HANDEL'S APOLLO E DAFNE
Saturday, September 16, 2023 at 7:30 p.m. - Christ Church Cathedral
In Apollo e Dafne, Handel retells the ancient story of a boastful god’s frustrated love and a determined nymph’s unbending resistance. This dramatic cantata, completed after Handel’s return from Italy, exudes the fresh vitality and self-assurance of a newly famous composer at his homecoming and hints at the future glories of his opera career. Alongside this colourful early work, the Pacific Baroque Orchestra presents Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major (“La Notte”) and Handel’s Overture to Agrippina.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Ouverture from Agrippina, HWV 6
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major (“La Notte”), RV 501
Largo – Andante molto
Gli Istromenti sempre pianissimo (Il Sonno)
Allegro (Sorge l’Aurora)
George Frideric Handel
Apollo e Dafne (La terra è liberata), HWV 122
From 1738 to 1818, visitors to London’s Vauxhall gardens flocked to see Louis Roubiliac’s marble statue of George Frideric Handel, who had by that time won his share of laurels as England’s musical hero. The “laurels” are metaphorical in this case, because Roubiliac’s Handel is dressed not in classical regalia but in comfortable contemporary dress: casually leaning on a stack of his own musical scores, he sports a soft cloth cap, a simple shirt open at the collar, a loose robe and slippers—a composer at work in his own home. Despite this homely depiction, to be represented by a life-sized marble statue was a rare and perhaps unprecedented honour for a living composer, one usually reserved for rulers and military heroes. This contrast is brought out by the one deliberate anachronism introduced by Roubiliac in his portrait of Handel: the ancient Greek lyre that the composer is plucking with his right hand. The instrument suggests a resemblance to the mythical musician Orpheus, or even—as the inlaid face and radiating sunbeams on the lyre would suggest—to the Greek sun-god Apollo himself.
If in Roubiliac’s statue we can see Handel at the noontide of his career, then the first light of his success must have appeared during his years abroad in Italy. Pausing his early operatic pursuits in Hamburg, Handel set out for Italy in his early twenties (around 1706). As well as the great cultural centres of Florence, Naples, and Venice, Handel spent time in Rome making connections with the artistic, intellectual, and clerical elite; it was a Roman Cardinal, Benedetto Pamphili, who furnished Handel with the libretto for his first big oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, and who also provided the text for the dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne, which Handel finally completed sometime around his appointment in Hanover in 1710.
Handel had already treated the story of Dafne, well known from Ovid’s enduringly popular Metamorphoses, as part of a German double opera in his Hamburg days; perhaps both he and Pamphili had drawn further inspiration from the sculpture of Apollo and Dafne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the master sculptor of seventeenth-century Rome. Housed in the Villa Borghese, Bernini’s Apollo e Dafne is a powerful drama distilled into a single moment: as Apollo catches the distraught Dafne, her legs are becoming encased in bark and her hands are already branching into the laurel boughs that will later crown the most honoured heroes.
Because of a papal decree prohibiting the performance of opera in Rome, composers and audiences in the city turned all the more eagerly to oratorio and the dramatic cantata, which (like the operas of the day) told stories by alternating speech-like recitatives with arias that explored and expressed characters’ inner emotions. Apollo e Dafne is one of Handel’s largest cantatas and it draws on musical resources appropriate to the opera stage, all packaged in a miniature drama requiring only two singers; the strategic addition of oboes and flute to the string ensemble adds a new range of orchestral colour that is carefully deployed in the course of the story.
The close kinship with opera leads many modern-day musicians and researchers to wonder at the absence of an ouverture—the obligatory opera opener—in surviving copies of the cantata, and Apollo e Dafne is often prefaced in performance with the ouverture of some other of Handel’s dramatic works. Tonight’s concert begins with the ouverture to Agrippina, Handel’s first international hit. Agrippina opened the Venice carnival season of 1709-10, and enjoyed an extraordinary run of twenty-seven performances. The libretto, based on the machinations of the Roman nobility under Emperor Claudius, was written by another of Handel’s acquaintances from Rome, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. Beginning with the dotted rhythms and tirades (quick runs) characteristic of the French style, the opera’s ouverture seems to anticipate the twists and turns of the plot with the breakneck pace and crazy harmonic shifts of its concerto-like fast section.
