Ariodante, an age old tale of obsession and betrayal, gets a facelift in a new production presented this month by Juilliard Opera. Handel’s searing melodrama about false accusations, princesses, jousting knights, and a last-minute rescue won’t be just another period piece, said director Stephen Wadsworth, who joins forces on this production with conductor Gary Thor Wedow, but a close look at human interaction. The opera, which premiered in London in 1735, promises to be not only electrifying in its musical virtuosity, but also in the intense character-driven plot.
When Handel created this masterwork he was under extreme pressure. The Opera of the Nobility (a company supported by the Prince of Wales and set up by nobles who were unimpressed by Handel’s success as a commercial composer) had started stealing Handel’s best singers and presenting works from competing composers. With the aid of King George II, Handel was able to premiere his work at the newly established Covent Garden Opera house, with tremendous success. The great, modern stage—which featured a trap door for exciting entrances and exits and also allowed for large spectacles like ballet sequences—helped Handel create a piece that had a successful run of 12 performances. After all this, though, the opera (one of Handel’s opera seria compositions) fell into obscurity for some 200 years. In the 1970s it began to make a comeback and the work has been performed around the world ever since.
Ariodante is based on a work by the librettist Antonio Salvi, which in turn was taken from an epic poem by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto, titled Orlando Furiouso. Ariosto, a writer in the employment of the noble Este family, wrote this poem during his travels with the family during 1505-1532. It tells the tale of Orlando and his unrequited love of Angelica, an Indian princess. Orlando Furiouso is considered to be one of the great literary works to come from the Italian Renaissance.
The opera is set in the highlands of Scotland and centers on the story of Ginevra (daughter of the King of Scotland) and her lover, Ariodante. The intrigue begins when Polinesso, a nobleman in the court, decides that he wants Ginevra as his bride. He uses her maid, Dalinda, in a plot to convince Ariodante that Ginevra is unfaithful to him. Ariodante, fooled by Polinesso’s scheme, walks off into the woods to kill himself. On his way, he runs into Dalinda (who had unwittingly helped Polinesso in his plot) trying to escape from assassins Polinesso had sent to silence her. Ariodante saves her life and in return for this chivalrous act she tells him all she knows about Polinesso’s deception.
In the meantime, Ginevra has been disowned by her father and needs someone to fight for her honor or else she will be put to death. Polinesso steps forward as her champion and faces off against Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio, who wounds Polinesso mortally. The king, seeing there is no one to fight for his daughter, prepares to step forward in her aid. In the knick of time Ariodante enters the scene with Dalinda and reveals Polinesso’s plot. Polinesso confesses his guilt before he dies. With that the king pardons his daughter and gives his blessing for the marriage between the two young lovers.
With all this drama on stage, Wadsworth and his team have been very deliberate in creating a production that is not period styled, but rather set in modern times so as not to detract from the interpersonal relationships between the players on stage. “All the characters in Ariodante are closely tied together in mutual and mutually exclusive wants and needs,” Wadsworth said in a recent interview. “Psychology is a fact of Handel’s work; sometimes productions in modern dress make this more immediate [and] more clearly visible to an audience.”
For Wedow, this experience isn’t just for the audience but also for the young singers at Juilliard to really sink their teeth into a new staple of the international opera repertory. The style of music is demanding not only in what is required vocally, but also in the amount of emotional connection each singer is expected to have. In an interview for a Vocal Arts Department newsletter, Wedow said that the “music is as intensely emotional as any Puccini aria or [a] Janis Joplin song and should be performed at this emotional pitch.” It is the music that will help keep the drama moving forward and the audience intrigued.
When Wedow and Wadsworth were asked why they think audiences will be keen to watch this production, their enthusiasm is palatable. For Wedow, Handel has something to offer to everyone musically, and Ariodante presents a “roller coaster of human emotions.” He noted, “Whatever emotion or dramatic scene is being explored, be certain that a dazzling change is about to occur.” And in the end that is what Handel was best at—getting an audience to wait and invest in that moment of change, that instant when anything can happen.