Ariodante: Premiere of a Baroque Opera Hit – I.Part

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With Ariodante, the Vienna State Opera once more focuses on baroque composer Georg Friedrich Handel: The piece, written for the London Opera house Covent Garden, was first successfully performed in 1735 – and now, about 280 years later, can be heard at the Vienna State Opera for the first time. Here is a short outline of the work and production.

In retrospect, everything seems very simple. However, in the course of his work, quite some disillusionment emerged from the feuds and the struggle for success. Often happenings in opera history have not been as definite and logical at the specific moment, as they seem to us today. When for example, Georg Friedrich Handel integrated the Italian Opera in London for the first time during the first term of the 18th century, substantial problems regarding finances and occupancy piled up, in addition to several raging opera struggles and flickering intrigues. The success of the English Opera certainly was not self-evident, but constantly called for pioneering spirit, courage and support. The latter, amongst others, came from the King himself, who subsidised and promoted an institution called Royal Academy of Music, which took care of (Handel’s) opera performances.

But that was not enough. Since the rebellious aristocracy, who had disagreements with the King, founded their own opera, the Nobility Opera organisation, the cultural counter event, which was intended to compete against the royal undertaking. Composers and opera entrepreneurs easily got caught between two chairs and in the political mills! And not only this: because, at that time already, prominent singer names were the absolute key issue of the opera business, many singers played at high stakes, had their performance glorified and pestered their contractors and composers with their requirements, escapades and high fees. Famous castrates and renowned sopranos had the opera world at their feet – and all had to serve them. And last, but not least, there was another popular rival, like a cheeky successful play called The Beggar’s Opera, which parodied the conventional opera, had substantial gain in audience and made life difficult for conventional opera operators.

Georg Friedrich Handel worked amidst these different periods of tension and challenges: between major and minor successes, all sorts of disputes behind the scenes and occasional financial problems, he wrote one opera after the other and became a leading name in the London society. In 1711, his opera Rinaldo was performed in London; in 1723, he was appointed court composer of the Chapel Royal, even before he became an English citizen. A long list of operas for England emerged: Radamisto and Ottone, Tamerlano and Ezio, Alcina and Giustino. The main singers performed for him, his opera’s “main domicile” initially was the renowned King’s Theatre. But then there was a sudden change: The King’s Theatre was leased to the competition, which did not only take over the premises, but also many of the star singers. Handel now had to look for a new location – and for new attractions. And he found what he searched for at the newly established Covent Garden Theatre.

However, all the battles had left their mark: Handel was not only under financial pressure, but also physically weakened. So much so, that in public there were even rumours about his alleged withdrawal from London. But nothing like that happened. To regain his spirits, Handel went for a spa-treatment, recovered – and resumed the struggle. For his next opera – Ariodante, performed in Scotland, he used familiar topics of Ludovico Ariosts, namely an episode of the 5th and 6th song of the comprehensive Orlando furioso epos. Librettist Antonio Salvi once in 1708, in Florence, carved an opera text from individual plot elements – and it may be assumed, that Handel still knew the libretto from this time. Anyway, he now made use of it and set it to music within about 10 weeks. A special feature were the ballet interludes by famous French dancer Marie Sallé, which were included in strategic places, as well as the appointment of coveted castrate Giovanni Carestini. The première on 8 January 1735 at the Covent Garden Theatre became a success and was also attended by the royal couple – although only an average number of spectators was reported in subsequent performances. Anyway, Ariodante – even though it is always mentioned as one of those works that appeals to both, an opera-literate and a somewhat less experienced audience – disappeared from the (London) repertoire and did not reappear until the twentieth century.

Today Ariodante is often played, as reflected in many recordings and current productions. And even music-enthusiasts, who do not know the opera yet, will prick up their ears in one of the hits of this colourful and multifaceted work, saying “Ah, this is where it comes from!”: Scherza infida. It is an aria of the broken Ariodante, who sings about lost love, grief and despair that torment his heart.

Next week: Part II will provide information about the new production at the Vienna State Opera.

Source: Oliver Lang, Prolog Februar 2018, Nr 216

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