Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Handel’s Ariodante – An Introduction

The following is a draft entry for The Literary Encyclopedia Online (the entry was published online in July, 2012)

In Handel’s time as well as our own, the sensational success of John Gay’s parody of Italian opera, The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 has been allowed, by writers and critics, a greater impact on the musical life of London than it deserves. Alexander Pope, in a footnote to his 1729 Variorum edition of the Dunciad, celebrated the success of his friend’s play, claiming: ‘it drove out of England the Italian Opera, which had carry’d all before it for ten years’ (Pope, 190). By 1735, when Handel’s Italian opera Ariodante was first produced, Pope had had to change his annotation to read: ‘it drove out of England for that season the Italian Opera’ (Pope, 190). The myth that Handel rather turned away from Italian opera after 1728, still has some currency. Yvonne Noble, for instance, argues that The Beggar’s Opera ‘changed the course of music, by helping turn Handel away from operas to oratorios’ (Noble, 1). The fact is that Handel would go on to produce over twenty more Italian operas after 1728, including several masterpieces, of which Ariodante is perhaps the greatest. Our own age has appreciated this opera more than its contemporaries and in the last fifty years it has been one of the most performed of all Handel’s forty or so Italian operas, with ‘more than fifty productions in fourteen countries’ (Dean, 304). Various reasons have been suggested for its recent success – including the idea that modern audiences can relate to an Italian opera better if it is set in Great Britain, or that the inclusion of dances is a welcome relief from the normal pattern of arias and recitative. But these are trivial circumstances. The opera has been successful because it has some of the greatest opera music Handel ever wrote, to a libretto which has a cohesive, coherent and unified plot.

The main story derives more or less intact from Ludovico Ariosto’s sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando Furioso, though Handel’s direct source was a version of the original by the librettist Antonio Salvi. Lovers of Shakespeare will immediately recognize the plot, as it is the basis for the Hero-Claudio story in Much Ado About Nothing (and other Shakespeare scenes, see Cairncross in Further Reading). There, Hero has the role of Ariosto’s (and Handel’s) Ginevra, and Ariodante is the original for Claudio.

The opera is set in the environs of Edinburgh Castle. It opens in the royal palace, where Ginevra, the King of Scotland’s daughter tells her lady-in-waiting Dalinda of her love for Ariodante. Her father approves of her choice. The evil Duke of Albany, Polinesso, declares his love to Ginevra, and she immediately expresses her contempt and disgust at his advances. Left alone, Dalinda, who is infatuated with him, tells Polinesso of Ginevra’s match with Ariodante. He resolves to use cunning, and the devotion of Dalinda to achieve his dynastic ends. Ginevra and Ariodante, alone together, express their love for each other, and the King joins them in their celebrations, happily offering Ariodante his daughter and the crown. Arrangements are made for the marriage festivities, and Ariodante reflects, alone on his great good fortune. Meanwhile Polinesso hatches his plot. He manipulates Dalinda into changing into Ginevra’s clothes when her mistress is asleep, changing her hair to match, and imitating her manner. She will then let Polinesso into the royal garden by a secret door, where she will meet him as Ginevra. Polinesso promises to be hers should she perform this role. Meanwhile, Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother, tells Dalinda of his love, but Dalinda, alone, swears her constancy to Polinesso. In a delightful valley Ariiodante meets Ginevra, and they both look forward to their nuptials. Act I ends with dances and happy choruses. Act II opens at night at a spot in view of the royal garden. Polinesso greets Ariodante and Lurcanio. Ariodante speaks of his love for Ginevra. Polinesso wonders at this, claiming that Ginevra gives him her favours. Ariodante is ready to fight him, but Polinesso claims he can prove his point, and executes his plan, meeting with Dalinda in the guise of Ginevra within their view. Ariodante is only restrained from suicide by his brother, who swears revenge against Ginevra. Ariiodante, alone, sings of infidelity and betrayal and welcomes death (in the magnificent aria ‘Scherza Infida’). Polinesso celebrates his ploy with Dalinda, making her promises of love, and then, alone, congratulates himself. In the next scene, just as the King is announcing Ariodante as his heir, his captain Odoardo tells him the dreadful news that Ariodante has thrown himself into the sea to drown. For no known reason. Sadly, the King tells the distraught Ginevra of her lover’s death. Lurcanio comes to court and demands justice of the King against his own daughter; he seeks a defender of Ginevra who he will fight to the death. Ginevra comes to her father who immediately insults her. Ginevra is beside herself with horror and confusion, and Dalinda tries to comfort her (without confessing the truth). Ginevra’s nightmare is represented by a ballet dream sequence. Act III opens with Ariodante, alive, in a forest where Dalinda is pursued by two assassins. He chases them off, and Dalinda explains her part in Polinesso’s plot. Alone, Dalinda realizes her folly; clearly Polinesso is behind the attempt to kill her. In the royal garden Polinesso offers himself as Ginevra’s protector, to fight Lurcanio out of ‘duty, justice and love’. The King and his daughter are reconciled in a moving scene – Ginevra, by law, will have to die if her defender is unsuccessful. She rejects Polinesso’s protection; she doesn’t regret the loss of her life, but still hopes for her honour to be restored. In the ensuing duel Lurcanio kills Polinesso, and is ready to take on any other defender. The King says he will take the role, but is interrupted by Ariodante (in a visor). Lifting his helmet all recognize the hero, and soon all is explained. Dalinda is pardoned for her part, and, alone, Ariodante celebrates the end of night (in the aria ‘Dopo notte’). Dalinda now sees the generosity and merit of Lurcanio’s renewed expression of love. Just as Ginevra has lost all hope, the King enters to announce her innocence and freedom, and she is re-united with Ariodante. The opera ends in general rejoicing.

