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Book Review: Handel’s Path To Covent Garden by E.A. Bucchianeri

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Most music lovers go ga-ga over Handel’s famous oratorio ‘Messiah,’ as well they should. However, what most music lovers don’t know is that Handel established his fame upon the bedrock of Italian opera. Handel wrote many operas.  During one twelve month span, while at the Royal Academy of Music, Handel wrote three operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda. All three were big hits and wildly successful at the box office.

In 1728, just as Handel’s contract with the Royal Academy expired, Italian opera fell out of vogue. The listening public decided they preferred the English style of opera. Still, Handel kept the faith. He started a new company, going into partnership with John Jacob Heidegger, who was the manager of King’s Theatre in Haymarket. Handel and Heidegger continued to produce Italian operas successfully for a few years. Then in 1733, a rival opera company – the Opera of the Nobility – opened for business, bringing in such superstars as Johann Adolf Hasse, Nocolo Porpora, and Carlo Boschi, who was better known as Farinelli. Handel and Heidegger couldn’t vie with such big names. Their venture effectively failed and Handel and Heidegger parted ways.

Instead of retiring, as most thought he would, Handel moved on to Covent Garden, where he joined up with John Rich. For three years, the two impresarios struggled financially and artistically. This period of adversity – from 1734 to 1737 – and how it changed Handel’s life, career, and fortune is the subject of E.A. Bucchianeri’s remarkable book, Handel’s Path to Covent Garden.

Buccianeri examines the intrigues, back stabbings, jealousies, and rivalries that existed at the Royal Academy of Music. The examination reveals that, as in today’s music world, egos and money are greater motivators than musical expression. To put it simply, everyone was caught up in power plays, trying, like a bunch of spoiled brats, to get their way. It makes for amusing reading, especially as it took place almost 300 years ago. 

Of particular interest is John Rich’s arrangement with Handel. According to Bucchianeri, unlike most people in his position, John Rich wasn’t motivated by ego or money. “Rich aspired to succeed in overcoming the deficiencies in Italian opera.” Therefore, Rich disregarded “a practical business approach on this one project, he may have decided to afford every opportunity to Handel,” who he recognized as England’s “best composer.”

The result of this “opportunity” was Handel’s growth and change as a composer. Bucchianeri relates this adaptation in detail, using the evolution of Handel’s opera Ariodante’ to illustrate Handel’s genius and creativity. For one thing, Ariodante had no magical content, which meant it was neither heroic nor anti-heroic. In other words, Handel was doing something totally different. The difference wasn’t shocking or scandalous. It was simply unique. And, according to Bucchianeri, this distinctiveness eventually found its way into Handel’s oratorios.

What makes Handel’s Path to Covent Garden so much fun to read is the author’s scholarship and the author’s ability to express that same erudition in simple language. In other words, although Bucchianeri does occasionally get technical, Handel’s Path to Covent Garden is a book for the average Joe or Susie. One doesn’t have to have a musical background or a doctorate to enjoy the book. At the same time, the book is just technical enough to appeal to music lovers. For the latter group, the book fills in a gap surrounding Handel’s life and work.

On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from 1 star (terrible) to 5 stars (delightful), Handel’s Path to Covent Garden comes in at 5 stars.

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