The double journey of Alexander the Great, by Xavier Sabata (translation by Peter Bannister)
This recital takes its title from the lost eponymous opera of Giovanni Antonio Boretti (Rome c.1638-Venice 1672), who was a composer and singer (bass) and about whom we know that he sang one of the main roles in the premiere of this opera in Venice in 1667. Why Alexander the Great? First of all because he is the most frequently treated historical figure in the whole history of opera. We know of more than 65 operas based on Metastasio’s libretto Alessandro nell'Indie (Alexander in India) (1726). But this is not the only reason. Alexander was a complex personality capable of the most relentless violence, arrogance and ambition, but also of the generosity of someone who recognizes the humanity of an enemy, feeling him to be an equal.
Through his figure we can make a double journey. On the one hand, a biographical journey through his battles, his conquests, his exploits. On many occasions his biography has been altered because of the needs of the librettists in adapting this character to the tastes of the time (in this recital, for example, there are operas whose libretto was written in order to extol the moral aspect of the figure of Alexander without using his biography at all). On the other hand, we will make a musical journey spanning 75 years. During this period great changes took place around every 20 years. Opera had just been invented and composers were adjusting their language to the tastes of an ever more demanding audience and the technical possibilities of singers that were steadily increasing, creating very diverse and personal styles. Thus L’Alessandro amante (Alexander the lover) is not a faithful portrait of the historical character but rather its reinterpretation via a selection of arias that create a collage of all the different musical representations that these great composers made of our protagonist. It is a mosaic of scenes from his life, but also one of great musical variety. There is not one single Alexander but as many as this recital has pieces, but his attribute as a lover does give them cohesion. It forms a sonic photograph of an absolutely fascinating, complex and contradictory character. A human being who indeed divinized himself, but who inside was as fragile as any of us. We follow these "Alexanders" both in the first person and through those fortunate enough to be at his side.
In order better to understand how each composer represented this figure, we need to take many factors into account: the librettist, for which singer they were writing and what was the intended audience. It is a very different thing to write an opera for a singer with the technical possibilities of Farinelli as opposed to writing for Senesino. This already presents us straightaway with very different intentions as to how to construct this character.
Taking the title of the opera of Boretti is not just a coincidence; the Alexander depicted by this recital is the one after the battle, the one behind closed doors, the one who tells of the battle to those closest to him, or the one whom they themselves describe to us. Examining the musical material dedicated to our character, we can distinguish two groups: Alexander the warrior and the lover. For the warrior, the composers have reserved the most extreme and highest tessituras, for the lover the medium and lower registers. We can therefore deduce that the warrior is a soprano Alexander and that the lover is a contralto Alexander.
Giovanni Bononcini, before being attributed the title of Händel's rival, wrote a serenade in Vienna in 1699 where he showed that, apart from being a great connoisseur of counterpoint, he possessed great virtuosity when it came to setting a text to music (something that would link him very closely to the librettists of the famous Accademia dell’Arcadia such as Rolli or Stampiglia). Clear examples are the aria "Da tuoi lumi" in which the general Efestione, Alexander’s faithful companion, lauds his strength and power, including his physical beauty. In the sober "Chiare face" of the same serenade, Bononcini depicts an Alexander eager to return close to his lover; the end of the battle is near and victory is, for him, the only way to come back together with the object of his desire. Musically, the orchestral sobriety needs to be emphasized as well as the space Bononcini leaves for the text and the melodic line in order to create this scenario of longing and peace. Formally, these binary arias are short and almost symmetrical in length - far from what composers in southern Italy would do years later when the B section of an aria would be almost half of the A section. We can see an example of this latter idea in the aria "Serbati a grandi imprese" (1732) set to music by Giovanni Battista Pescetti (1704-1766), where we clearly see this new form of composing da capo arias. Pescetti, originally from Venice and a student of Lotti, became the director in London of the famous Opera of the Nobility created by Senesino and some Arcadians in order to dethrone Händel. When he had to take refuge in Venice, fleeing hostility towards Italian Catholics, he devoted himself to teaching, being the teacher of Josef Mysliveček and Antonio Salieri. In this musical passage, Pescetti very successfully used one of the best librettists, Pietro Metastasio, and his famous Alessandro nell'Indie (1726). In this recital two versions on the same text are included – different but with certain similarities. Pescetti presents a serene, even-tempered, empathetic yet severe Alexander.