It is not surprising that Handel should take particular care with the score for Ariodante, and compose one of his finest operas. Far from Italian opera in London dying out it had just reached a new pitch of fervor and competition. Handel had been instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Academy at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1719 explicitly for the production of Italian operas. Though the First Academy period did come to an end in 1728, Handel had been granted a further King’s Theatre license for five years until 1734. After the expiry of this period (sometimes known as the Second Academy), Handel needed a new theatre, and secured an agreement with John Rich (ironically enough the producer of Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera which was supposed to have ended Handel’s opera career) for the use of the new theatre at Covent Garden (built in 1732). Ariodante was to be the first opera production for this completely new venture. Handel also needed new singers. A rival Italian opera company, known as the Opera of the Nobility, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, Frederick (whose father, King George II, supported Handel). This company had taken over The King’s Theatre, Haymarket, and Handel’s best singers, the Italian superstars Senesino (a castrato) and Cuzzoni. And for the 1734-35 season they also brought the castrato sensation Farinelli to their London stage. Handel had never had such competition, and Ariodante was his first major artistic response.

And what a response! The range of emotions, from complete delight to absolute horror and despair, in the roles of Ginevra and Ariodante show Handel’s absolute musical mastery of human emotion. There is no weak role, with even the minor characters having some fine arias. And in Polinesso we have Handel’s greatest villain: ‘Handel wrote the part for a woman [a normal convention when castrati were in short supply] and emphasized the slyness and slipperiness of the character, consumed by ambition and lust for power. All […] his arias […] reveal a profoundly cynical outlook and a contempt for those who live by conventional values’ (Dean, 295). Selection from such an opera is difficult, but two of the longest arias in the opera, expressing the extremes of Ariodante’s mood, have rightly become famous: ‘Scherza infida’, a magnificent, tragic, expression of loss and betrayal (when Ariodante thinks Ginevra unfaithful); and ‘Dopo notte’ when the denouement brings the light of day to the darkest of hours (‘[e]lectric cross-rhythms, huge bounds over two octaves by two-thirds of the violins in unison, and long vocal lines flowing  in exuberant coloratura, generate immense energy as Ariodante’s pent-up tension is released’ (Dean, 292)).

Handel would eventually, in 1740, give up writing Italian operas (and turn to the writing of his greatest English oratorios Messiah, Samson, Solomon, Theodora and Jephtha). But in 1734-5 he was still composing some of his best ever music for his first love, Italian opera seria.

