Music by George Frideric Handel
Libretto from Antonio Salvi's 1708 Ginevra principessa di Scozia
First performed at Covent Garden, London
Sung in Italian with English Supertitles


Princess Ginevra, soprano Signora Strada Rosemary Joshua (Wales)
Dalinda, soprano Miss Young Christine Brandes (USA)*
Polinesso, contralto Signora Maria Negri

David Walker, countertenor (USA)*

Ariodante, mezzo-soprano Signor Carestini, castrato Vivica Genaux (USA)
The King of Scotland, bass Mr. Waltz Julien Robbins (USA)
Odoardo, tenor Mr. Stopelaer Andrew Truett (USA)+
Lurcanio, tenor Mr. Beard Bruce Fowler (USA)
Conductor Kenneth Montgomery (Ireland)
Director   John Copley (England)

* San Diego Opera début
+ San Diego Opera Ensemble alumnus


Ariodante = ah-ree-oh-DAHN-teh Odoardo = oh-doh-AHR-doh
Ginevra = djee-EHV-rr Handel = HEHN-dehl
Polinesso = poh-lee-NEHS-so Genaux = djeh-NOH


One of the reasons Handel operas went unheard for so long was the lack of voices suitable for singing the higher-voiced male roles. Not only are these pitched too high for most men, but they also require a great deal of flexibility, not formerly part of the training for most male singers. In the latter part of the twentieth century, women singers such as American mezzo-sopranos Marilyn Horne, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Vivica Genaux reintroduced the works to modern audiences but, while audiences were willing to hear women portraying young boys and men in traditional trouser roles such as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro or Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, they were slower to accept them as the great historic and mythical heroes of Handel's operas. A solution was to transpose the roles for lower voices. For example, the great American bass-baritone, Norman Treigle, sang the title role, originally written for a male alto, in Handel's Giulio Cesare.

With the emergence of the countertenor as a generally accepted voice category, we have another choice. While Vivica Genaux sings the role of the heroic knight, Ariodante in San Diego Opera's production, the role of the villain, Polinesso (ironically originally written for a woman), is being sung by American countertenor, David Walker.

The true countertenor is a natural tenor (more rarely a baritone) with an extended range at the top. With training and practice this higher range, similar to that of a woman alto, becomes the 'natural' voice, the one in which they are the most comfortable, and the one in which they produce their best sound. They find the chest voice in the lower part of the tenor range difficult to produce satisfactorily.

At first it was thought that the high countertenor voice was suitable for chamber opera, songs and oratorios but it was too weak to project in large opera houses. Modern countertenors have disproved this. David Daniels can fill the 4,000+ seat Metropolitan Opera House with ease.

Another way for a man to sing in a high range is to use falsetto. While true countertenors, who sing in the alto range, do not do this, male sopranos must usually use some falsetto. There are a few 'natural' baritones who sing countertenor, but most of these also use some falsetto.

In the twentieth century, roles began to be written specifically for the countertenor voice, notably that of Alfred Deller (1912-1979). Modern composers who wrote for this voice include Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Philip Glass and Aribert Reimann.

Orlando Furioso

[The libretto for Handel's Ariodante was crafted by an anonymous poet from Antonio Salvi's Ginevra, principessa de Scozia which was based upon the great Italian epic, Orlando Furioso. The following article outlines the scope of this great poem by Ariosto. - NMR]

"Le donne, i cavalier, l'arme, gli amori , le cortesie, l'audace impreso io canto." ("I sing of knights and ladies, of love and arms, of chivalry, of courageous deeds.")

So begins Lodovico Ariosto's epic poem Orlando furioso (Orlando Maddened), one of the great masterpieces of Italian Renaissance literature and the source for many operas, including Handel's Ariodante.

The root of the Orlando (Roland) story is historical. In 778, the Emperor Charlemagne led an expedition against the Saracens in Spain, conquering several cities there before recrossing the Pyrenees on his way back to France. Most of his army got through the pass of Roncesvalles successfully, but the rear guard was ambushed and annihilated. One of those slain was a certain Roland. That much is history. The story of Roland and his defeat became the stuff of many legends which were recorded at the end of the eleventh-century Old French epic La Chanson de Roland. In it Roland is the governor of the March (Frontier) of Breton and the nephew of Charlemagne. The battle described in the Chanson is fiction.

