’s Admeto Essay, Research Paper
Analysis of Handel’s Admeto
In the beginning of the 18th century opera seria developed into a vibrant art form, and took a center stage in operatic performance of London. As a genre, opera seria takes its themes from classical myths and literature, building on the musical standards developed throughout the Baroque period. Opera seria is built on a rigid structure of three acts in which the recitative and aria are performed in alternation. The dominant convention of this musical genre is the de capo aria which helps to show a single specific mood or affection through the use of repetition and melismatic singing while also serving as a “reflection of the significance of the virtuoso singer” (New Harvard 564). The voices of soloists were central to the performance, and the composers of opera serias used the instruments of the orchestra as an accompaniment. In looking at Handel’s Admeto we can see a prominent example of an opera seria, allowing us to see how these among other musical conventions created a sense of grandeur and order so prominent during a Baroque period.
Recitative playes a pivotal role in the development of the action of Admeto. It serves a function of both developing the plot and explaining the relationships between characters. The Act III scene 6 finds Alcestis back from the netherworld and looking to reunite with her husband Admeto. In a dramatic dialogue Hercules tells her that her husband is in love with another. This amount of information would be impossible to convey effectively in the form of an aria. Instead of being accompanied by the basso continuo, the recitative between Alcestis and Hercules is almost entirely spoken. The only instrumental accompaniment is the harpsichord, and its function is limited to underlining the ends of phrases. Such recitative, often called secco recitative, allows the words come out unencumbered by the colorful turns of a musical composition. Yet the music is not absent from Handel’s recitative. While not prominent in the recitative, Handel uses the harpsichord in specific places to mimic the sound of the words. For example, on the words “m’iuccide” and “guai” the harpsichord mimics the voice of the soprano and creates a sound not unlike a point of imitation. In he last part of the recitative, the harpsichord starts to play a larger role. Unlike in the previous stanzas, Handel actually provides an instrumental melody through “con, ragione il core da gelosia.” This is important because it prepares us for the colorful texture of the aria, and because we are speaking about the “heart.” As Alcestis finishes the recitative by pledging to ignore her own jealousy toward “Admeto amato,” we hear the harpsichord mimicking the soprano’s voice once again.
Throughout the recitative, the instruments play a marginal role to the voice,. yet during the aria they take on a much larger role. The basso continuo made up of a harpsichord and a cello is joined by a string section in the aria, and each serves a very specific role. Violins provide the accentuation of the mood of the piece while the basso continuo serves as a foundation to the aria. In addition, the instruments are charged with creating musical interludes between the sections of the aria These interludes in Handel’s Admeto are rittornello in form because they are identical and repeating. These totally instrumental brakes serve to slow down the action of the preceding recitative as well as for a practical reason of asking the 18th century audience to pay attention. In addition the introduction to the aria sets up a tripple meter that will be held throughout the aria. The instruments, therefore, serve to give structure to the Admeto aria.
The aria of Handel’s Admeto has a very defined A-B-A’ structure, where A prime is a modification of the original melody. Da capa in form, this aria is used by Handel to set up a single specific mood or affection throughout the piece. Thus, Admeto clearly follows the mono-affectionate standards of the Baroque. The aria begins by repeating the first stanza twice. The music is performed in a major key because now that Alcestis has “learned to mock jealousy,” she sings about seeing beauty in everything around her. Soprano is center stage and the instruments accompany her. Handel skillfully utilizes the ability of the violins to imitate the human voice, and by accompanying crucial phrases, he gives them extra weight.
It is important to notice a close relationship between the librettist and the composer. Both use the conventions of their respective “languages” to create a very elegant structure. The two stanzas of the area have the same linguistic structure. The first two lines of each stanza rhyme with each other, while line three, four, and five, of the first stanza rhymes with lines three, four, and five of the second stanza. The music has its own structure that is closely related to the words. For example, the rhyme of the first two lines “io giro”, “remiro” is reflected by the violins repeating a “rhyming” musical “word.” When the soprano sings “vaghi e belli” the violins imitate the vocal intonations of the soprano, and repeats the phrase several times to underline the “beauty and loveliness” of the flowers.
The central aspect of the Admeto aria is the use of melisma at the end of each section. The choice of the words sung in melisma is not arbitrary. The word “piante” (tears) is made important by soprano singing it melismatically. In it we can see Handel’s use of word painting. Alcestis sings that it is the tears that her lover Admentus has shed for her after her death that has made the world beautiful.. Accordingly, the melismatic melody of “piante” resembles sobs. While the major portion of the area is sung in chromatic fashion, the melismatic notes of “piante” often take wide leaps to express emotion. The use of violins here is central, as well, to accentuate the emotion of the piece. It accompanies the voice of the soprano, and when she hits very high notes the stings support the force of those notes. The melismatic melody repeats several times, each time becoming more complex and ascending until on the third run it descents back to the tonic key. The repetition serves, once again, to allow the soprano to impress the audience by the mastery of her voice.
After the A melody has been sung twice, an instrumental rittornello returns, separating it from the new melody that is to follow. What is striking is that it is the same melody that announced the beginning of the de capo aria. The instrumental interlude is repeated once more when the aria goes back to A. This use of rittornello fits the general use of repetition in the music of the Baroque period.
The start of the B melody announces a new turn in the movement of the aria. Admeto is unusual, in its use of de capo aria, because the A and B melodies do not vary significantly in key. The B melody is still sung in a major key and continues to be in a triple meter. The structure of the stanza is similar to that of the first stanza. The first two lines rhyme just as in A, and Handel uses the violins to “rhyme” with the words. The melismatic phrases are present as well, and, once again, it takes the character of the word that it represents. Here Alcestis sings that the songs of the birds seem to tell her about the steadfastness of Admetus’s love. The melisma on the word “augelli” seems to imitate the bird’s song. This melismatic feat is repeated again at the end of the B section on the word “constante.” While the melismatic stile hardly reflects constancy, it fits the general structure of the aria.
Following the strict structural stile of the de capo aria, Handel repeats the A section twice, just as the first time around. Yet on the second recitation, the soprano sings “Per che il mio ben fra lor/ Mosse le piante” an extra time, and it is in this instance that Handel introduces an variation on the A theme. The melismatic melody increases in power and complexity, the notes move with incredible swiftness, and the soprano hits a note, by far, the highest in the composition. This change is significant in Admeto, as it is in most de capo arias , because it is designed to awe the audience once more before a new recitative starts.
The excerpt that we heard from Handel’s Admeto is an excellent example of the major trends present in the development of the Baroque music. The strict form of the opera seria creates a feeling of grandeur and structure. As I tried to show, the strict form of the Baroque opera is apparent through the use of repetition of musical sections. Whether we consider the rittornellos, the rhyming scheme, or the A-B-A’ form of the de capo aria, repetition plays a central role in creating a single mood of the musical piece. The action in Admeto is presented through the medium of secco recitative, while the aria serves to explore the feelings of the character, and shows off the talents of the singer performing each one. By using melismatic singing, Handel works to further elicit emotions that reflect the musical ideas of this opera. In taking a closer look at the masterful use of Baroque ideas in Admeto, it is not hard to see how Handel rose to prominence on the operatic stage.