How does one define a top ten of Handel operas? Thanks to German musicologist Manfred Rätzer, who has tracked productions of Handel’s operas since their first performances in the 18th century, up to 2016, we can document their popularity down the centuries... so I've chosen eleven! There is a good margin between numbers 11 (Semele) and 12 (Radamisto), so that is where I draw a line.

Portrait of George Frideric Handel by Thomas Hudson (1748)
© Public domain

1Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV17 (1724)

It will come as no surprise to Handel  aficionados to hear that number one is Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Premiered in 1725 in London, it has something in common with other operas in the top ten: a libretto by Nicola Haym and an original cast featuring two of the greatest singers of the day, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (Cleopatra) and alto castrato ‘Senesino’, the nickname for Francesco Bernadi (Giulio Cesare, or Julius Caesar).

Based on classical Roman history, it tells a version of Caesar’s conquest of Egypt and his confrontations with the Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Tolomeo), and his romantic interactions with the latter’s sister Cleopatra VII. As most will know, Caesar and Cleopatra fall in love, and the opera ends happily before the death of Caesar and the advent of Marc Antony (so nothing to do with the Shakespeare version). This opera demonstrates the full flowering of Handel’s ability to blend perfectly text and music, create believable characters bodied forth in their arias, and create a fully-thought through dramatic arc. Prior to Handel’s advent, Italian opera (particularly as performed in London) had consisted of collections of arias which showed off the singers’ voices and little in the way of dramatic integration. With Handel, we enter an operatic world of meaning, feeling, and enthralling story-telling.

Giulio Cesare contains a number of dramatically compelling and vocally virtuosic arias; when Cesare declares “Non ha in cielo il Tonante melodia che pareggi un sì bel canto”, Handel produces an aria for Cleopatra that is indeed a melody fit for the gods, sumptuously scored. Cesare is convincingly depicted as a commanding but just and empathetic leader, but the development of Cleopatra’s character is one of the most finely drawn in opera. The mother and son combination of Cornelia and Sesto is also movingly depicted, particularly their famous duet “Son nata a lagrimar” at the end of Act I.

2Serse, HWV 40 (1738)

Serse, Handel’s third last opera, is a more playful affair, also drawn from classical history. It retells not exactly a history of Xerxes I, king of Persia, but includes a couple of anecdotes from his life, which would have been well known to the 18th century audience, intertwined with a more imaginative love story. Serse begins with one of Handel’s Greatest Hits, the poignant melody known as Handel’s largo which often features in weddings, gangster funerals (if The Sopranos is to be believed) and tv commercials for just about anything. Most people in those contexts would be surprised to know that it is a love song sung by Serse to a tree (“Ombra mai fu”), this particular affection being one of those tropes the audience all knew in the 18th century; the other depicted in the opera is his penchant for building bridges. What the opera is about, however, is a young king yearning to be in love, and learning that you can’t just force yourself on anyone, especially if they are betrothed to your brother, but you must wait for the right person, to whom you are actually betrothed, even if you can’t recognise them when they are disguised as a man.

There is a lot of disguising in Baroque opera; in Giulio Cesare, Cleopatra meets Cesare disguised as a lower class person called Lydia. Since he’s never met her, this is not difficult. There are also a lot of examples of people being betrothed to each other without ever actually seeming to have met – not only in the case of Serse’s fiancée Amastre, but in several others, including Tamerlano’s Irene. It is also quite common to find women disguised as men, as in Serse and Alcina and, less commonly, vice versa.

Another characteristic of 18th century opera is that high voices were regarded as heroic, and these roles were generally sung by castrati, who were highly skilled virtuosi. I have mentioned one of the most famous, Senesino. Giulio Cesare, Serse, Orlando, Rinaldo, Ariodante and Tamerlano are all roles written for castrati, although Handel was often just as happy to see female altos in those roles.

3Alcina, HWV 34 (1735) 

Alcina concerns a predatory sorceress ruling over an enchanted island. The libretto, along with those of Orlando and Ariodante, is taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516). This epic Italian poem coalesces a number of medieval traditions about Charlemagne and his knights. The three stories used by Handel concern Alcina the sorceress who holds the knight Ruggiero captive on her magic island, Orlando driven mad by love for Angelica, princess of Cathay, and Ariodante, a noble knight in love with Ginevra (or Guinevere), the princess of Scotland. The anti-heroine Alcina is depicted as a wilful determined woman for whom nonetheless the music expresses some sympathy.  

5Orlando, HWV 31 (1733)

Orlando is a rather Siegfried-like hero, in being handsome, brave and not very bright; the sorcerer Zoroastro (derived from a single sentence in Ariosto) chides him for wasting his time on love when he should be concentrating on heroic deeds.

9Ariodante, HWV 33 (1735) 

Ariodante is also a bit thick, in being easily deceived about the constancy of his beloved Ginevra, in a plot twist recalling Much Ado About Nothing; but he has some amazing arias.

These three operas were composed within a brief period of time 1733-1735, and see Handel at the height of his operatic powers. They do, however, signal something of an upheaval. Orlando was Senesino’s last Handel role. In 1734 Handel was forced out of the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, and moved his base of operatic operations to the Covent Garden Theatre. The latter came with a resident ballet troupe led by French dancer Marie Sallé, and both Alcina and Ariodante feature sumptuous dance suites.

