DEIDAMIA (HWV 42)
Libretto: Paolo Antonio Rolli
First performance: 10th January 1741, Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, London
- Elisabeth Duparc, called "La Francesina" (Soprano)
- Maria Monza (Soprano)
- Miss Edwards (Soprano)
- Giovanni Battista Andreoni (Alto-castrato)
- William Savage (Bass)
- Henry Theodore Reinhold (Bass)
The oracle predicted that Achilles would die if he fought in the Trojan War. In an attempt to forestall this fate, his father Peleus has disguised him as a girl and sent him to live in the palace of his friend Lycomedes, on the island of Scyros, where he is brought up amongst Lycomedes’ daughters and becomes the lover of the eldest, Deidamia. As the Greeks prepare for their war against Troy, the priest Clachas reveals that the city cannot be taken without Achilles’ help. Ambassadors are sent to Scyros to retrieve him.
The ambassadors from Agamemnon arrive on Scyros: Ulysses, disguised under the name of Antilochus, Phoenix and Nestor (a silent role). Ulysses askes Lycomedes to contribute military help to the expedition, to which he readily agrees; he then demands that Lycomedes surrender the young Achilles, rumoured to be concealed on the island and essential to the Greek victory. Loyal to his friend Peleus, Lycomedes denies that he is sheltering Achilles, but permits his guests to search for him.
Inside the palace, Deidamia waits longingly for her beloved Pyrrha to return from hunting. Pyrrha – Achilles in disguise – returns flushed with his exertions and rebukes the women for sitting idly indoors. The women leave Deidamia and Achilles together. Deidamia gently chides Achilles for being more in love with the chase than with her. Achilles admits that he loves her, but is not prepared to sacrifice his freedom.
Deidamia’s confidante, the princess Nerea, brings news of the strangers arrived from mainland Greece in search of Achilles. Deidamia is immediately anxious on Achilles’ behalf and a short conversation with Ulysses convinces her that they must be on their guard.
In the palace garden Achilles sees Deidamia talking to Ulysses and is fascinated by his armour and manliness. He listens to their conversations, as Ulysses now pays court to Deidamia in order to win her confidence, and Deidamia politely but firmly refuses him. Stung with jealousy, Achilles petulantly berates her for encouraging Ulysses’ attention.
Nerea brings news that Lycomedes has arranged a hunt to entertain their guests. Deidamia is alarmed that Achilles’ enthusiasm and hunting skill will betray his identity. But Nerea has also been courted by Phoenix and suggests that she and Deidamia distract the Greeks by appearing to respond to their addresses. Deidamia agrees, but begins to wonder whether Achilles’ angry outburst covered a real resolution to abandon her.
Lycomedes recommends the hunting on his estate to Ulysses; he, however, is too old for such sports. The hunt begins, and Nerea attaches herself to Phoenix, gaily taunting him with being more interested in the hunt than in her. Ulysses has been watching ‘Pyrrha’ and now joins Phoenix: the strange girl’s strength and skill in hunting have convinced him that ‘she’ is in fact Achilles in disguise. Finding an opportunity to draw ‘Pyrrha’ aside Ulysses begins a feigned declaration of love; Achilles is flattered and amused, and more so when he notices that Deidamia is in hearing. As soon as Ulysses leaves she furiously attacks Achilles for thoughtlessly risking exposure and their happiness.
Achilles shrugs off her anger and is about to rejoin the hunt when he is now stopped by Phoenix, who similarly engages him in conversation. Achilles’ lack of interest in love convinces Phoenix that Ulysses was correct: ‘Pyrrha’ is in fact a man.
Phoenix tries to persuade Nerea that he is in earnest: as a Greek woman herself she should be proud, not jealous, that he is soon to leave for the Trojan war. Nerea realises that she should not let this opportunity slip through her fingers.
Ulysses and Phoenix put into practice a scheme to unmask Achilles. They present the women of the court with a chest of ribbons, fabrics and other finery. As Deidamia frantically urges Achilles to show a girlish interest in them, he instinctively reaches for a helmet, shield and sword cunningly placed amongst the trinkets. A call to arms sounds, and he brandishes the sword ready for action. He has betrayed himself, and Ulysses confronts him with his true identity, urging him to join the Greek force massing against Troy. Achilles enthusiastically agrees. Grief-stricken at the thought of losing him, Deidamia curses Ulysses for destroying her happiness.
Deidamia visits her father and congesses her love for Achilles. Though he blesses their love he tells her that it can last only until Achilles departs, and reveals the prediction that Achilles will die at Troy. Achilles, now at last dressed as a man, comes to Deidamia and proposes that they marry immediately, but her anger and distress at her imminent departure lead them into a quarrel. Ulysses pacifies them by revealing his own identity: he too has famously left his much-loved wife Penelope to go to war, to the greater glory of them both; he predicts that Achilles and Deidamia will achieve similar fame. Deidamia will not be comforted.
Nerea accuses Phoenix of feigning love purely to discover and abduct Achilles. He assures her that his love is genuine; he porposes, and she accepts him. They are joined by the others, Lycomedes now content to surrender Achilles to the Greek cause. Ulysses joins the hands of Deidamia and Achilles, and the final chorus encourages them, and us, to take our fleeting pleasures while we may.
Deidamia was to be Handel’s final Italian opera, produced in the same season as Imeneo for two performances at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, with a third performance at the Little Haymarket Theatre. This final presentation took place for reasons not fully understood at this small theatre opposite the King’s Theatre, where 20 years earlier Handel’s operas had been at the centre of London’s cultural life. The intervening years had seen interest in the Italian opera fade, and Handel had been the victim of rival companies that had tried to steal his audience and his income. Having overcome the threat posed by the Opera of the Nobility, which had displaced his company and taken over the King’s Theatre in the mid-1730s, Handel now faced another rival company funded by the Earl of Middlesex at the New Theatre in the Haymarket.
Mary Delaney, Handel’s neighbour and a regular correspondent to her sister with news of the musical world of London, wrote just before Christmas about Handel’s preparations for the new year. ‘Mr. Handel has got a new singer from Italy’, she wrote on 21st December 1740. ‘Her voice is between Cuzzoni’s and Strada’s – strong, but not harsh, her person miserably bad, being very low, and excessively crooked.’ The new singer was Maria Monza, for whom Handel created the role of Nerea in Deidamia.
It seems at this time that Handel had in some way offended his subscribers, and may have become the victim of a boycott. A lengthy letter published in the ‘London Daily Post’ of 4th April 1741 refers to ‘a single Disgust..a faux Pas made, but not meant’ that had caused his supporters to ‘intirely abandon him, as to let him Want in a Country he has so long served’. A faction was attempting to disrupt Handel’s performances: ‘I wish I could persuade them, I say, to take him back into Favour, and relieve him from the cruel Persecution of those little Vermin who, taking Advantage of their Displeasure, pull down even his Bills as fast as he has them pasted up; and use a thousand other little Arts to injure and distress him.’