The stories spread throughout Europe, becoming more and more embellished. Roland became the perfect knight, totally loyal to his sovereign. His story became intertwined with the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. At the same time it became a subject for puppet shows, traveling actors and troubadours. At the end of the fifteenth century, Matteo Maria Boiardo wrote his Orlando innamorato (Orlando in Love), which remained unfinished at his death in1494. It tells of the beautiful Angelica who comes to Charlemagne's court with her brother. Orlando and Rinaldo both fall in love with her, and most of the poem deals with their adventures in pursuit of her. Other characters are woven in, including Bradamante, Rinaldo's sister who is in love with Ruggiero, a descendent not only of Alexander the Great, but also of the Hector of the Iliad. It is prophesied that they shall found the Este family, one of the greatest in Renaissance Italy and the patrons of both Boiardo and Ariosto. Boiardo wrote in a provincial Italian which did not find a wide audience.

A few years later, Ariosto wrote Orlando furioso in the language of Florence, the model for modern Italian. His epic is longer that the Iliad and the Odyssey combined and, along with Dante, Ariosto is one of the most quoted of all Italian poets. Orlando furioso continues the tale of these characters. Orlando goes mad because Angelica does not return his love. Despite its name, Ariosto's poem is more about the trials of Bradamante and Ruggiero. (We first meet Bradamante in disguise as a knight who has many adventures before she is discovered.) Along the way we meet many other characters: knights and their ladies, sorcerers and witches, Christians and pagans, and we learn their stories. The story of Ariodante and Guinevere is told in a few pages. It starts as the hosts gather at the foot of the Pyrenees to begin their expedition against Spain. When the French army suffers defeat, Charlemagne sends Rinaldo to Britain for reinforcements. He is blown ashore in Scotland, a land known for Arthur and his knights of the Round table, including Lancelot, Tristan, and Galahad, whose exploits are still remembered. (The geography in Orlando furioso is rather strange. Shakespeare's Forest of Arden is in France!). Rinaldo rides off through the forest and comes upon an abbey where he is told of the plight of Guinevere, the daughter of the Scottish king. A certain Lurcanio has accused her of receiving a lover in the dead of night. According to Scottish law, such an accusation will lead to her death unless, within a month, a knight comes forth to defend her in trial by combat with her accuser. The king has proclaimed that any man who defended his daughter would win her as a wife. The monks urge Rinaldo to be the knight that defends Guinevere, and he agrees. In his opinion, the only fault of the princess is that she did not manage to conceal her secret. The law is a bad law, and he will see it is overthrown.

As Rinaldo, accompanied by a squire and riding his steed, Bayard, travels through the forest, they hear the cries of a damsel in distress. Two men are trying to kill her, but they flee when they see the knight coming to her rescue. She then tells her story.

Her name is Dalinda, and she was in the service of the king's daughter when she began an affair with Polynex, the Duke of Albany. She received him by dropping a rope ladder from the balcony of the princess, up which he could climb for their rendezvous. The princess often slept in another room, and they used her bed. Their affair had been going on for several months when Polynex confessed to Dalinda that he was in love with Guinevere and asked her help to win the princess. Dalinda was willing to do anything which might gain the Duke's favor. However, Guinevere was in love with a foreign knight, Ariodant, who had come to Scotland with his younger brother Lurcanio. He was more skilled than all the knights of Britain and a favorite of the king. Since he and Guinevere were madly in love, Dalinda's pleas to the princess on behalf of Polynex were in vain and, in her blind love, she agreed to his iniquitous plan. She would dress in the princess's gown as she admitted him to Guinevere's chamber.

Polynex confronted Ariodant telling him he was wrong in believing Guinevere loved him. He would prove that he, Polynex, was not only her true love, but also the recipient of his favors. If he would watch from hiding Ariodant could see for himself. To make sure he was not being lured into a trap, Ariodant brought his brother, Lurcanio, with him. There they saw what they were expected to — Dalinda disguised as Guinevere receiving Polynex with open arms. Ariodant was so distraught he tried to kill himself then and there but was prevented by Lurcanio. The next morning he disappeared and, a week later, word was brought that he had thrown himself into the sea and drowned. A sorrowing Lurcanio then went to the king and told him how they had seen 'Guinevere' with Polynex. The king does not believe his daughter is guilty, but he has no choice; if no knight comes forth to defend her by fighting Lurcanio, she must die. The evil Polynex advised Dalinda to go into hiding to prevent her being questioned by the king and sent two men to assassinate.

