if he admits defeat, he will be treated with leniency. As a symbol, Alexander hands over his sword to the supposed warrior, who is to bring it to the Indian king.
Poro’s sister Erissena is also held and brought before Alexander. The ruler makes amorous approaches and his commander Timagene is also powerless to resist her charm. But the latter experiences a rebuttal – the Princess’ preference lies with Alexander.
In the meantime, Poro has managed to make his way to the Palace of Queen Cleofide. He fears that his spouse is being untrue to him, but Cleofide is able to dispel these fears and Poro swears fidelity to her. Erissena, who has been set free by Alexander, also arrives at the Palace. When – for tactical reasons – Cleofide gives instructions that a greeting from her be sent to the Greek leader, Poro sinks again into deep despair, but with a renewed affirmation, Cleofide succeeds in convincing him once more of her love for him.
Gandarte appears and recounts to his king that Alexander was indeed taken in by the deception and now believes him, Gandarte, to be king. He goes on to let Poro into the secret of a conspiracy against Alexander by the Greek army. But at this moment Poro can think of nothing other than his beloved Cleofide, whom he believes to be on her way to Alexander – he reveals to Gandarte the pains of love he is suffering.
No sooner has Poro departed than Erissena rushes in, enthusing to Gandarte about the splendid Alexander. Gandarte, who loves the young princess, is visibly hurt by these words and when she challenges him to show his love for her is able to react only haltingly; he promptly obtains a rebuff from the annoyed Erissena.
Alexander, in the meantime, is receiving Cleofide, who begs him to show mercy towards her land. Whilst finding her diplomatic efforts interesting, it is the woman herself who fascinates him most. Poro, in his role as Asbite, succeeds in gaining entry and is again the victim of his own jealousy as he witnesses how Alexander praises the Queen’s beauty. A dispute ensues between Poro and his beloved, who feels that she is being unjustly accused.
Cleofide receives Alexander in her Residence for negotiations. Poro, however, decides in his jealousy to launch an attack on the Greeks, but this ends in failure. In view of the desperate situation in which Poro now finds himself, the lovers are reconciled and when again threatened with danger, the Indian King sees death as the only way out for them both – but this is narrowly averted by Alexander. Asbite, the presumed warrior, is taken prisoner and placed in the custody of Timagene. Cleofide can get word to him only by circuitous means (the communication is disguised as a message for King Poro which Timagene is to deliver). Timagene, however, unexpectedly releases the prisoner and requests that he inform Poro of the Greek plot against Alexander.
In the Queen’s residence, Gandarte learns of Poro’s fate. Upon the approach of Alexander, Gandarte hides. Alexander demands the life of the Queen in return for those of the soldiers killed in the attack and declares that she can have her life spared only by becoming his wife. Cleofide refuses. Gandarte – in the guise of Poro – comes out of hiding and offers to pay with his own life. Alexander leaves, deeply moved by these events.
Erissena appears bringing with her the devastating news of Poro’s death. Cleofide is distraught.
In the royal gardens, Poro meets his sister Erissena, who is astonished to find him alive. Poro resolves to take revenge on Alexander and asks Erissena to let Timagene know that he is willing to commit a murderous attack.
Alexander, meanwhile, encounters the desperate Cleofide. Consumed with thoughts of mortality, she is now willing to become his wife, but as Poro’s widow – or so she believes – intends thereafter to go to her death in accordance with the Indian custom of widow-burning. Alexander meets Erissena who gathers from what he says that he is aware of Timagene’s conspiracy. The latter is summoned before Alexander, yet forgiven by him.
Poro learns that the conspiratorial plot has failed and begs Gandarte to kill him with the sword. Appearing on the scene, Erissena tells of Cleofide’s marriage plans. Poro collapses in a state of embitterment. He swears revenge on Alexander and resolves to go his death when this has been accomplished. Gandarte is likewise prepared to end his life and bids a tender farewell to his lover.
In the Indian temple, the wedding preparations are in progress. In the background, a sacrificial fire confirms that Cleofide indeed means to die when the marriage ceremony has taken place. Having observed the events from a hiding place, Poro throws himself before the feet of the amazed Cleofide, thereby at last also revealing to Alexander his true identity. Such fidelity makes a deep impression on the Greek leader who determines that Cleofide and Poro should live together in happiness, whilst he for his part requests the friendship of the Indian king.
Translation: Victoria Viebahn
Despite the success of Partenope Handel was dissatisfied with some of the singers in his new company, and between seasons decided to recruit some new voices. In particular, he was keen to replace the castrato Bernacchi, who had not been popular with the London audiences who missed Senesino. Handel corresponded with Francis Colman, compiler of the ‘Opera Register’, who was now resident in Florence, and his old friend Owen Swiney to assist him in his search. Handel had also thought he would have to replace Antonia Maria Merighi, but in a letter to Colman of 30th June 1730 he reported that ‘…a way has been found to re-engage Signora Merighi, and as she is a contralto, it would be convenient for us now if the woman to be engaged in Italy were a soprano…equally good at male and female parts.’ Having had experience of dealing with difficult Italian singers before, Handel went on to request ‘…that no specific mention be made of ‘prima’, ‘seconda’ or ‘terza donna’, since that embarasses us in the choice of opera and in any case is a source of great inconvenience.’ But the search for a new soprano was not successful, and Handel wrote to Colman again in October 1730: ‘…as the season is well advanced and the opera will be opening soon, we shall do without another Italian this year, having already chosen the operas to fit our present company.’
The 1730/1731 season opened with a revival of Scipione and the triumphant return of Senesino. Handel had tried hard to find a new castrato for his company, and through Colman had approached Carestini, but he was already signed for Milan. Despite Handel’s best attempts to keep costs low by offering Senesino £1,200 for the season, the castrato drove a hard bargain and eventually the two parties mutually agreed a fee of £1,400.
In planning his seasons, Handel was relying more now on revivals of his prevous successes, and increasingly ‘pasticcios’. These latter were pieced together from the arias of other composers, and adapted from existing libretti, for which Handel would write new recitatives. This would allow him to break in new singers gradually, as he would often use arias that they already had in their repertoire. Later in the season he would then introduce the new opera he had written specifically for this cast. The ‘pasticcio’ for the 1730/1731 season was Venceslao.
Poro, Re dell’Indie was premiered on 2nd February 1731 and was popular enough to achieve a run of 16 performances. The season continued with a spectacular and popular revival of Rinaldo with, the ‘Daily Journal’ reported, ‘…New Scenes and Cloaths…Great Preparations being required to bring this Opera on the Stage, is the Reason no Opera can be perform’d till Tuesday next.’
About the time Handel started working on the score, in late December 1730, news arrived from Halle that his mother Dorothea had died. Handel corresponded with his brother-in-law Michael Michaelson to make arrangements for her funeral, which he was unable to attend because of his obligations in London. On 23rd February 1731, Handel wrote to Michaelsen:
‘Honoured Brother I have received your most honoured letter of 6 January in good order, whence in several ways I perceive the carefulness which you took to inter my blessed mother with propriety, and in compliance with her last wishes. Here I cannot restrain my tears. Yet it has pleased the Almighty, to whose Holy Will I submit myself with Christian resignation. Her memory will, however, never become obliterated for me, until, after this life, we are again united, which may the beneficent God grant, in his grace.’