Opera seria in three acts.
Libretto by Antonio Salvi after an incident in Lodovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516).
First performed at Covent Garden, London, on 8 January 1735
In the Scottish royal palace (Handel does not say exactly where this is in the text of the opera, but the libretto which was sold at performances clearly places it ‘in Edenburgh, and the Neighbouring Parts’), the king’s daughter Ginevra is sitting at a mirror with her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda, and various maids and pages are busy in the background.
Ginevre muses about wanting to appear attractive to her lover, Ariodante. Dalinda asks her if she is in love and whether the king will approve, and Ginevra says that her father is encouraging her love. Dalinda is pleased for her, but they are interrupted by the arrival of the slimy Polinesso, who arrogantly declares his passion for Ginevra. Ginevra responds with fury. She then storms off, leaving Polinesso and Dalinda alone. Dalinda, herself in love with Polinesso, tells him that his pursuit of Ginevra is pointless since she loves Ariodante and the king approves. She declares her own love for him and leaves, and Polinesso, who has set his heart on winning the throne, fumes that his political ambitions are going to be frustrated by Ginevra’s rejection. But Dalinda’s revelation has given him an idea about how he might prevent Ariodante from reaching the throne. In a sly aria, he reveals himself as an out-and-out villain.
The scene changes to the gardens of the palace. Ariodante introduces himself as a noble lover and observes how nature reflects the feelings in his heart and when Ginevra joins him, they pour out their love for one another in a rapturous duet. They are interrupted by the arrival of the king, but his interruption is welcome, because he tells Ariodante that he can think of no better husband for Ginevra, and then tells Ginevra to go and prepare for her marriage by filling her heart with happiness, her appearance with adornments and her hair with jewels. Ginevra is bubbling over with happiness. The king then sends a courtier, Odoardo, to prepare everything for the wedding the following day, and he turns to Ariodante and offers himself, his daughter and his throne to the young knight. After a noble aria, the king leaves and Ariodante is left alone; he muses on the storms which his heart had endured to reach this time of joy.
Polinesso and Dalinda enter and Polinesso tells her that he is going to abandon his passion for Ginevra and devote his attentions to Dalinda instead. She is delighted, and when he tells her that she must wait until Ginevra is asleep that evening, and then dress herself in the princess’s clothes, arrange her hair like Ginevra, and then admit him to the royal chamber, trying all the time to look just like her mistress, she agrees, commenting naively that you cannot deny anything to one who adores you.
Polinesso, having set up his dastardly plan, leaves, and Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother, now joins Dalinda. He praises her beauty and declares his love for her, but she says that she can never be his. Left alone, Dalinda now declares her own undying love, but for Polinesso, not Lurcanio.
Again, we meet Ariodante and Ginevra in the open air, this time, a lovely valley in the countryside. They repeat their vows of love to one another in an ardent duet and Ariodante welcomes groups of nymphs and shepherdesses (not often found in central Edinburgh today) who have come to help them celebrate their wedding.
Outside the palace that night: to one side there are ruined houses and to the other the royal palace walls with a secret door which leads to Ginevra’s rooms; there is moonlight. A brief sinfonia sets the scene. Polinesso is gloating about the way he has made use of Dalinda’s love to trap Ariodante. Ariodante comes along and Polinesso goads him into professing his love for Ginevra; Polinesso then tells him that he and Ginevra meet quite often to share the joys of love. Ariodante’s first reaction is to reach for his sword, but Polinesso tells him that he can prove what he has said and that Ariodante will see it with his own eyes. Lurcanio arrives, unseen by the others, and hides. Ariodante then challenges Polinesso to produce the proof – if he is lying, Ariodante will kill him.
Guided by Polinesso, Ariodante hides in the shadows, and he sees what he thinks is Ginevra open the door, embrace Polinesso and lead him inside. Shocked, Ariodante steps out of the shadows, pushes the pommel of his sword into the ground and is about to throw himself on the blade when Lurcanio emerges and restrains him. Lurcanio confiscates Ariodante’s sword and leaves, and Ariodante is left alone to muse on betrayal and infidelity before stumbling off in despair.
After a time, Polinesso and Dalinda emerge from the secret door and bid one another a fond farewell, Polinesso swearing that she will hear nothing but a lover’s words from him now. Dalinda naively responds to Polinesso, but she cannot quite believe the way her life and love is turning out and her plaintive tone belies the positiveness of her words. Polinesso, of course, does not give a toss what she thinks. As soon as she has gone, he gloats over his victory.
The scene changes to a gallery in the palace.
The king declares to the court that he has decided to make Ariodante his heir, but Odoardo enters and announces that Ariodante is dead, explaining that Ariodante’s squire has just brought the terrible news that his master has thrown himself into the sea. The king says that he wishes to speak to the squire in order to discover the reason for this inexplicable behaviour.
