In 1734 Handel moved his opera company from the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket to John Rich’s new Theatre Royal at Covent Garden. The advantages of the latter house included the availability of a small chorus and the presence of the dancer Marie Sallé, whom Rich had initially brought over from Paris to his theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Ariodante opened on January 8, 1735, followed by Alcina on April 16. Both operas were based on “Orlando furioso”, the epic poem by Ariosto first published in 1516.
Ariodante is an excellent starting-point for anyone new to Handelian opera. The plot is strong and reasonably credible. The drama moves swiftly, too, Handel sometimes confounding one’s expectations: Ginevra is so incensed by Polinesso’s advances that her aria kicks off with no instrumental introduction, while the da capo reprise of the first duet for Ginevra and Ariodante is charmingly interrupted by the King.
Handel revived the opera in 1736, with many changes. This recording is of the version as first staged, with a couple of exceptions: the King’s aria in Act 2 is replaced by a siciliano; the dances at the end of the same act are dropped in favour of the sequence later transferred to Alcina; and the Gavotte in Act 3, already heard in the Overture, gives way to a Rondeau. All these pieces were discarded before the premiere.
Ariodante is sung by the wonderful Joyce DiDonato. “Con l’ali di costanza” is taken at quite a lick: fair enough, as the reference is to Cupid’s wings. In “Scherza infida”, with its mournful bassoon, DiDonato has the full measure of Ariodante’s despair. Only “Dopo notte” fails to impress fully, partly because the violins’ attack on the first note is rather weedy and partly because the reprise is more rewritten than embellished.
There are no weaknesses in the rest of the cast. Alan Curtis directs with his customary stylishness and, in the “Ballo di ninfe…”, a nice touch of rustic phrasing. The harpsichord could be more prominent but otherwise the balance is good.