Scheming in Scotland: Handel's 'Ariodante'

From the International Baroque Opera Festival

You'll find the word "cosmopolitan" in a wide variety of contexts, from biological descriptions of hardy and versatile organisms, to the cover of a racy magazine.

Cour des Hospices, Beaune i i

hide captionAriodante was performed at the Cour des Hospices, the courtyard of a 15th-century hospital, now a museum, in Beaune, France.

Festival de Beaune
Cour des Hospices, Beaune

Ariodante was performed at the Cour des Hospices, the courtyard of a 15th-century hospital, now a museum, in Beaune, France.

Festival de Beaune

THE HIT SINGLE

As Act Two ends, Ginevra (soprano Karina Gauvin) is falsely accused of adultery. Facing a death sentence, she shows signs of madness in the wrenchingly beautiful aria "Il mio crudel martoro" — "My cruel torment."

Generally, though, it's applied to anything that crosses a lot boundaries — both physical and cultural. And when it comes to classical composers, few were as cosmopolitan as George Frideric Handel.

Just look at one of his most famous pieces, the oratorio Messiah. Unlike most works of European classical vocal music, it's most often sung in English. And that's not because it was translated for English-speaking audiences. It was actually written in English, because Handel, though born in Germany, made his musical fame — along with a considerable fortune — during the decades he spent in London.

Still, it wasn't English oratorios that truly put Handel on the musical map. Handel, who was born in German city of Halle, became a superstar in London by writing Italian operas. During the first few decades of the 1700s, Italian opera may have been London's hottest ticket, and Handel's operas were the most popular of them all.

Through much of the 1720s, and into the '30s, Handel basically ran his own opera company — with support from wealthy subscribers, and from England's King George I. Performances took place at the King's Theater.

By late 1734, things had changed, and there was a new George on the throne. Handel's agreement to use the King's Theater had expired, and he was muscled out by a rival company. Fortunately, he had an alternative venue. It was a then brand new theater in a place that has since become synonymous with opera in London: Covent Garden, where the premiere of Ariodante took place in January of 1735. Opera is still being performed at Covent Garden today, in the theater known as the Royal Opera House.

Over the centuries, Ariodante has become one of Handel's most enduring operas, and it's also emblematic of his cosmopolitan status: an Italian opera, premiered in England by a German composer, and set in Scotland.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production that brings one more country into the mix. It was given outdoors at the Cour des Hospices, the courtyard of a 15th-century hospital in Beaune, France, and stars soprano Karina Gauvin and mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg.

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The Story of 'Ariodante'

The opera's three acts are set in Scotland, and the story revolves around a young woman named Ginevra — daughter of the Scottish king. Ginevra is in love with a vassal named Ariodante, and the two have received her father's permission to be married. As ACT ONE begins, Ginevra explains all this to her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda.

WHO'S WHO?

  • Karina Gauvin ............ Ginevra
  • Ann Hallenberg ........ Ariodante
  • Maarten Engeltjes .... Polinesso
  • Jael Azzaretti ........... Dalinda
  • Krystian Adam ....... Lurcanio
  • Sergio Foresti ... King of Scotland
  • Modo Antico Orchestra
  • Federico Maria Sardelli, conductor
George Frideric Handel

hide captionGeorge Frideric Handel completed Ariodante in 1735, for a premiere at a brand new theater at Covent Garden, in London.

Getty Images

But there's a problem. A Duke named Polinesso is also in love with Ginevra, and he shows up to make his case. Ginevra tells him to get lost, saying he's repulsive to her. This doesn't sit will with Polinesso. So, when Dalinda tells Polinesso that she'll have him, even if Ginevra won't, he decides to use her — to get back at Ginevra, and ruin Ariodante.

Polinesso wants Dalinda to dress as Ginevra, and let him into Ginevra's chambers late at night. The lovesick Dalinda agrees. Then, when Polinesso leaves, Dalinda confirms her feelings for him by rejecting the love of Ariodante's brother, Lurcanio.

Meanwhile, the lovebirds Ginevra and Ariodante are entertained by a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses.

ACT TWO act opens at nighttime, in the garden outside Ginevra's palace apartment, and Polinesso's plan is set to go into action. Polinesso is there, along with Ariodante. Lurcanio is also in the garden, hidden in the shadows to eavesdrop. When Ariodante tells Polinesso that he's engaged to Ginevra, Polinesso laughs at him, saying everyone knows that Ginevra is a bit of a loose woman. In fact, Polinesso says he's been fooling around with Ginevra himself, on the sly. Ariodante says if that if Polinesso can prove this, he'll kill himself. But if he can't prove it, Ariodante will kill Polinesso. Polinesso tells him to hide behind a tree, and watch.

Before long, Dalinda opens Ginevra's door, dressed in Ginevra's clothes, and quietly lets Polinesso in. Watching this, Ariodante sees exactly what Polinesso wanted him to see, and he draws his sword to stab himself. But Lurcanio steps out of hiding and stops him, saying it's better to stay alive and get revenge than to kill himself over an unfaithful woman.

The next day, at the King's court, there's bad news. Word comes that Ariodante has been seen plunging from a cliff into the ocean, and is dead. When Ginevra hears this, she faints and is taken away. Lurcanio then arrives, bitterly claiming that his brother's death is Ginevra's fault. He produces a sworn statement that he personally witnessed Ginevra betraying Ariodante with Polinesso, and says he'll defend his statement against anyone who would stand up for Ginevra's honor. The King immediately summons Ginevra back to the court — and disowns her. Not knowing what she's done wrong, Ginevra falls into a tormented sleep, dreaming of the Furies.

But as ACT THREE begins, it seems that Ariodante has survived. If he actually did fall off a cliff into the ocean, it must have been a short drop — because now we find Ariodante wandering in the woods, where he discovers a frantic Dalinda. She's being chased by two men who are trying to kill her before she reveals her role in Polinesso's plot. Ariodante saves Dalinda from her pursuers, and she tells him the truth: Ginevra has been faithful to him all along.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Ginevra is sentenced to death for her supposed disloyalty. To everyone's surprise, that champion turns out to be Polinesso himself. He and Lurcanio joust, and Polinesso is mortally wounded. Then another champion arrives on the scene. This time, it's Ariodante, who tells everyone what he has just learned from Dalinda. To confirm the story, Polinesso confesses as he dies.

Ginevra's reputation is saved. She and Ariodante can now be married, after all. And at the King's urging, Dalinda agrees to marry Lurcanio. The opera ends as everyone celebrates the double wedding.

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