Love in the depths of despair

Posted on: 6 May 2020, by :

Opera is often about love — its pleasures, its pain and its predicaments. Some of the most special moments are the rare duet-arias, where the solo honours are shared equally between two virtuoso singers. Typically the two characters, having fallen in love (at first sight, of course), express their happiness together and/or desire for each other, or else they express their shared fear and misery if they face being parted and/or find themselves in a pickle. To create such scenes with sufficient emotional power and make them convincing on stage was always a huge challenge for the composer and everyone else involved, especially when the plots themselves can be rather flimsy and when the imperative of the drama — that the characters must convey their complete togetherness in mutual feelings — conflicted with the star singers’ reluctance to share the spotlight and have to sing at the same time as someone else. Add to that the routine concerns for any opera (Do the singers have sufficient acting skills for such big moments? Is the staging ideal? Will the audience feel the emotional weight of a scene of this sort?) and the odds seem stacked against success.

A fine duet-aria that does manage, at least sometimes, to succeed against those odds is ‘Son nata a lagrimar’, the climax at the end of Act I of Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), first produced in London in 1724. The librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym, brilliantly engineered the dramatic situation not as a love-aria for lovers but in an analogous way as a love-aria for a mother, Cornelia, and her son, Sextus, and by piling on a quadruple whammy of dark emotions for them to express together. (1) Both are already deep in grief, following the murder by the Egyptians of the Roman general Pompey, Cornelia’s husband and Sextus’s father. (2) Both are also struggling with frustrated anger and bitterness: Cornelia is fearful of and offended by her treatment by the Egyptian general Achillas, who wants her for himself, while Sextus has been thwarted in his attempts to avenge his father’s death by killing the Egyptian king, Ptolemy. (3) Both are now captives of the Egyptians and facing their own imminent deaths: Cornelia is being taken to slavery in Ptolemy’s harem, and Sextus expects to be executed. (4) In consequence this is a terrible parting: both mother and son believe that they will never see each other again.

This is the second post in the series songs of love.

Sung by Deborah York and Lydia Vierlinger, Capella Leopoldina (CD recording, 2000).

In response, Handel rose to the occasion with sensitive, understated music that is the perfect vehicle for expressing that complex of mixed feelings of loss, fear, bitterness and the tenderest form of familial love (while still ensuring that the soloists do not often sing simultaneously). But still the duet’s success as drama that will move us deeply depends on the singers and the other musicians. YouTube currently has at least two dozen performances (a few staged, some concert versions, some from CDs), but very few of them live up to the potential and demands of the scene.

Of the staged versions available, none comes close to the emotional power and musical excellence of this one, from the Copenhagen production of 2005, sung by Randi Stene (Cornelia) and Tuva Semmingsen (Sextus). (For comparison, see my runner-up choices here and here.) In all cases the staging and costumes can be distracting: it may seem better to use the theatre of your imagination and construct the scene in your mind’s eye by listening to an audio-only version (e.g. the first video above).

I was born to cry, 
I was born to sigh, 
and for my sweet consolation,
ah, I shall forever weep.

If fate has betrayed us, 
for a serene and happy day
I shall never again hope.

Son nata a lagrimar,
son nato a sospirar, 
e il dolce mio conforto, 
ah, sempre piangerò. 

Se il fato ci tradì, 
sereno e lieto dì 
mai più sperar potrò.

Randi Stene (Cornelia), Tuva Semmingsen (Sextus), Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen 2005.