Content / Background
“There are some who are in darkness / And the others are in light / And you see the ones in brightness / Those in darkness drop from sight,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, and there are few people to whom this applies more than the Italian noblewoman Aurora Sanseverino (1669–1726). Now unknown, this art collector brought together the foremost artists of the Baroque in her Neapolitan salon and often commissioned works from young composers that were crucial for their careers. During his first trip to Italy, the 22-year-old Handel composed the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo for Sanseverino, a subject that was to accompany him for the rest of his life. And before Nicola Antonio Porpora began the career as a singing teacher in Naples that was to make him famous throughout Europe, Sanseverino also commissioned a one-act serenata from the 25-year-old composer in 1711: Deianira, Iole ed Ercole. The piece was a gift to her son on the occasion of his wedding. For the young musicians, a commission from the distinguished patron of the arts in the city that was then a major centre of opera was tremendously important for their careers, which later took both to London at the same time. The libretto by Nicola Giuvo tells the love story of Deianira and Heracles from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The hero Heracles was told in a prophecy that no living person could defeat him. When his second wife Deianira is kidnapped by the centaur Nessus, Heracles kills him with a poisoned arrow as he is trying to escape. The dying Nessus tells the princess to catch a few drops of his blood and, if she dips Heracles’s shirt in it, he will never look at another woman again. The plot of the serenata begins when Heracles has fallen in love with Iole, daughter of King Eurytus, and refuses to show any remorse for his unfaithfulness to Deianira. Jealous and desperate, she gives Heracles a shirt that has been dipped in the blood of Nessus. But instead of making him faithful, the poisoned shirt causes Heracles such excruciating pain that in order to end it he burns himself alive. The prophecy of the Oracle was true: no living person could kill Heracles, and Deianira and Iole are left behind, alone.