Recently (and happy belated New Year all around, by the way!), I was asked by a conductor – who shall remain anonymous, for his own discretion – what it was that appealed to me so much about baroque opera. And I explained that thanks to baroque opera and its Affektenlehre, I had a life-changing experience; a revelation, if you want to call it that. And here, finally, after many many months of silence, I will attempt to describe the opera that caused this. Of course, one might ask: “Why, on Earth, is a life-changing experience on spot number 8, rather than number 1?” Well, if the answer to that question isn’t obvious… let me make it obvious: Clearly, an even stronger experience lies in the first spots of the list! And let me make yet another warning, before we move on to the actual spoilers: Though I am a mediocre writer, not a genius, but at least I know my way around the written word, and can write about pretty much anything, when it comes to describing an extremely personal experience that involves a lot of emotions, the words simply fail me. That is probably what will happen in this case as well, so, I would beg of you, dear reader, to be less criticizing about this entry, than of any other.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU DO NOT WANT ME TO BREAK THE SPELL ABOUT THIS PARTICULAR OPERA, CHECK IT OUT BEFORE READING ON!
In case the title of the entry isn’t making it clear to everyone about which opera I am talking about, here it comes: it’s Ariodante! For some reason, the first five years of the 1730’s for Handel, drew inspiration from Ariosto’s brilliant epic “L’ Orlando Furioso”. Within three years he composed three operas based on episodes from that poem, with his first one – “Orlando” – being a flop, because the composer decided to stretch the boundaries of opera seria and music to the extremes, thus alienating his audience and his company! Obviously, “Orlando” is considered a groundbreaking composition by today’s musicologists… But, and even though I have seen a pretty awesome production of this particular opera, “Orlando” is not my concern here. In my mind it falls under the category of light entertainment, despite its’ mad scene and sci-fi themes.
Let me start by summarizing the plot in a simple and concise way: Act 1 plays out in the castle of the King of Scotland. His daughter, Ginevra, is courted by the Duke of Albany, Polinesso, a real badass and a noble knight, Ariodante. Needless to say, Ginevra despises the first one and is in love with the second. Thankfully, Ariodante reciprocates the feeling and because the King is also happy with this union, preparations are being made to marry the happy couple. Of course, Polinesso has other plans, and he uses the blind love of lady-in-waiting Dalinda, to make sure Ariodante gets out of the way. This unhappy woman is on her turn being courted by Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother. Just as his sibling, Lurcanio is honorable and noble and he too truly loves Dalinda, but, as is the case, she sends him packing… Anyway, Act 1 concludes with dance and relatively happy music, as the lovers prepare for the wedding that is to take place on the next day. Act 2 then begins outside a secret passage to Ginevra’s apartment, where Ariodante is waiting, unable to sleep. At this point Polinesso comes and mocks him, telling him that Ginevra is only pretending to love him and that, in truth, she prefers the Duke. Ariodante doesn’t believe him, but when the Duke enters the Princesses’ apartment and is welcomed with… warm feelings, the world shatters around Ariodante. Lurcanio also chances by this scene – which begs the question of how secret this passage to Ginevra’s apartment truly is – and tries to convince his brother not to commit suicide. He takes the latter’s sword away and leaves him alone in his desperation – which is yet another extremely clever thing to do, right? Ariodante disappears into the night, with thoughts of suicide still circling in his head. The next morning arrives and the news of Ariodante’s death reach the King of Scotland. He fears for his daughter’s wellbeing, but Lurcanio arrives and accuses Ginevra of infidelity, thus explaining the sudden urge of Ariodante to leave the country and perish at sea. Again, how it is possible to find a ship in the middle of the night ready to disembark, get on it, then have witnesses to the ship’s destruction in a storm, eludes me, but that is opera seria for you! Anyway, the King is flabbergasted by this accusation, but unfortunately he has to uphold the law and therefore places Ginevra under arrest, without explaining exactly why he is doing this. Ginevra, is of course innocent and understands nothing. She only knows that Ariodante is dead and she is being accused of a crime she didn’t commit, because – and here comes the clue – the “Ginevra” Ariodante thought he saw the previous night, was in fact Dalinda, dressed up as Ginevra. The act closes with Ginevra having nightmares. The third Act then begins by the seashore, where – surprise, surprise – the tormented hero is washed out by the sea, because not even the gods are willing to let Ariodante perish. He does demand an explanation from them, but they remain mysteriously silent; only dropping Dalinda in his path, who is being chased by two bad guys, intent on killing her. They obviously work for the Duke. Ariodante sends them packing, Dalinda is thankful and reveals everything and a rejoicing Ariodante takes the unhappy woman with him and they go to the palace. There, Polinesso appears as Ginevra’s champion against Lurcanio, hoping thus to win both the woman and the throne – not necessarily in that order. Again however, since Polinesso is in the wrong, Lurcanio subdues him, at which point a mysterious knight in shining armor appears wanting to defend Ginevra’s honor as well. But, Polinesso does the right thing in the end and just before he draws his last breath manages to confess the whole plot to the King’s confidante. The mysterious knight is none other than Ariodante – where he got the armor I do not know, because he wasn’t wearing it when he emerged from the sea! Happily the King declares his daughter innocent and leaves with Ariodante to the dungeons to free her. Lurcanio and Dalinda linger a while behind and in their sweet final scene we see that there is hope for them yet. Ariodante is reunited with Ginevra, their torments are past and all happily sing and dance of the joys of chaste and honorable love that defeats all evil! Happy endings all around us!