4Acis and Galatea, HWV 49 (1718)

Two of the works on our list, Semele and Acis and Galatea, are not really operas, but they are regularly staged as such. One major difference between these and the other nine is that they are sung in English. Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s most popular works in any genre, uniquely maintaining a performance record through the 19th century. It was composed by Handel in 1718 when he was a guest at Cannons, the stately home of the Duke of Chandos, who maintained a small domestic orchestra. The work is usually referred to as a masque, a small-scale aristocratic entertainment originally involving masked performers. It is thought to be based on a libretto by John Gay (of Beggar's Opera fame), Alexander Pope and John Hughes, and the story derives from Roman mythology via Ovid. In the first Act, the shepherd Acis is in gentle pursuit of the nymph Galatea, and at its conclusion they join in the duet “Happy we”. Act 2 starts threateningly with the chorus “Wretched lovers!”, followed by the crashing entrance of the giant Polyphemus, although what he sings – “Ruddier than the cherry” – is charming, with a tweeting piccolo line, but he is malevolent, and ends up killing Acis with a rock. In a happy ending of sorts, Galatea uses her semi-divine powers to turn the dead Acis into a bubbling spring.

6Rinaldo, HWV 7 (1711)

Orlando and Alcina are also alike in featuring scenes of magic and supernatural forces at work, a quality also seen in Handel’s first opera for the London stage, Rinaldo, in 1711. The libretto derives from another 16th century Italian epic poem, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemma liberate, a very fanciful version of the first Crusade. Goffredo (Godfrey of Bouillon) is assisted by the noble knight Rindaldo – another hero easily distracted, in this case by Almirena, a model of innocent purity, and her famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga”. Not only do they have to fight the Saracens, they must contend with an evil sorceress, Armida. She arrives on a dragon, emitting melodic fury, and at one point disguises herself as Almirena to lead the poor hero astray. In the end, as we know, the Crusaders take Jerusalem, and – less well known –Armida and her Saracen sidekick Argante convert to Christianity. While some find Rinaldo less polished than some of Handel’s later works, it was a smash hit in the day, with a performance enhanced by a flock of tiny birds let loose on the stage.

7Rodelinda, regina de' Langobardi

Based on a very obscure historical incident from 8th century Italy, Rodelinda, regina de' Langobardi, is sometimes described as Handel’s feminist opera. It concerns the supposedly widowed Queen of the Lombards who is being courted by the usurper Grimoaldo, but in fact her husband Bertarido is still alive. She must face off the actually rather weak and not that bad Grimoaldo and his much nastier adviser Garibaldo, and does so with steadfast determination to protect her young son and keep the faith with her husband. Her arias “Morai si” and “Spietati” are models of bravura conviction, and all ends happily, but with Garibaldo being killed by Bertarido, rather than staging a last-minute conversion to niceness.

8Agrippina, HWV 6 (1709)

Handel’s first real masterpiece before his move to England was performed in Venice in 1709, and maintains sufficient popularity to be number eight on our list. Agrippina is based on another classical Roman historical narrative, which still has currency (see I, Claudius). It is often referred to as a prequel to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. In this part of the story, the wife of emperor Claudius is determined to get her son Nerone (Nero) on the throne and uses every wily move to get him there she can muster. As in L’incoronazione, hardly anyone else in the opera has much in the way of redeeming features, except perhaps Ottone, the future emperor Otto. While Monteverdi portrays a seriously corrupt regime, Agrippina is played more for laughs, but with some seriously moving arias.

10Tamerlano, HWV18 (1724)

Tamerlano was composed the year after Giulio Cesare, and was followed in 1725 by Rodelinda. These three comprise a dazzling trio, sharing not only a great composer, but also the accomplished librettist Nicola Haym and, on their London debuts, Senesino and Cuzzoni. Like Giulio Cesare, both Tamerlano and Rodelinda derive from historical narratives and maintain a more or less realist tone, all featuring love stories set against a political world with evil but mortal villains. The title role in Tamerlano is extremely villainous, until renouncing his wicked ways at the very end; he is in fact the Mongol conqueror Timur or Tamerlane who also features in Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great. The Handel version concerns his desire for Asteria, daughter of his captive, the Ottoman emperor Bajazet, despite being engaged to Irene, who naturally turns up in disguise to make a fuss (“Dal crudel”). One of the unusual aspects of this opera in terms of 18th century conventions is the on-stage suicide of Bajazet.

11Semele, HWV58 (1744)

Like Acis and Galatea, Semele is an oratorio in English derived from classical mythology. It comes from the other end of Handel’s career, composed in 1744 after he had abandoned formal Italian opera. It has a witty libretto by William Congreve with some input from Pope, and is also sourced ultimately from Ovid. Semele’s genre is elusive; it has many attributes of opera, but its English language and choruses align with Handel’s own genre, the English Oratorio. It does not seem to have been staged before 1925, but has become a favourite in the operatic repertoire. The heroine, a sparkling soprano, has caught the eye of Jupiter, a suave tenor, much to the annoyance of his wife Juno, a grumpy mezzo, who disguises herself as Semele’s sister Ino. In that guise, she persuades Semele to ask the god to show himself in his full splendour, and when he does, naturally she is burned to a crisp. But from her ashes Bacchus arises, a happy ending for us all!

Reference: Manfred Rätzer 2000 Szenische Aufführungen von Werken Georg Friedrich Händels vom 18. Bis 20. Jahrhundert, Händel-Haus, Halle, and subsequent updatings in the Händel-Jahrbuch 2001-2016