From Amelia to Calista and Beyond: Sentimental Heroines, ‘Fallen’ Women and Handel’s Oratorio Revisions for Susanna Cibber

Jonathan R. Lee, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


The history of singer and famed tragedienne Susanna Cibber (1714–66) demonstrates the influences of the British theatre and the culture of sentiment on Handel’s oratorios. Throughout Cibber’s long career, audiences lauded the ‘natural’ qualities of her performances, conflating her onstage and offstage identities as both deeply moving and holding great potential for moral instruction. In the late 1730s and early 1740s this presumed symbiosis was challenged by a highly publicised sex scandal that had profound effects on Cibber’s roles in the spoken theatre. At the same moment, Handel began crafting parts for Cibber in Messiah, Samson, Hercules and Belshazzar in ways that showed awareness of the new complexity of her image. This article both illustrates the nature of Cibber’s evolving public identity and explains Handel’s revisions of pre-existing parts for her. It shows that Handel recognised the challenges of Cibber’s troubled public image and continued to highlight her greatest skills, setting her the task of harnessing the power of sympathy, drawing audiences in by appealing to them as fellow men and women of sensibility.