Well, that was that. The very simple plot, that is so see-through we know from the very first bar what is to happen. Good guy vs. bad guy; good guy wins and marries the trophy wife. End of story. So, what’s so special about this particular rendition of the all-to-familiar tale? Obviously, the music. It has a very dark and highly ironic character and the drama and pain of every hero is described magnificently through every aria. From Ginevra’s very first arioso, to Lurcanio’s and Dalinda’s final duet, no character is left undefined. And while one could even compartmentalize the heroes according to their music – Ariodante, Lurcanio, Ginevra and the King being the righteous ones, as opposed to Polinesso and Dalinda representing deceit – every individual has his own voice. The characterization is simply fantastic, with both the libretto and the music working towards a common goal: representing human passions in the most realistic of ways (no, it is not verismo yet!).
Still, even that, some might argue, has been achieved in a much better way by other composers. So, again, what is it that makes this opera so important to me? Apart from the fact that all art is a totally subjective kind of thing, it is the main protagonist of this particular story that is so very intriguing. Obviously he is the dream guy even I would accept to marry… He is honorable, valorous, truthful and a courteous lover. He is not interested in power and is reluctant to accept it – which makes him all the better. And – in my dreams of course – he is also extremely good looking! * Side note to self: Though many counter-tenors have sung this part, curiously, it is the mezzos that actually bring it to life for me. And when those mezzos have the looks of a Vesselina Kasarova or a Joyce DiDonato… well… I’d flip for them for sure! * And then, there is this tiny (ehem) little (ehem ehem) aria he sings at the beginning of act 2, that simply blows my mind away every single time I hear it.
In order to explain this feeling, I must make a digression. Before my experience with Ariodante in Munich, I had seen a number of operas since my childhood – even some one might consider slightly odd for a kid, like Lucia di Lammermoor (twice) or The Turn of the Screw. And I loved every crazy part of it – especially the death scenes. I mean, what can be more hilarious than the protagonist being stabbed to death and singing and singing and singing, without dying and then, eventually, drawing a last breath. Hilarious! No matter the music! So, this (mis)conception of mine made it impossible for me to feel during the opera. I simply expected the death scene, in order to delight in its absurdity. I never ever expected to be blown away by an opera, to be moved to tears by a hero, simply because I only saw the (tragi)comedy in the drama.
Enter Ariodante and his “Scherza infida”. That was that. The most simple of arias – because it is simple in every way – turned my whole world upside down. The simplicity of the orchestration, the numb melody on the bassoon (a brilliant choice by Handel by the way), the breath like accompaniment on the strings throughout the first section, the dynamic, elegiac tone of the second section, the – usually – very slow performance rhythm the conductors choose for it; all these things amass to an unexpected explosion of emotions in the attentive and open listeners’ soul. Add to that the truly sublime performance of Ann Murray that night and you can only begin to understand what I went through for fifteen minutes! I was a wreck, literally, when she finished. I couldn’t move, I was crying and applauding at the same time, I wanted this to never end, I wanted to stay in that moment for ever. And Ariodante wasn’t even dying in that scene! Hell, no, he returned triumphant and victorious; but not before singing yet another gripping piece of music: the sublime “Numi! Lasciarmi vivere?” a violent and accusing arioso towards the unkind gods, who refuse to allow the hero to perish. In Ariodante’s case, of course, the gods know better… Just as the listener does. Tragic irony in its best form. Simply glorious.
So, yes, a life changing experience at the opera house it was (hm, I should refrain from playing “Angry Birds: Star Wars” so often, I’m channeling Master Yoda…) An experience which, apart from opening my eyes to a whole new world and my ears to the magical world of baroque opera altogether, has had the added effect that I cannot go to the opera anymore and not cry. Even in comedies… I get crying at “La Traviata”, but crying at “Le nozze di Figaro” shouldn’t happen, right? Oh, well, I don’t care. And why should I? Opera is, after all, the greatest art form mankind has ever produced – and the goal is exactly that: to move people to tears and laughter, through the combination of music and word. There’s no shame in crying when something is so divinely said. And God knows Handel had mastered the trick of moving people to tears, whenever he felt like it…