Atalanta’s rather good – so good, in fact, it really ought to be performed more often (which is about once every 20 years). It was written in 1736 to mark the marriage of Frederick, Prince of Wales (he of ‘Here lies poor Fred, who was alive and is dead’) to Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. This was a wise move: Fred had founded and patronised the rival opera company (the Opera of the Nobility), costing Handel patrons and money. Celebrating a royal wedding could guarantee an audience; paying homage to an influential music patron was sensible diplomacy.
Handel’s choice of Atalanta as the libretto was for several reasons. The first is that it had already been set as a royal wedding opera by Agostino Steffani, whose music Handel knew and liked. The second is that it was a pastoral theme, full of nymphs and shepherds. Handel liked the pastoral – think of Acis and Galatea, Il Pastor Fido, l’Allegro – and so did the urban elites. There is a possible third reason, one to do with Handel’s relationship with another member of the royal family.
Atalanta is a great feminist opera. The two female protagonists, Atalanta and Irene, want to be respected for being themselves. The eponymous heroine loves hunting and the freedom of the woods; she does not wish for the constraints necessarily imposed by marriage – and an 18th-century marriage at that. It is only when her suitor, King Meleagro, has proved himself a) her equal and b) pretty enlightened (one imagines, although who knows, once they’re back at the palace) that she accepts him. Irene has been in love with her suitor for some time, but is furious that he’s asked her father for a dowry without consulting her. She will only marry him when he’s proved that he loves her for her own sake and not for her position or woolly wealth (as our Irene said, scowling, ‘don’t mention the sheep’).
Now, it seems to me that this is a slightly odd plot for an opera celebrating a prince’s marriage. However, this prince’s mama was Caroline of Ansbach. She was an intelligent and enlightened woman, and a great supporter of Handel; it seems the two had a genuine friendship. Could it be that Atalanta is Caroline? George II, as a prince, himself – like Meleagro – went incognito to woo Caroline.
Cambridge Handel Opera’s production of Atalanta runs from April 31st till May 4th, in Cambridge, of course. The luscious cast includes Sarah Power as Atalanta, Erica Eloff as Meleagro, Anna Huntley as Irene and Mark Chaundy as Aminta. Yum, yum.
PS the McGegan recording is rubbish. I’m just listening to it, and so far he’s taken ‘Impara, ingrata’ at the same speed as ‘Come alla tortorella’. Grr. Here’s someone who got to the top by being around, not by being any good.