Rinaldo resolves to defend the unjustly accused princess and travels to St. Andrew's, the capital of Scotland. There he learns that another, unknown, knight has arrived and, as Polynex watches and gloats over Guinevere's plight, has engaged in a fight with Lurcanio. Rinaldo asks the king to suspend the fight until he can tell his tale, then proceeds to relate Dalinda's story. He will prove the truth by fighting Polynex himself. Witnessed by the unknown knight, Rinaldo defeats Polynex, who confesses his wrongdoing before dying. When the stranger removes his helmet he is revealed to be Ariodant himself, who has survived his leap into the sea. Guinevere is freed, the lovers are reunited, and Ariodant is made the Duke of Albany. Rinaldo begs the king to forgive for Dalinda, and she leaves Scotland to become a nun in Denmark. Ariodant becomes a knight almost as brave and well-known as Rinaldo. Thus ends the story of Ariodant and Guinevere who, presumably, lived happily ever after.

The stories in Orlando furioso were the source for many operas. The first to use the story of Ariodant and Guinevere was Antonio Salvi, whose Ginevra, Principessa di Scozia, was set to music by Jacopo Antonio Perti (1661-1756). Simon Mayr, Donizetti's teacher, wrote Ginerva di Scozia, the last of roughly a dozen versions of the story. Oblique references are also made to the book in many operas. For example, in Mozart's Così fan tutte, the name Fiordiligi and the mention of the rarity of the phoenix, are both references to Orlando furioso which many of Mozart's contemporaries would have understood.

Ariosto started as a Latin poet but Orlando furioso was written in Italian. He said he would rather be one of the first writers in Tuscan (Italian) than barely the second among those who wrote in Latin. He learned French and Spanish and inserted several stories in those languages. Orlando stresses love more than war and makes fun of chivalric manners. It was written to amuse and is full of magic, strange beasts, and enchantments. Just occasionally it waxes on the philosophical. It was published three times in his lifetime, the definitive final edition in 1532; another version appeared in 1545 after his death. The first English translation in was in 1591, during the time of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare, and may have influenced the play Much Ado About Nothing.

London Theatres

When Handel arrived in 1710, England was a country in political and social turmoil, facing the possibility of another civil war. It was the first country in Europe to have open, uncensored debate between political parties. The royal court was no longer the center of social life. Instead there were clubs, coffee-houses and theatres. The beautiful people were no longer just the nobility but included doctors, artists, musicians, bankers, and others. Opera became the leading performing arts genre, and Handel was its leading composer. In contrast to Europe, there was no strict separation of classes in theatres. An exception was the upper level which was still for the lower classes. The presence of the king at a performance was essential to the success of an opera company. George I attended regularly, subscribed a substantial amount, and gave gifts to artists.

Multiple theatres had been abolished by the Puritans, and when Charles II returned in 1660, he granted patents for only two. They were dependent on ticket sales for income. When Handel arrived they were the Drury Lane (1674) and Queen's, Haymarket, (1705). In 1714 they were joined by the King's Theatre, associated mostly with Italian opera. Covent Garden opened in 1732.

From the time of the founding of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719, Handel had been the "Master of Musick" for the only company allowed to produce Italian opera in England. He was given a warrant to travel abroad in search of singers, especially the castrato Senesino who:

...had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with a perfect intonation and an excellent shake [trill]. His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled....He sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner. His countenance was well adapted to the stage, and his action was natural and noble. To these qualities he joined a majestic figure; but his aspect and deportment were more suited to the part of a hero than of a lover.

In 1726 competition arose. John Gay's The Beggars Opera (1728), which parodied opera seria, was extremely popular. Not only was it was contemporary, but it was in English, making it more accessible to ordinary people. By 1729 Handel's company was in trouble. He regrouped, but his success was limited.

