Tolomeo (1728) belongs to Handel’s second period under the umbrella of the Royal Academy (after the almost unbelievably creative seasons of 1724-5, which included Tamerlano, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda). At this point Handel had lost his theatre, his lead singers, and much of his following to a rival; renting the King’s theatre, he had to outdo the competition, so he secured a line-up of the finest Italian singers: the castrato Senesino remained with him, closely followed in fame by the two sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, the bass Boschi, and the less accomplished castrato Baldi.

Seleuce wailing in <i>Tolomeo</i>
Seleuce wailing in Tolomeo

For these singers he wrote Tolomeo. Some ink has been spilled over ‘the rival queens’ who sang the roles of Seleuce and Elisa, and who are reputed to have carried their colourful rivalry off stage. Compelling as this type of story is, it seems likely to me that the rivalry was what we would now call spin, exploited to help ticket sales: there is no evidence of Cuzzoni or Faustina scrapping before or after, though they were frequent colleagues.

The Argument, printed with the wordbook, is stirring. Cleopatra, who never appears, presides over the action. She is the textbook cruel mother: husband discarded or dead, she raises to her throne (and bed?) her firstborn son; unsatisfied, she exiles him, sends his wife to slavery, butchers the children, and then raises up the younger son to supplant him (as he supplanted the father, no doubt) and make war on his brother. Those separately shipwrecked souls on Cyprus (Tolomeo, his wife Seleuce, his brother Alessandro) are all damaged by the Egyptian queen, and each calls out to her for explanation.

On the island, the head man Araspe and his sister are drawn to Tolomeo and Seleuce. Their unrequited loves hurt and pervert them, and as usual this is at first more interesting than the fate of the long suffering heroes. Tolomeo starts out with a resolution to drown himself in the sea; there under the waves he finds another man struggling to live, and he saves him. Such a struggle – between the instinct to breathe, and the impulse to respect and value another’s life – would not be pretty. Recognising his brother, who he supposes a traitor, Tolomeo thinks to drown the man in his arms, but he resists the brutal impulse: he will not be dehumanised, however harsh his own sufferings. Bitterly, he rescues him. Again and again he thinks that he has reached the extremest verge – by Elisa’s perverse affection, Araspe’s cruelty, the fear that his own senses lie to him, and the suspicion that he cannot even remember his own love – and each time his own desire for annihilation is quelled by his need to recall Seleuce, his faith, love and only hope.

No other Handel opera confronts quite so squarely the lot of the wretched of the earth, and the easy cruelty of the powerful. Tolomeo is a confirmation of all that is good in man, in the face of all that can be corrupted.

These notes and photo were kindly contributed by English Touring Opera, whose production of Tolomeo opens in London at the Britten Theatre (Royal College of Music) on Saturday 17th October 2009, before touring nationally through November. The modern day production describes poverty as we might see on the street today, in the exploitation of a young girl and a hapless beggar. Yet driven to the edge, as both of them are, their dignity and faith is inspiring, and ultimately rewarded. Katherine Manley and Rachel Nicholls take the roles first sung by Cuzzoni and Bordone, the famous ‘warring queens’ celebrated by contemporary rakes and wits.