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.
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.2010.
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.
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.