But if this composer had to flee London, Händel (1685-1759) came to stay. Händel, a great connoisseur of human psychology, had to deal not only with the artistic part of a company as complex as the Royal Academy of Music, but also with the most logistical and mundane tasks associated with it. Händel's mastery extended to knowing how to unite these two worlds, and one of the results was his Alessandro (London, 1726) in which Händel uses an opera to tell us about and more or less denounce the pressure and diva-like outbursts to which he was continually subjected by his leading singers. He therefore wrote an opera loosely based on the historical figure of Alexander, in which we find a clearly decadent protagonist over whom two lovers - two sopranos - fight arbitrarily (he dedicated this opera to his beloved/hated Senesino, Cuzzoni and Bordoni, the last two being in real-life conflict, and for whom Händel had to write the same quantity of notes). But all this does not mean that Händel would not endow the characters with wonderful musical/theatrical material, and this is the case with “Vano amore”, where the virtuosity of the coloratura depicts the constant emotional imbalance of the character suffering from the inconstancy of love.
In the case of Poro (London, 1731) Händel uses a libretto by Salvi inspired by that of Metastasio. Here we see King Poro talking about Alexander’s power - it is curious to see how many arias speak of the power of Alexander's eyes, these being a source of power and domination.
Fascination with the figure of Alexander already comes from afar. Antonio Draghi (1634-1700), one of the most prolific opera composers of his time, depicted a moralistic Alexander in his Introduzzione d’un balletto, La vittoria della fortezza (Introduction to a ballet, The victory of fortitude) (Vienna, 1687) with two ariette of a strophic, canzonetta-like structure. This piece served as a preface to a ballet and presented the protagonists in a theatrical context, before the dancers represented choreographed scenes concerning this character. The sinfonia that precedes these two pieces, composed by the prolific Alessandro Steffani (1654-1728), comes from the same epoch and style, although his musical language already unveils a modernity that informs us as to the direction in which opera would go.
The Neapolitan Francesco Mancini (1672-1737) deploys the Neapolitan style at this point in the recital. Assistant to Alessandro Scarlatti, a pedagogue, he knows and masters the virtuoso, quasi-instrumental style of Neapolitan vocalism to perfection. Here we hear an aria where the violins, alone without a bass, create the effect of the roar of the battle at the beginning of the aria, while the vocal line unfolds, via coloratura, in counterpoint; the lines of the violins and the voice travel down different channels as if they were arrows, thereby creating a battle effect. The sinfonia preceding the opera Alessandro il Grande in Sidone (Alexander the Great in Sidon) (1706) is a little jewel and a demonstration of how the Neapolitan school masters compositional architecture with solo passages of flamboyant lines.
The final part of this recital focuses on the Neapolitan style, but in different eras. Thus the second version of "Serbati a grandi imprese" (Rome 1730), this time by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1747), shows us a more sober style, with a binary, quasi-symmetrical structure. The similarity in tonality and in certain melodic lines of this version with the one of Pescetti needs to be emphasized, without this implying inferiority, since the authoritarian character of this second version takes it into completely different dramatic territory. On the other hand, with Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) we are moving towards a more galant style. His aria "Dirti, ben, mio vorrei" of the opera Alessandro in Persia (Alexander in Persia) (London, 1741) is of a simplicity and transparency that depicts a doubting Alexander, very well represented by the constant fermatas utilized by the composer. We conclude this recital with Nicolás Porpora (1686-1768). A well-known singing teacher of many castrati, Porpora dedicated his opera Poro (Torino, 1731) to his most celebrated singer: Farinelli. Since the compositional style was structured around the singers’ vocalism, Porpora deployed a palette of tools in the aria "Destrier ch'all'armi usato" that Farinelli controlled to perfection: coloratura, breath and tessitura. It is an aria that represents Alexander the warrior, and in which, being orchestrated with trumpets and horns, the authoritarian character of the character is immediately depicted. The very long coloratura passages with their instrumental character and vocal extension, very typical of Porpora, inform us as to the level of technical excellence possessed by the famous castrato.
As we can see, each composer and librettist adapted the character to their needs and preferences. So it is with the Baroque: flexibility and emotion, a desire to connect with one’s audience. Alexander is only an excuse, but this excuse allows us to experience emotion through this collage that, viewed from afar, represents another Alessandro, the lover.