Ariodante was the first of the six great operas Handel wrote for the new Covent Garden Playhouse in London after his long association with the King’s Theatre in Haymarket. The theatre in Covent Garden was the best in London, fitted out with the profits of The Beggar’s Opera (ironically, as this was a parody of Handel’s Italian opera!), and it opened with Congreve’s magnificent comedy The Way of The World. The best theatre of the age was presented in the same space as the most refined opera.

Jonathan Peter Kenny and Claire Ormshaw in Ariodante
Jonathan Peter Kenny and Claire Ormshaw in Ariodante
It is, indeed, one of the clearest, most Shakespearean dramas Handel set to music. His ingenious reworking of a libretto by Salvi, based on a small section of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, makes for a deeply felt, well constructed musical drama independent of any history, class association, or location. It is a straightforward story of sexual jealousy, as bitter and stimulating, as hot and cold as that always is. The musical treatment is anything but straightforward and shows many new influences at work; one need but contrast the apparent simplicity and emotional directness of the opera’s most famous aria, “Scherza Infida” (Love Undying), with the refined treatment of the Neapolitan craze for syncopation in two of Ariodante’s other arias, “Con l’ali di costanza” (On Fancy’s Wings I’m Soaring) and “Dopo Notte” (Sorrow Passes). Ariodante is certainly the mature work of one of the greatest creators of lyric opera theatre.

When the opera was written, it is reckoned that approximately 40% of the women of London were prostitutes, women were either rigidly virtuous or without reputation – either good or bad, in the eyes of some in society. It was terrifyingly easy to fall through the net, to fall out of acceptable society, to lose all comfort and companionship. To be in society is to be marriageable, to be seen as good, to be rewarded with the presentation of a silver tray: to have fallen out of polite society is to be a whore, to be seen only in reflection, even so grotesquely as portrayed in paintings of the period, in which men view beneath women’s skirts by looking at a reflection in a silver tray.

Ariodante, set on the wintry Scottish coast, shows us what happens love is forgotten, and sensuality is considered impure. It starts in a snug parlour, where every happy value seems to be celebrated. Within hours the daughter of the house is falsely accused of immorality, and cast out by her father, her husband-to-be, and her friends. Her traducer is the man she has rejected, and who makes a compact with the devil in order to gain her love.

Love denied is a terrible thing, turning our brightest thoughts to darkness – and Ariodante is a musical world of the brightest hopes, the sweetest innocence and harmony, clashing with the wildest seas, the darkest thoughts, and the most harrowing journey back to light.

These notes and photo were kindly contributed by English Touring Opera, whose production of Ariodante opens in London at the Britten Theatre (Royal College of Music) in London on Saturday 24th October 2009, before touring nationally through November. Anne Marie Gibbons and Jonathan Peter Kenny recreate their triumphant performances from Opera Theatre Company’s acclaimed production as the hero and his alter ego, one of the most credible and depraved villains operatic villains. English Touring Opera’s strong production, set amongst a dissenting Scottish sect in the early nineteenth century, recalls Brontë novels and Nordic paintings.