Frederick, Prince of Wales, disliked Handel because he was so popular with his parents and sisters. He and a group of nobles formed the "Opera for the Nobility" at the King's Theatre. He took all the best singers, including the famous castrati, Farinelli and Senesino. This competition added to Handel's difficulties. The King and Queen continued their support but he soon faced bankruptcy.

He became associated with the new Covent Garden Theatre and, while waiting for it to be built, started to compose Ariodante. This theatre, which was equipped with the latest equipment, opened in November 1734 with Il pastor fido. In January, the new work, Ariodante, was produced. While it was well received, the competition hurt it. Ironically Ariodante was one of the pieces played during the festivities for the wedding of Handel's chief competitor, the Prince of Wales.

Performance Practices

Spectacular scenery was achieved by a set of movable wings on either side of the stage, with flying borders and backdrops to complete the picture. Curtains did not fall at the end of each act until the middle of the eighteenth century; scene changes were made in full view of the audience. Lighting was much more variable than we would expect. House lights and stage lights could be raised out of sight. Other lights could be dipped or rotated to hide their beams. Footlights could be raised or lowered.

There was no stage director as such. That function was often performed by the librettist who provided diagrams showing where everyone should stand. Not much real direction was necessary. Stage actions were stylized, consisting mostly of arm and facial movements. Big arias were delivered by singers standing at the front of the stage and addressing the audience. Some operas, including Ariodante used extensive dancing. Musical rehearsals frequently took place in the composer's home with visitors attending. Conductors did not exist. First performances were usually led by the composers, later ones by the player at the keyboard.

We are accustomed to seeing women play the part of young men, the so-called trouser roles. In Handel's time, even less attention was paid to matching the sex of the role and that of the singer. In England there was no ban on women singers nor an onus associated with their appearing on stage. In the original production of Ariodante, the women's roles of Ginevra and Dalinda were sung by women. Ariodante was sung by a castrato mezzo. Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, was sung by a woman. For one new opera, Handel requested a woman mezzo and a male soprano. This did not bother audiences at all. They demanded singers who could astound and were enamored of high voices, expecting them for all important roles. Only the minor men's roles were sung by men (tenors and basses). Yet, Handel sometimes broke the rules. For some of his operas, Tamerlano for example, he went contrary to custom and assigned important roles to tenors. He also did something which would have been considered sacrilegious earlier. When the action demanded it, he broke off some arias before they were finished. And horror!, he even wrote out the repeat of da capo arias rather than leaving the ornamentation to the singers. He also experimented with the da capo form itself, sometimes using grand da capo: A1 A2 B A1 A2. He sometimes even used an orchestral accompaniment for the recitatives.

Most of the singers in Italian opera in England were Italians, both men and women. It was acknowledged that Italian singers were better trained and more talented; audiences thought the English howled. Altogether, there were about 320 Italian instrumentalists, composers, librettists, singers, dancers and scene designers dominating musical life in Handel's London. The only English musicians who had much of a chance in London opera had played in Italy. However, the imported Italian singers were sometimes suspected of Papist leaning. The son and grandson of the last Roman Catholic King, the deposed James II, were still alive. The people feared Catholic plots. The grandson, Charles, the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie), had many adherents in Britain, especially among the Scots. There was a serious proposal to add an Act of Parliament which would force foreign entertainers to "adjure the Devil, the Pope, and the Pretender, before they appear in Publick". (Prince Charles was defeated at the bloody battle of Culloden in 1746. Although he lived another forty-two years, his threat to the throne was over.)

English opera audiences were much more sedate than those of Italy, but they were still free to arrive late and to talk and move around during performances, stopping only for the big arias. There were no really new stories — libretti were used over and over — so they did not have to listen to the recitatives to follow the plot. After all, they were in a foreign language which few understood. Handel's audiences had bilingual librettos, often with commentary, which could be followed during the performance. (Lights could not be dimmed as they are today.) Some contained a summary of the story "for those who cannot understand it after having heard and read the same." While some wrote operas in English, Handel refused to do so and his operas were always performed in Italian. As Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an advocate of opera in original language, said: "Where the sense was rightly translated, the necessary transposition of words, which were drawn out of the phrase of one tongue into that of another, made the music appear very absurd in one tongue that was very natural in the other".

