Handel: Lèse majesté?
Floridante is this week's Handel opera on Thursday afternoon. It may be difficult for us to comprehend today, but when it was premiered in 1721 it occasioned a political controversy. Put briefly, the opera was interpreted by some in the audience as an allegory on the very tense relationship between George I and his son, George, Prince of Wales.
William Stratford explained to Lord Harley in a letter of 19 December: 'Some things have happened at a new opera which have given great offence. It is called Floridante. There happens to be a right heir in it, that is imprisoned. At last the right heir is delivered and the chains put upon the oppressor. At this last circumstance, there happened to be a very great and unseasonable clapping, in the presence of great ones.' In fact, Stratford (and other members of the audience) rather garbled the plot: the character 'imprisoned', Floridante, is not a 'rightful heir' at all.
What Stratford's misinterpretation serves to illustrate is not (or not simply) London audiences' inattention to niceties of the plot - they were famous for talking through recitatives, and the London librettists were infamous for cutting their recitative to a bare minimum, accordingly. It also shows the audiences' willingness to twist a fictional narrative in order to 'apply' it to contemporary political life. There was a long tradition of doing this with English opera (including Purcell's operas), and the audiences no doubt felt they could follow the same practice with Italian opera.
Perhaps this interpretation was partly encouraged by the librettist's decision to dedicate Floridante to the Prince of Wales, as perfectly expressing Floridante's qualities as 'the Heroic Lover and the loving Hero'. But the structure of the drama also emphasises the despotic villainy of Oronte, Floridante's rival in love for Elmira (who has been raised as Oronte's daughter!): it shows Oronte repeatedly testing & breaking the lovers in a series of carefully managed scenas. For those disaffected with George I's rule, it would have been an excellent means to vilify the monarch.
Of course, neither Handel nor Rolli (the librettist) would have intended such application, especially as the opera company depended greatly on the monarch's patronage. It must have caused some consternation for the company management.