ARIODANTE (HWV 33)
Libretto: Unknown, after Antonio Salvi's 1708 Ginerva, principessa di Scozia; from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso
First performance: 8th January 1735, Covent Garden Theatre, London
- Gustavus Waltz (Bass)
- Anna Maria Strada del Pò (Soprano)
- Giovanni Carestini, called "Cusanino" (Mezzosoprano-castrato)
- John Beard (Tenor)
- Cecilia Young (Soprano)
- Maria Caterina Negri (Contralto)
- Mr Stoppelaer (Tenor)
The mutual love of the Princess Ginevra and Prince Ariodante has the full approval of her father, the King of Scotland. As the opera begins, she is confiding her feelings to Dalinda when Polinesso, Duke of Albany, who covets the throne, bursts into her room and makes advances to her, which she forcefully rejects. Dalinda tells him that Ginevra’s heart is already bestowed, but confides that she herself is not indifferent to him. A plot thereupon forms itself in Polinesso’s mind to make use of her to be revenged on Ginevra and gain his ends.
Meanwhile, in the royal gardens, Ariodante and Ginevra, exchanging vows, are given the blessing of the King, who intends to make Ariodante his successor.
Polinesso persuades Dalinda to dress up as Ginevra and admit him to her room that night: he promises to respect her honour and make her his wife. Dalinda is overjoyed, and when Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio appears and declares his love for her, she quickly evades him. Left alone, Lurcanio reflects on his love for Dalinda. She in turn reflects on her love for Polinesso.
The act ends with the betrothed royal couple expressing their happiness and calling upon the nymphs and shepherds to celebrate their joy in dance and song.
That night Ariodante, unable to sleep for excitement, is walking in the royal gardens when he encounters Polinesso, who feigns surprise at the news of the forthcoming marriage and claims to be enjoying Ginevra’s favours. When Ariodante furiously reaches for his sword at these outrageous words, Polinesso promises to substantiate his charge: he tells him to hide and observe with his own eyes. Lurcanio, who has been surprised to see his brother talking with the disliked Polinesso, had also concealed himself and is watching events.
Polinesso knocks on the secret door to the royal apartments, and in answer to his signal Dalinda, disguised as Ginevra, lets him in and closes the door. Ariodante, horrified at this apparent betrayal, is about to kill himself by falling on his sword when Lurcanio, who has also been duped, rushes forward and prevents him throwing away his life for a worthless woman. Ariodante goes off in utter despair; Polinesso, swearing devotion to Dalinda, gloats over the success of his ruse.
The following morning the King is in council, about to declare Ariodante his heir, when Odoardo brings a report that the Prince has thrown himself into the sea in a sudden frenzy and has drowned. The King hurries to break the news to Ginevra, who collapses in shock. His own grief is heightened when Lurcanio, accusing Ginevra of unchaste behaviour that drove his brother to his death, demands justice in the lists: he will fight anyone who offers to champion her cause. The King disdainfully declares that a wanton is no longer his daughter. Ginevra, bewildered at the charge and at his rejection of her, goes out of her mind.
Polinesso has hired two assassins to silence Dalinda. They set about her in a forest, but Ariodante, who has been wandering about aimlessly and dejectedly, chances to be there and beats them off. She is amazed to see him alive, and he is equally astonished to learn from her of the trickery of which he was the victim, and which she now sees involved her own death. He sets out immediately for the palace with her.
The King has refused even to see his daughter until a champion for her can be found. Polinesso, with an eye to succession to the throne if he is successful, offers himself. Though Ginevra refuses his aid, her father insists on his acceptance.
Polinesso meets Lurcanio in public combat and is felled by a mighty blow. Lurcanio, still burning to avenge his brother’s supposed death, challenges any further champions of Ginevra, and the King himself is about to enter the lists to retrieve his family honour when a knight whose face is hidden by his closed visor appears for her defence. Lurcanio tells him to prepare for combat, but the knight raises his visor and, to general astonishment, reveals himself as Ariodante. He offers to explain all if the King will pardon Dalinda for her unwitting part in the deception; Odoardo brings news that Polinesso, as he lay dying, has confessed his treachery. The King at once hastens to his daughter with the happy news, and Dalinda, repenting her former love as well as the deception into which it lead her, now gladly accepts Lurcanio’s renewed wooing.
Ginevra, in the apartment to which she has been confined, is giving way to despair when the King joyfully arrives to tell her she is vindicated: he frees her, embraces her, and reunites her with Ariodante. She is astonished and raptured to find him alive after all, and the opera ends with general rejoicing in the great hall of the palace.
(c) Lionel Salter, courtesy of Philips Classics Productions
Ariodante was Handel’s first new opera to be performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. He took full advantage of the additional resources that John Rich’s theatre offered, including ballet sequences for Marie Sallé and her company, and choral numbers for Rich’s resident chorus. The plot was taken, like Orlando, from Ariosto and is the only opera by Handel set in the United Kingdom, based as it is in Edinburgh. The plot is unsually straightforward, with no subplots, and the music consistently melodic and written with equal importance for all four voice groups – soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass. All this makes Ariodante one of Handel’s most accesible operas, and several of the arias including Ariodante’s bleak Act II ‘Scherza infida’ and lively Act III ‘Doppo notte’ have become popular concert pieces.
It ran for eleven performances, and was supported by the Royal Family who attended the first performance. On 14th January Queen Caroline wrote to her daughter Princess Anne of Orange: ‘Handel has not met with his usual approval. They say his opera is so pathetic and lagubrious that everyone who has returned from it has this opinion and has been saddened by it.’
Carestini shone in his first major Handelian role, but still attendance was poor. Even the rival Opera of the Nobility was finding it difficult to attract audiences, and decided to fight fire with fire by presenting Handel’s Ottone to compete with the composer’s own new work. Farinelli took the lead in his only recorded performance in a Handel opera.
An anonymous writer in the ‘Old Whig: or, The Consistent Protestant’ of 20th March 1735 reported:
‘Handel, whose excellent Compositions have often pleased our Ears, and touched our Hearts, has this Winter sometimes performed to an almost empty Pitt. He has lately revived his fine ORATORIO of ESTHER, in which he has introduced two Concerto’s on the Organ that are inimitable. But so strong is the Disgust taken against him, that even this has been far from bringing him crowded Audiences; tho’ there were no other publick Entertainments on those Evenings. His Loss is computed for these two Seasons at a great Sum…’
Handel had indeed revived Esther together with Deborah and the London premiere of Athalia which he had first given in Oxford in 1733. For a month he concentrated on these English oratorios, performing organ concertos between the acts as an additional draw to his audience.
He revived Ariodante only once, for two performances in May 1736 as a filler before the premiere of Atalanta which was not yet ready. He had engaged a new star castrato, the 22 year old Gioacchino Conti, who arrived just before the performance of Ariodante, though without time to learn the arias. For the first and only time Handel allowed one of his singers to import another composer’s arias into his own opera. A word book published for these two performances has the Italian text of the interpolated arias, but not an English translation as there was not time to prepare and publish one. A copy of this unique word book is in the collection of the Handel House Museum.