Operatic appearances of Arminius are frequent yet forgettable. Some thirty-seven different operatic Arminiuses appeared in the eighteenth century, and a further eighteen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Domenico Scarlatti and Johann Adolph Hasse are among the few composers that will have been heard of and in both cases the operas are much stronger musically than dramatically.
I had thought that only two had been recorded in modern times. The former, called Arminio, counts as the first German opera (though sung in Italian) and was written by the composer/violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber at the end of the seventeenth century (the exact date is disputed) in Salzburg. The other is Georg Frideric Handel’s Arminio written in the autumn of 1736 in a particularly fruitful period of the composer’s life. While musically, it will satisfy even the most jaded barocchisti, it is incomprehensible even by the shaky standards of opera – a matter not helped by the fact that the composer seemingly arbitrarily cut around a thousand lines of text from Antonio Salvi’s libretto. Suffice to say that the plot exists only in the composer’s imagination and that all’s well that ends well.
The plot – drawn from ancient Roman history and adapted from the Annales of Tacitus – is particularly contorted. It concerns a campaign in Germania by the Roman general Nero Claudius Germanicus in the First Century A.D. during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Although set against a military background, the vicissitudes of the story all have to do with love and betrayal: the jealousy of Germanicus provoked by increasingly ridiculous misconceptions of the infidelity of his faithful wife, Agrippina.
In the other plot strand, Claudia, the daughter of the conquered Cheruscan prince Segestes, loves the Cheruscan outlaw Arminius but is offered in marriage to the Roman prince Lucius. At the same time, in the occupied city of Cologne, a Roman captain named Florus is plotting to overthrow Germanicus and Tiberius. Magical and divine forces intercede to set things right, notably when the son of Germanicus and Agrippina, the treble role of Caligula, prays to the goddess Juno, whose oracle speaks in defense of Agrippina’s virtue.
It is now on order...