In Ginevra’s chambers, the princess is filled with foreboding and expresses her fears to Dalinda. The king enters her apartments and gently tells her that Ariodante is dead: Dalinda begins to suspect what has happened, but Ginevra faints. Lurcanio comes in and the king tries to console him about the death of his brother, but Lurcanio has another agenda – he has come for vengeance on the one who caused Ariodante’s death. The king is amazed at this, but when he learns that Lurcanio is accusing his daughter, he is dumbfounded. Lurcanio hands the king a proclamation on which he states that Ginevra admitted a lover to her chamber the previous night and that he will fight anyone who comes forward to defend her honour.
Odoardo and Dalinda observe what a change has come over Ginevra, but the king disowns her and follows Lurcanio out. Ginevra has recovered from her faint, but is now almost delirious with incomprehension. She launches into a despairing lament, a wild piece of free-fall non-aria, before subsiding into a full-scale mad scene aria. Handel originally ended the act here but the availability of ballet dancers gave him the opportunity to end this act, like the first, with a ballet which is entirely relevant to the story. Ginevra’s tortured mind is depicted in a sequence of four connected ballets – the Entry of the Benign Dreams, the Entry of the Malevolent Dreams, the Entry of the Affrighted Benign Dreams, and the Battle of the Malevolent and Benign Dreams. At the end of it, Ginevra wakes with a start and observes that even in sleep she can find no comfort from her distress.
In a forest, Ariodante, who is not dead, is in disguise and he wonders why he has not died. Suddenly, he encounters Dalinda who is trying to escape from two men who are trying to kill her. He drives them off, and then Dalinda recognises him – his disguise was a bit of a waste of time. He tells her that he is alive, but no thanks to a faithless woman, and Dalinda pours out the whole story of Polinesso’s deception, her unwitting part in it, and Ginevra’s innocence. Ariodante immediately sets off with Dalinda in tow. Now that he knows the truth, Ariodante’s misery is compounded by the thought of the wrong that he has done by assuming that Ginevra was guilty. Before she sets off after him, Dalinda muses on her own predicament: she trusted Polinesso’s love, but he abused her loyalty and then tried to have her murdered.
The scene changes to the royal gardens again.
Ginevra’s execution is set up and Odoardo pleads with the king to give in to Ginevra’s request that she be permitted to kiss his hand before dying. The king refuses, saying that unless a champion knight steps forward to defend her honour, she will not be allowed even to see her father again. Polinesso announces that he will be Ginevra’s champion.
Now that a champion has appeared, the king calls for Ginevra to be brought out, and she arrives, heavily guarded, and simply asks to be allowed to kiss the king’s hand before going to her death. He sadly agrees. He is moved, and reassures her that although she is in great danger, she now has a champion, and if he wins, she will be proved innocent. She asks who her champion is and the king tells her. Horrified, she tries to refuse Polinesso’s defence, but the king has no choice in the matter now. The king leaves, and Ginevra is left alone with her guards: she contemplates her imminent death.
The action moves to the lists where the tournament between Lurcanio and Polinesso is about to begin. They throw abuse at one another and the king is almost beside himself with anxiety. Musically, the fight is an anticlimax – it is almost as if there is some music missing, because Polinesso very quickly calls out that he is dying and the kings orders Odoardo to escort him from the field. Lurcanio calls out to any other aspiring champions to fight for Ginevra’s name and the king himself is about to step forward when Ariodante, unrecognisable with his visor down, appears and declares that she is innocent. Instead of entering the lists to fight his brother, however, he reveals his identity and explains the whole story, producing Dalinda to confess her unwitting part in the plot. Odoardo returns to say that Polinesso has died but that he confessed all before he did so, and the king forgives everyone before rushing off to tell his daughter what has happened.
Lurcanio, relieved that his brother is safe, repeats his profession of love for Dalinda, and she accepts him this time, but on condition that her innocence in the affair is accepted by all.
The scene changes to Ginevra’s cell: she is the only person who does not know that she has been completely exonerated, that her tormentor is dead, and that her lover is alive. She believes that she is still hovering between life and death, but she still hopes that her death will bring her sweet release. Her sadness is quickly broken by a bright fanfare as the king, Ariodante, Lurcanio, Dalinda and Odoardo burst in with the good news. At first, she cannot believe it, but one by one they each ask her forgiveness for the way they have behaved towards her. The lovers are reunited, Dalinda finally accepts Lurcanio’s proposal and the king announces a general celebration, and everyone departs, leaving Ariodante and Ginevra alone for a duet on the triumph of love before the final chorus repeats the general joy.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
- A full description and analysis of the arias in Handel’s Ariodante
- How to survive an opera seria: the conventions of the da capo aria, the craze for Italian opera in London and the dominance of the castrato singers
- Handel’s life and operas
- Lodovico Ariosto’s life
- Operas based on Ariosto’s poems
- What happened to the characters in Handel’s Ariodante after the curtain falls?
- The singers who created Handel’s Ariodante
- What makes Handel’s Ariodante a great opera?
- ‘Berwick – gateway to Italy’: the Scottish element in Handel’s Ariodante
- and much, much more
© Roger Witts 2009