Works Cited

Dean, Winton. Handel’s Operas: 1726-1741. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 2006
Gay, John. The Beggar's Opera, ed. Vivian Jones and David Lindley. London: Methuen.

Nobel, Yvonne (ed.). Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Beggar’s Opera: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall. 1975.

Pope, Alexander, The Dunciad, ed. James Sutherland. London: Methuen. 1965.

Further Reading

Burrows, Donald, Handel (Oxford: OUP, 1994) — the best general study of Handel’s life and music in context, with exhaustive Appendices.

Burrows, Donald, ‘Perhaps Handel was right after all: some thoughts on editing Ariodante’. The Musical Times, Vol. 148, No. 1898 (Spring, 2007), pp.35-48 — gives a fascinating account of working on an edition of the opera for the Hallische Hädel-Ausgabe, which follows the process of revision and re-writing as Handel prepared the opera for production.

Cairncross, Andrew S., ‘Shakespeare and Ariosto: Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear and Othello’. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 1976), pp.178-82  — for those interested in Shakespeare’s use of the plot from Ariosto (the original source for the libretto of Ariodante) this gives an account

Dean, Winton, Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006) — the continuation and completion of Dean and Knapp’s survey of the earlier operas; an indispensable guide, with a full account of the history, sources and music of Ariodante (pp.285-311).

Deutsch, Otto Erich, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955) — the most comprehensive of all records of Handel’s life and times, as recorded, chronologically, in all kinds of documentary evidence; the most important source for all those interested in the cultural context of Handel’s work.





Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Nothing New Under the Sun: The History of a Handel Aria

The first performance of a Handel opera in London, the production of Rinaldo in 1711, was a sensational success (despite the mockery of the literary establishment in the pages of The Spectator). Both in terms of stage effects and musical brilliance the role of the sorceress Armida was the source of greatest entertainment. Her entrance, in Act I, Scene v, is suitably spectacular: ‘Armida in the Air, in a Chariot drawn by two huge Dragons, out of whose Mouths issue Fire and Smoke’.1  She sings, as she descends, the aria ‘Furie terribili’ invoking her dread allies. Commentators agree she has the best music in the opera: ‘she towers above all the other characters […] All her music has passion and energy’.2 After her furious opening, she sings an aria of hubristic pride, expressing her highest desires and hopes; with her great powers she must surely subdue the world and save Jerusalem from the conquering armies (which include the hero Rinaldo):

Molto voglio, molto spero
Nulla devo dubitar.
Di mia Forza all’alto impero
Saprò il Mondo assoggetar.3

It’s a perfect aria for her and for the leading soprano: ‘one phrase is even launched from the diving-board of a top C. A singer who can hit this cleanly is sure of making a mark’.4 The London stage had never experienced anything like her. But other stages had experienced ‘Molto voglio’ in other forms. The same air had introduced another of Handel’s leading women to the Venice opera stage in 1709. Here, the cunning Empress of Rome, Agrippina, has been putting all her plotting prowess to the task of having her son Nero declared Emperor. In her version of the same tune, the aria ‘L’alma mia frà le tempeste’, she boasts of her bravery and confidence. There is an obvious connection: Handel uses the same musical material for two powerful women boasting of taking on the world.

The first operas of Venice and London launched Handel’s Italian opera career in no uncertain terms. Handel’s first biographer, Mainwaring, could have hardly been more effusive about the reception of Agrippina:

The audience was so enchanted with this performance, that a stranger who should have seen the manner in which they were affected, would have imagined they had all been distracted. The theatre, at almost every pause, resounded with shouts and acclamations of viva il caro Sassone! And other expressions of approbation too extravagant to be mentioned.5

It is understandable, then, that when faced much later with an artificial challenge to his supremacy as composer of Italian operas, Handel should recall music from these earlier successes. Handel had been the crucial figure in the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. His first production for the new company was the heroic masterpiece Radamisto. His second was the collaboration Muzio Scevola. For this odd opera Flippo Amadei (a minor talent) provided the first act, Giovanni Bononcini (a much more formidable rival) the second, and Handel the third. There was no contest, musically. A foreign visitor, who attended the first performance, noted that Handel ‘easily triumphed over the others’6.And he chose to end the piece with the final celebratory chorus ‘Si sara più dolce amore’ using the same material as for ‘Molto voglio’ and ‘L’alma mia frà le tempeste’. Even this was not the end of the tune’s participation in Handel’s operas, as it made a final Italian renaissance eleven years later for a ‘Sinfonia’ in Ezio.

