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10 May 2013

Handel's Imeneo: synopsis and introduction

The Argument

"Hymeneus was a Youth of Athens, who fell in Love with a noble Damsel, without Hope of ever obtaining her; yet he assiduously pursued her, and often found Means to be with her and other of her Companions, by dressing himself in a female Dress, so that his Fraud could not be suspected. Thus it happen’d, that he, with his Beloved (and many others, who went forth from Athens to a Sacrifice to Eleusinian Ceres) were forced away by some Pyrates, who came on them by Surprize; and when they had got many Miles distant with ’em, rejoicing in their Prey, and spent with Toil, went ashoar; and retiring to a Place where they thought themselves safe, lay down to sleep. Hymeneus taking that Opportunity to deliver himself, and the captive Virgins, had the good Fortune to kill all the Pyrates before any one would awake; and returning to the City, promis’d to restore to the Athenians their lost Children, if they would give her, he so lov’d, to him for a Wife; which was granted, and the Nuptials performed; and he liv’d happy with her the rest of his Life."

From 1740 wordbook


Synopsis

The entire opera is set in a pleasant garden (‘Deliziosa’).

Act I

Athenian virgins sent to take part in the Eleusian rites in honour of Ceres have been captured by pirates. Tirinto laments that his betrothed Rosmene is missing, and the senator Argenio worries about his daughter Clomiri; they pray to Ceres for aid. The chorus announces that Imeneo is arriving with good news: disguised as a girl, Imeneo single-handedly slew all the pirates in their sleep, rescued all the virgins and brought the ship home to Athens. He claims Rosmene as his reward; Tirinto is appalled. Rosmene and Clomiri return, but the reunion causes embarrassment to all four thwarted lovers: Rosmene does not love her ardent rescuer Imeneo, who is indifferent to Clomiri (despite her unsuccessful hints that she adores him). Tirinto refuses to give up Rosmene, who gives non-committal answers to the rivals. Left alone, Imeneo confidently expects that the wise men of Athens will award him the ‘turtle fair’ he desires.

Act II

Torn between her betrothal to (and love for) Tirinto and gratitude to Imeneo, Rosmene prays to the gods for help. Argenio tells her that reason dictates she ought to choose to marry Imeneo; he dismisses her love for Tirinto as ‘mere perverseness’, and instructs her on the rewards of obedience. Rosmene complains about the pains of love to Clomiri, who informs Tirinto about Rosmene’s distress; his pangs of jealousy are like a violent storm. Imeneo tells Clomiri he is grateful to her father for pleading his cause with the senate; she assumes that Rosmene will be delighted (having no idea that her rival loves Tirinto). Imeneo contemplates the agonies of love: he and Rosmene are instructed that the senate cannot force their marriage, but that Rosmene must be free to choose. In a trio, both suitors plead to her but she is torn between love and gratitude.

Act III

Tirinto and Imeneo insist that Rosmene choose between them. She says that pity for the loser holds her back, but promises her decision will be dictated by her heart. Each of the men resolves to die if he loses. Clomiri tells Imeneo that she loves him, but to no avail. Rosmene resolves to make her choice but feigns madness in order to spare the feelings of the loser. First, she meets Imeneo, who is alarmed by her distraught manner; he begs her to kill him if she destroys his peace. Next, she meets Tirinto, who reacts exactly the same way to her apparent madness. Clomiri and Argenio lament Rosmene’s insanity, and she arrives to announce her decision to the rivals: she enacts a trancelike journey to the underworld, where the judge of the dead Rhadamanthus cleaves her heart and releases her soul; she collapses, emerges from her trance and pragmatically chooses Imeneo. She says her decision has been as difficult as Paris choosing between the three goddesses, denies that she is raving, gives her hand to Imeneo, and asks the silent Tirinto to accept rejection calmly. The chorus conclude sombrely that the virtuous heart should always yield to reason.

Synopsis © 2013 Dr David Vickers


 Download an introduction to Imeneo by Handel expert David Vickers

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 Book tickets for our performance at the Barbican in London on 29 May