At the end of 1706 the 21-year-old Handel left Hamburg and journeyed south to Italy. Clearly enchanted by the country and acclaimed by its music-mad inhabitants, he spent three years there. It was to have a profound effect on his musical style, particularly his vocal music. He composed over eighty cantatas during his stay, many of them neglected today but a number of them are worthy of inclusion among his finest works. Armida abbandonata appears to have been written for the powerful Marchese Ruspoli in Rome and was performed by the hugely popular soprano Margherita Durastanti in the middle of 1707, some six months after his arrival. Handel was obviously much impressed by her as he later brought her to London where he wrote leading roles specially for her in some seven of his operas including Giuilio Cesare.
Armida is a powerful sorceress in Tasso’s great poem Jerusalem Delivered , a largely mythical tale of the First Crusade which has provided the libretti for over a hundred operas including Haydn, Lully, Gluck, Rossini and Dvo?ák. In the story she assists the defenders of Jerusalem against the Crusaders by using her beauty to lure knights away from their duty, taking then to a magic garden where they sink into a state of reverie. Rinaldo and Tancredi were among her captives who eventually come to their senses and escape. The Cantata presents the abandoned Armida lamenting the loss of one knight, not specified, and seeking her revenge. Scored for soprano with two violins and a basso continuo, the cantata comprises three short arias, each introduced by a recitative. The idea of abandonment is even evident in the opening sequence which is marked without bass. A narrator launches the story Dietro l’orme fugaci explaining how desolate she is. Armida herself then takes over. First she expresses her distress in losing her lover in the charming and lyrical opening song: Ah, crudele, a foretaste of the great arias to follow in later years. Revenge is the subject of the second recitative as she summons monsters, winds and waves to destroy her quarry. Then in her second aria she realizes this would be a self-defeating act and pleads with the waves and winds to save him, as she still loves him: Vente, fermate, si. However, she pulls herself together as she realizes she can never love him anymore. The final aria In tani affani miei is a pleading lament, as she asks the god of love to release her from her desires.