While Handel was winning international fame with Agrippina, Antonio Vivaldi (also in Venice) was navigating changing circumstances of employment as he made a name for himself as a composer. Also a prolific writer for the opera stage, Vivaldi is most closely associated today with his post at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls that provided an excellent musical education; many of Vivaldi’s concertos were created for his skilled pupils.
Whether the same can be said of RV 501 is uncertain. This B flat major bassoon concerto is one of a cluster of related pieces that all bear the subtitle “La Notte” (“The Night”); Vivaldi clearly associated the night with woodwinds, because each of these concertos features a solo bassoon, flute, or both. (The bassoon is surprisingly common as a solo instrument in Vivaldi’s concertos, and the wide leaps and rapid finger-work in his bassoon writing show that he had a skilled player at his disposal.) More cheerful than the other “La Notte” concertos, RV 501 moves through a number of descriptively titled passages: “Fantasmi” evokes ghosts with its swooping runs and ethereal sustained chords; “Il Sonno” is a portrait of sleep, with a calm string accompaniment over rocking bassoon arpeggios; finally, “Sorge l”Aurora” depicts the sunrise in a ritornello-form movement reminiscent of the famous Four Seasons.
Vivaldi’s rising sun drives away the swirling “fantasmi”; Handel’s Apollo enters the scene as a conquering hero who has also repelled the forces of darkness. Pamphili’s libretto for Apollo e Dafne follows Ovid’s telling of the story: after saving Greece from the monstrous Python, Apollo boasts of his victory by belittling the archery of Cupid (“Amore”). Cupid quickly gets his revenge, however, by causing Apollo to fall in love with the nymph Dafne, who rejects him in favour of her freedom and her allegiance to the virgin-goddess Diana (also called “Cynthia”). When the god chases her, Dafne desperately calls to her father, a river god, to destroy her beauty (interestingly, Pamphili’s version leaves this appeal of Dafne’s implicit—contemporary audiences would probably have assumed it from their own familiarity with the story). She is transformed into a laurel tree, and a mournful Apollo vows to wear her branches in his hair and to make them the crown of future victors and champions (“laureates”).
Typically, Handel relies on the two staples of baroque opera, recitative and the “da capo” aria, which returns to the beginning (the head, “capo”) after a contrasting middle section. Apollo e Dafne’s recitatives begin with the sun-god’s blustery monologues before delivering the intense and fast-paced dialogue between the two protagonists. Handel also uses a wide range of aria styles, suggesting everything from pastoral idyll to military fanfare, love song and lament.
Whereas visual artists like Bernini gloried in depicting Ovid’s scenes of metamorphosis, such transformations posed challenges to musical drama: whether in opera or cantata, the audience (barring special effects) can’t see Dafne turn into a tree, so a composer and librettist have to communicate the event through language and music. Handel and Pamphili respond by having us witness Dafne’s metamorphosis through Apollo’s eyes: in the middle of his chase aria, right before the expected “da capo” return and (we might imagine) before he catches the nymph, the music veers off instead into an anguished recitative in which Apollo struggles to understand her sudden disappearance and her new form. This ending raises ambiguous feelings: the sun-god is heartbroken and humbled, but at what cost? One gift of Apollo and his artistic successors (among them Handel) was to render such grief and such questions—as well as the brilliant joy of the triumphant hero—in forms that would remain, like the laurel, evergreen.
GETTING TO CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL
The Cathedral is located on Quadra Street at Rockland Avenue.
Street parking is available on Quadra Street, Burdett Avenue, and Rockland Avenue, as well as at the south entrance to the Cathedral off Burdett.