This is an excerpt from the 1996 film version of Jane Austen’s Emma, with Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) duetting charmingly with Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor). The song is an English version of a Handel aria, Non Lo Diro Col Labbro. The English song wasn’t created, however, until 100 years after Jane Austen wrote Emma. Ah, well, poetic licence …
The aria is from Handel’s opera Tolomeo (Ptolemy, King of Egypt). It was first performed in 1728 with the castrato Senesino playing the role of Tolomeo. The story goes that Ptolemy’s brother Alessandro has been sent by Cleopatra to kill Ptolemy. There’s a lot of ensuing confusion between Ptolemy, the King of Cyprus and his sister, and Ptolemy’s wife, but it all ends up happily a final scene quartet between the four.
The English lyrics for the aria (not the Emma version) translate to:
I will not say it with my lips
which have not that courage;
Perhaps the sparks of my burning eyes,
Revealing my passion,
My glance will speak.
Senesino was a celebrated alto castrato, famous for his virtually lifelong collaboration with Handel. Senesino’s father was a butcher and the lad was castrated at the relatively late age of 13. I hope there’s no connection between those two facts! He joined Handel’s Royal Academy of Music as male lead singer in 1720. He lived in London for 16 years. His relationship with Handel was always stormy and in 1733 switched to a rival company The Opera of the Nobility where he sang alongside the great soprano castrato Farinelli. It is reported that when Senesino first performed alongside Farinelli, he was so captivated by Farinelli’s performance, that he dropped out of character and crossed the stage to embrace him. Senesino retired – immensely wealthy – in 1740 and moved back to his native Siena. He died in 1758, aged 72.
The version below is the Handel version, sung with gorgeous tone by American countertenor David Walker.