Henrico IV is the last of six complete works for the stage that Johann Mattheson composed between 1699 and 1711. The piece was finished on January 12, 1711, and premiered under Mattheson’s direction on February, 9.
The plot takes place at the Castilian court at Valladolid and centres around the political intrigues Henry IV of Castile and Leon was involved in after his marriage to Joanna of Portugal in 1455. Other aspects of the king’s reign are also alluded to in the plot, so that altogether the period until 1468/69 is covered. Thus the background to the action is Castile in the state of a political vacuum represented by the regency of Henry IV just before the “catholic” royal couple Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon seized power.
Henry IV’s character, his marriage to Joanna, and the parentage of his daughter were represented by his contemporaries with a view to the legitimacy of Isabella the Catholic’s claims to power. The king was said to be sterile; he also carried the byname “El Impotente” or “The Powerless”. He was also described as weak, extravagant and melancholic; further weaknesses that exposed him to attacks from his opponents were his bizarre appearance and unusual way of dressing, but also his openness towards other religions. It was believed that his daughter was the child of his protégé Beltran de la Cueva, which earned her the byname “la Beltraneja”. Only recently have researchers realised that these claims may have been part of a deliberate political campaign of slander within noble circles.
This delicate topic was treated after an anonymous French text by the librettist Johann Joachim Hoë (dates unknown), who was active in Hamburg between 1711 and 1717. Particularly charming is the Spanish flair of the dances and the brief choral interruptions in Spanish during the great bullfight scene at the end of the second act. The “high” figures are accompanied by the “comic trias” consisting of Alfonso’s servant Alardo, Elvira’s chambermaid Petronella, and her temporary “lover” Timo, a servant of the queen. In this way the motif of the two men fighting over a woman – Bertrand and Alfonso fighting over Joanna – is taken up a second time on the comic level.
The music of this opera is of great lavishness. Mattheson uses a colourful and highly flexible orchestra. Flutes, oboes, bassoons and strings (violins, viola d’amore) are employed in various ways, at times with highly virtuosic solo passages. The diversity of forms is larger than in any other of his operas. In addition to da capo arias there are numerous through-composed ternary forms, various two-part aria types, and extended choruses and ensembles.
(Hansjörg Drauschke, translation by Stephanie Wollny)