George Frideric Handel Ariodante
Dramma per musica in three acts, HWV 33 (1734)
Libretto by an anonymous author after Antonio Salvi’s Libretto Ginevra, principessa di Scozia (1708) after Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso (cantos IV-VI)
Sung in Italian with German and English surtitles
Print programme (PDF)
‘I long to have a thousand hearts to devote them to you’
At the start of Handel’s Ariodante is a scene more normally found in the closing moments of a Baroque opera: a happy ending. All seems to be going well. Ariodante wants to marry Ginevra, the daughter of the king of Scotland. The king agrees and accepts his daughter’s choice. The opera could end when the curtain comes down on this opening act. What ensues instead is a drama about envy and mistrust, about a quest for power and about betrayal.
The plot is taken from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, an epic hugely popular in the eighteenth century and mined by Handel for more than one of his operas. The titular hero is not only the victim of the intrigues of his antagonist, Polinesso, who in his attempt to increase his power base at the Scottish court, accuses Ginevra of infidelity, he also seeks to find his true identity between social wrangling and confused emotionality. An outsider, he tries to break into a relatively self-contained system and penetrate the court’s hierarchical structure, only for him to become its victim. The patriarchal system does not allow a loner like Ariodante to enjoy unalloyed success, with the result that after the initially deceptive idyll of acceptance and happiness in love, he has to fight for a position that in the real happy ending finally allows him to begin a new life with Ginevra.
After Polinesso’s intrigue is exposed and the latter is killed in a duel, Ariodante is able to question the senseless custom of a trial by ordeal. The man who wins the princess’s hand is not the one who emerges victorious from the fight for her honour but the one who tells the truth. In this way new prospects open up for the couple at the end of the opera also in terms of traditional faith, which is hardly surprising since Ariosto’s epic is essentially a work about the struggle between an emerging Christianity and the Spanish Muslims. The poet justified his decision to locate the action in Scotland by declaring that unfaithful wives were said to be condemned to death there.
Time and again nature provides an important foil for the events at the court, functioning as a place of retreat and as an idyllic setting, developing its own independent strengths and providing protection. The power play between the confines of the court and attempts to break out into the freedom of nature, however illusory that freedom may sometimes be, is also illuminated by the music, notably in the form of the ballet music that is found at the end of each act.
Today Ariodante is numbered among Handel’s masterpieces, although it was initially only moderately successful. The music for Ariodante and Ginevra is remarkable for its emotional breadth, whereas Polinesso is unequivocally depicted as the villain of the piece. His music is virtuosic but never just pleasing to the ear, constantly at pains to clarify the reasons for his shameful actions.
Ginevra is on the point of going mad when, musically too, she runs the whole gamut of emotions in a scene that shifts from accompagnato to recitative and to an aria filled with a desire to die. But the musical high point is Ariodante’s ‘Scherza infida’ in Act II. After a failed attempt to take his own life, our hero recovers but is inwardly torn between outbursts of anger, a burning desire for vengeance and the longing for love, which here still seems unrequited. Contrasting colours are provided by a shifting string accompaniment and by almost strident woodwind figures.
First staged at Covent Garden in 1735, Ariodante is an opera whose political, religious and psychological aspects now seem more relevant and moving than ever.
Translated by Stewart Spencer