Here are my notes for the upcoming Ars Lyrica "Roman Holiday" program, featuring Handel's delightful "Clori, Tirsi e Fileno" and three of my favorite singers. Ticket info at Ars Lyrica
Handel composed Clori, Tirsi e Fileno in Rome the fall of 1707, probably for the Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli, in whose household the young composer served for a few years while perfecting his skill with opera and cantata in the land that produced those genres. With its full orchestral scoring and two parts, each containing more than a dozen “numbers,” Clori is the longest and most sumptuous of Handel’s Italian cantatas. One might call it a chamber opera, though “opera” for Handel implied three full acts, numerous characters and competing story lines. Italian cantatas, on the other hand, were usually solo vehicles on pastoral or amorous texts, and rarely involved more than just one voice and continuo players.
Clori, Tirsi e Fileno stands somewhere between these two generic poles. Its familiar pastoral characters include the beautiful nymph Clori and two love-struck shepherds, Tirsi and Fileno. The same characters appear in countless other Italian cantata libretti from this time (and innumerable paintings), most of which make us understand — with barely concealed winks and nods — that Clori permitted certain pleasures before she withheld them. With Clori, Tirsi e Fileno Handel and his anonymous librettist transformed such stock situations into a more dramatic kind of piece, with an overture and at least three distinct scenes. Such extended works were highly valued by Roman connoisseurs especially: various popes were forever banning opera and closing public theaters, leaving wealthy Roman patrons to take upon themselves the commissioning of all manner of operatic substitutes. The polite pastoral garb of Clori, Tirsi e Fileno surely fooled no one at its première in Ruspoli’s palace: this is a tale of love, lust, and betrayal, entirely in keeping with the norms of the Baroque opera house — and Roman society from its founding onwards.
Tirsi sets the stage at the beginning of Part I with healthy amounts of both self pity and denial: he realizes Clori is unfaithful, but his passion for her remains. Once Tirsi has made his misery plain, he hides, just as Clori enters with Fileno, whose heart is just as battered. Responding to Fileno’s complaint that she loves another, Clori announces that her pity has turned to love. The onstage lovers rejoice as Tirsi slinks off unnoticed, muttering curses under his breath.
Part II opens with Clori in pursuit of a jilted and angry Tirsi, who understandably wants nothing further to do with such a fickle woman. After much bickering, Tirsi relents, accepting Clori’s explanation that she was simply playing a joke on Fileno. As Clori leaves, Fileno reappears and the two men realize they’ve both been duped by a woman they find hopelessly irresistible.
In the original duet ending for the work, Tirsi and Fileno foreswear women and affirm the ostensibly more durable nature of male companionship. In the trio Handel wrote for a subsequent performance in Naples (where the oblique allusion to same-sex love might have caused a stir), Clori returns to join Tirsi and Fileno, all cheerfully observing that “to live and not to love…is not possible.” Since both endings offer undeniable musical charms, we thought it desirable to offer both. And thankfully, neither the imperfect sentiment of the duet nor that of the trio will get Handel in trouble today! © Matthew Dirst