Ariodante, Opera by G. F. Handel
George Frideric Handel’s Ariodante is one of opera’s great dramas. From the point of view of its composer, it needed to be. In the first half of the eighteenth century, competition in London between the city’s opera companies was intense; one of the consequences was that Handel lost the lease he had held at the King’s Theatre. Doubtlessly under pressure, Ariodante was the new work he chose to open his first season at the new Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, the precursor to the Royal Opera House.
The story of Ariodante was adapted from Antonio Salvi’s Ginevra, principessa di Scozia, the source material for which was taken from Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto. A tale of deception driven by lust, the opera begins with the daughter of the Scottish King Ginevra’s happy betrothal to Ariodante. In opera, however, things are never quite that simple. Polinesso, a duke, desires Ginevra for himself. He dupes Ginevra’s attendant and confidante, Dalinda, into dressing up as the princess and then follows Dalinda into Ginevra's bedchamber, tricking both Ariodante and his brother, Lurcanio, into thinking that his fiancée is not to be trusted.
News arrives at the royal court that a distraught Ariodante has committed suicide. The King, learning of his daughter’s supposed infidelity, disowns her, plunging Ginevra, unaware of Polinesso’s chicanery, into despair. Meanwhile Polinesso has hired two assassins to kill Dalinda and clear the way to make Ginevra his own. First though he must defend her honour, in combat, against Lurcanio who still does not realise that the princess is innocent.
First performed on 8 January 1735, Handel used all the resources that the Theatre Royal was able to muster, including John Rich’s in-house singers and Marie Sallé’s dancers. It must have been some spectacle. As audiences at the Vienna State Opera will soon discover, the singing is also quite superb; melodic, virtuosic and driven with dramatic intent throughout. In difficult circumstances, Handel created an opera full of intrigue with a plot that keeps us guessing right until the very end.