Like so many artists after him, Handel’s big break in opera came from being in the right place at the right time. In 1704, the composer Reinhard Keiser abruptly left the theater in Hamburg for an out-of-town commission, leaving no score for a scheduled production of an opera called “Almira.” A libretto existed, sets and costumes had already been prepared, but a composer was desperately needed. The natural substitute, Johann Mattheson, was racing to finish a different opera. So the theater tapped the 19-year-old Handel, who roughly one year earlier had been cracking jokes at the back-desk of the violin section. “Almira” became his very first opera.
Composer biopics love this kind of story, and incredibly enough, its full telling would have to include an actual street duel with Mattheson, whose sword thrust may have been stayed by the pages of “Almira” in Handel’s breast pocket (I kid you not). But modern-day musicologists are less easily seduced by the romance of scrappy beginnings, and “Almira” has at times received a harsh verdict. “Very uneven in style, quality, and technique,” intoned one influential book on Handel operas, “with abundant promise but intermittent fulfillment.”