FLORIDANTE (HWV 14)
Libretto: Paolo Antonio Rolli
First performance: 9th December 1721, King's Theatre, London
- Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino" (Alto castrato)
- Giuseppe Maria Boschi (Bass)
- Benedetto Baldassari, called "Benedetti" (Soprano castrato)
- Maddalena Salvai (Soprano)
- Anastasia Robinson (Contralto)
- Lagarde ? (Bass)
Oronte, a Persian general, has killed and usurped the throne from Nino, the rightful king. After his victory, Oronte took Elisa, the surviving infant daughter of Nino and raised her as his own daughter, who had died the day of the battle. This daughter, Elmira, has been promised in marriage to Floridante, Prince of Thrace and warrior in the cause of Oronte. His other daughter, Rossane, was betrothed to Timante, Prince of Tyre, but war between Tyre and Persia put an end to the possibility of this marriage, and Timante is believed to have been lost in the battle.
The opera begins happily, with Elmira and her sister Rossane going together to welcome Floridante, who has just won a naval victory over Tyre, the reward for which is the hand of his beloved Elmira. Rossane, though aware of the loss of Timante, whom she has never met, yet hopes that love will still somehow prevail and unite them.
The triumphant Floridante enters and proclaims that the love of Elmira is greater than any reward he might receive for his victories. To Rossane he gives the captive Glicone (who, of course, is the disguised Timante), first praising his prowess in battle. Suddenly a Persian satrap, Coralbo, arrives, giving Floridante a letter from Oronte which orders him to renounce his command and leave the country. Rossane goes immediately to Oronte and begs him to reconsider, or at least to speak to Floridante, and the tyrant agrees, though he insists that the hero’s marriage to his daughter Elmira has been cancelled because of “reasons of state”.
Rosanne then meets Glicone, who tells her that her beloved Timante had not only succeeded in fleeing the battle safely but before that had proclaimed his undying love for Rossane.
Floridante is conducted to Oronte, who confirms his decree of banishment, remaining deaf to the hero’s entreaties and then to those of Elmira. A ship, he tells Floridante, will convey him to exile. Oronte exits, leaving Floridante and Elmira to proclaim that separation will cause them both to die of longing and grief.
In her apartments, Rossane tells Glicone that she fears Timante could not have survived the battle. He assures her that the prince did survive, indeed, that he is in the city, disguised and safe. As proof, Glicone gives her a portrait of Timante and departs, leaving her to rejoice when she recognizes in the portrait of Timante the face of the prisoner.
Floridante, meantime, has disguised himself as a Moorish captive and is planning to escape with Elmira and the other pair of lovers. But Elmira is delayed by Oronte, who proclaims his love for her, telling her she is to be his bride. Her horror is only minimally diminished when he explains that she is not his daughter but that of the former king Nino. She condemns Oronte, saying he is more monster than king.
As the prisoners prepare to escape, Oronte enters with guards and arrests the disguised Floridante, who explains that he is a mere slave, sent by Floridante to take Elmira to him. When he is dragged off in chains, Oronte presents Elmira with a choice: become his queen or die.
Rossane tries to help Elmira. Even though they are not really sisters, Rossane proclaims that she and Elmira are joined by love until death. When Coralbo, the Persian satrap, discovers Elmira’s true identity, he says the love of the Persian people for her family yet might make her queen. Oronte appears and tells Elmira that the Moor has died, at which news Elmira swoons with grief. Oronte has the captive Floridante dragged in and tells him, while Elmira sleeps, that he must persuade her to accept Oronte as her husband or she will die. He leaves, and when Elmira recovers, Floridante attempts to persuade her, but she rejects the idea; better that they die together.
Unaware that Rossane and Timante are organizing a coup, Elmira goes to the again-imprisoned Floridante with a cup of poison which she has been told to administer to him. Instead, she prepares to drink it herself. Oronte enters and takes the cup from her hand, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Timante and Coralbo, who arrest him and proclaim Elmira Queen of Persia.
Enthroned, Elmira and Floridante promise mutual fidelity and just government for all. At Rossane’s pleading, Elmira (now under her real name of Elisa) pardons Oronte, while Floridante announces that Rossane and Timante will marry and go to reign in Tyre. Floridante confesses to Elmira/Elisa that he has even greater happiness as a lover than as a king, and the new queen declares a day of universal rejoicing in Persia.
(c) 2007, Deutsche Grammophon GmBH, Hamburg
Floridante was the first opera of the Royal Academy’s third season, and it’s music shows that Handel was trying hard to compete with the extraordinary success of Bononcini’s operas in the previous season. Despite his victory in the Muzio Scevola competition, it had become clear that Bononcini’s elegant and tuneful style was proving more popular than Handel’s dramatic intensity. The score of Floridante is made up of many shorter, lilting tunes than, for example, Radamisto.
Having completed the autograph score of Act I and most of Act II Handel received some disasterous news. His lead soprano Margherita Durastanti, who had returned to Italy after the previous London season, was too ill to travel and would not arrive in time for the scheduled opening of Floridante in early December. Handel had written the role of Elmira specifically for her, and it fit perfectly her vocal range and the strong dramatic style that was her speciality. He now had to re-cast the role, and it was given to Anastasia Robinson, a contralto with a smaller range who was originally cast as Rossane. She was more used to playing the ‘pathetic’ roles of the oppressed lover, such as the eponymous heroine of Bononcini’s Griselda which had been such a success for her in the previous season. The switch of voices and temperaments meant that extensive re-writing would be required to fit her usual performance style, together with a significant change in the character of Elmira.
However, it appears that Handel was unwilling to compromise the integrity of the drama, and the three arias he had already written for Elmira remained virtually intact, with a few minor changes to accommodate Robsinson’s pitch and range.
It was perhaps this uncomfortable experience that led Robinson to write to her Italian friend Guiseppe Riva, the Modenese Representative in London, when she next worked with Handel. In the letter she asks Riva to use his influence at court to persuade Lady Darlington, George I’s mistress, to speak to Handel on her behalf and encourage him to change the music he had already written for the role of Matilda in Ottone, Re di Germania. ‘My Life has shew’d me to be a patient Grisell by Nature’, she wrote ‘…those songs that require fury and passion to express them, can never be performed by me acording (sic) to the intention of the Composer’. On this occasion Handel acquiessed and made the changes that Robinson requested.