But towards the end of Handel’s career, as he was forced by circumstances to move away from Italian opera to English choral texts and oratorios, the same musical theme has two further reincarnations. It becomes the final tenor aria and then chorus for Part Two of Jennens’ adaptation of Milton – L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – first performed in 1740: ‘These delights if thou canst give, / Mirth, with thee I mean to live’. And its last appearance is in the oratorio Joshua, first performed at Covent Garden in 1748, in the aria ‘Heroes when with glory burning’.

Handel knew when he was on to a good thing. In fact, he had been on to this particular good thing before any of these compositions. The formative period, for this as for so many of his other favourite tunes, had been his visit to Italy from 1706-1710. The aria in Agrippina is therefore the culmination of Handel’s first interest in the theme. He had first used it in the Sinfonia for an Italian cantata, orchestrated with oboes, strings and continuo, ‘Ah! Crudel, nel piante mio’, in 1707, and for the Italian ‘oratorio’ La Resurrezione (or Oratorio per la Risurrezione di Nostro Segnor Giesù Cristo), first performed in Rome in 1708. We might wonder why Italy inspired this obsession. The answer must be because Handel ‘borrowed’ the music from Alessandro Scarlatti’s aria ‘Cara, cara e dolce’. Handel had met both Alessandro and his son, Domenico, on his visit to Italy. Mainwaring gives a famous anecdote, though it’s not certain which of the Scarlattis he is referring to:

When he came first into Italy, the masters in greatest esteem were ALLESSANDRO SCARLATTI, GASPARINI and LOTTI. The first of these he became acquainted with at Cardinal OTTOBONI’s. Here also he became known to DOMINICO SCARLATTI, now living in Spain, and author of the celebrated lessons. As he was an exquisite player on the harpsichord, the Cardinal was resolved to bring him and HANDEL together for a trial of skill.7

(Apparently, Scarlatti won on the harpsichord and Handel on the organ.) But we need not be too indebted to Alessandro for one of Handel’s favourite airs. He himself had ‘borrowed’ not only the music but even the lyrics (the whole song, in other words) from Pietro Marc'Antonio Cesti.

This recycling of music, from composer to composer, and in self-quotation, was typical of the baroque period. It makes it perhaps slightly easier to understand how Handel could produce over forty operas and over twenty oratorios along with hundreds of other compositions. But the remarkable adventures of this one tune need not compromise our sense of Handel’s originality. Our idea of original composition is a recent one. Handel’s period did not seek orginality for its own sake. As Alexander Pope put it in 1711, in the same year as Handel’s first London production:

True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc’d at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind8

The subtle musical variations in each incarnation of the song, and the diversity of operatic and dramatic contexts to which it is applied, all give Handel’s treatment recurrent delight.

Note: for those who want to follow the genesis of this song for themselves, though the original hint was given by Chrysander, there are three important modern sources: Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) [particularly p.120]; Winton Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) [p.501 and Appendix E, p.646]; and Siegfried Flesch and Bernd Baselt, Händel-Handbuch, Band 1: Lebens- und Schaffensdaten / Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis: Bühnenwerke (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag, 1978), p.109. Between them, these sources identify a further use in Handel, in an Air for Harpsichord (HWV 468), and another composer’s use of the same theme before Handel, in 1700 (in Reinhard Keiser’s La forza della virtù).


1 Rinaldo, an Opera (London: Thomas Howlatt, 1711)

2 Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p.174

 3 Rinaldo, p.12

4 Dean and Knapp, p.174

5 John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1760), pp.52-53

6 Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1955), p.126

7 Mainwaring, pp.59-60

8The Poems of Alexander Pope, Vol. I, ed. E. Audra and Aubrey Williams (London: Methuen, 1961, pp.272-73