The Music of Ariodante

To understand the musical language of George Frideric Handel, it is important to have some basic knowledge of the Baroque style. Baroque music is often a study in contrasts: contrasts in dynamics (loud vs. soft), tempi (fast vs. slow), texture (thick vs. thin, or ripieno vs. concertino), mode (major vs. minor), harmony (dissonance vs. consonance), polarity (bass line vs. melody). There were also significant doctrines of musical thought or aesthetics that needed to be followed. Within the 'doctrine of the affections' it was generally thought that certain keys, melodic motifs, chords or other purely musical elements were capable of communicating quite specific emotional states. For example the keys of D major and G major were reserved for communicating joy and spiritual exaltation. Keys like C minor or F# minor communicated melancholy, fear and terror. Certain melodic structures were also considered symbols of extra-musical ideas. Pairs of descending notes (usually at the interval of a minor second or 'half-step') were thought of as symbolizing tears and show up often in Baroque music when the composer is communicating sad texts. 'Running' melodic figures of eighth or sixteenth notes were indicative of joy and were often used by Bach in his Christmas season cantatas and chorale-preludes to describe the angels flying across the heavens in celebration of the coming of the Messiah. Plodding eighth notes in an andante tempo were used to describe walking or the slow progression of a group of people towards some unattainable goal. Dissonances, like the augmented fourth or 'tritone', were often used to denote evil or to mark the presence of the Devil in a Christian text.

Much Baroque music is derived from the dance forms of the period: the gavotte, the bouree, the courante, the gigue, the pastorale or siciliano. One of the remarkable things to happen as a result of the emphasis on Baroque scholarship in the last fifty years has been the realization that Baroque music must dance in performance, that there must be a certain lightness of touch and a sense of pulse that is driven by an intuitive understanding of physical motion. Listen to recordings of Baroque music from before 1950, when performances of Messiah or of The St. John Passion were given over to 19th century-sized orchestras, choruses of hundreds and Wagnerian soloists. No conductor in his right mind would try to attempt such a thing today when we have a much better grasp of the forces that Bach and Handel had at their disposal and when we are clearer about the actual sound that was produced by early instruments.

The music of Handel's Ariodante is typical of the elements of Baroque music as outlined above, and the forces gathered to perform the work will generally follow those with which Handel himself might have been familiar. The most obvious example of Baroque style will be the presence of the harpsichord, an instrument that was ubiquitous in the performance of Baroque opera. It is more prominent in the recitatives, when the orchestra is quiet in order for the text to be more clearly delineated. In recitatives the continuo player was given a bass line and a series of numbers and symbols under certain notes in order to dictate the harmonies that were to be used, but the 'realization' of those symbols was entirely at the discretion of the keyboardist, making every performance of a work fresh and improvisatory. Use of the harpsichord (and a cello or viol da gamba to play the bass line) also acted texturally as an element of counterbalance to the thicker texture of the full orchestra, giving the ear a sense of rest and repose during the recitatives.

The feeling for contrast can be heard in the overture of Ariodante which is initially in a slow, stately tempo but which suddenly breaks into a quick fugal passage. After a full stop there is yet another contrasting movement, a gavotte-like dance that is filled with "echo" effects and playfully moving from thick to thin textures in instrumentation.

The use of Baroque compositional techniques is to be found in the arias of the opera. After the hero Ariodante and Princess Ginevra pledge their love to each other, Ginevra sings an aria reflecting her joy: Volate, amori, di due bei cori la gioia immensa a celebrar! (Fly, ye Cupids, to celebrate the immense joy of two loving hearts!) The two 'action' words in this verse are "fly" and "celebrate". Handel chooses the key of B-flat major and six eighth-notes to the measure in a fast tempo to communicate the joyful meaning of the text. But the most interesting thing is how the composer treats the concept of flying cupids. He practically draws a picture for us in the music by having the oboes and violins play long phrases of running sixteenth-notes in order to imitate the beating of the love gods' tiny wings; then he has Ginevra sing similar runs on the word volate (fly) throughout the aria. This expressive (and descriptive!) treatment of the text is typical of the Baroque "doctrine of the affections".

There are many moments like this in the score of Ariodante. The first use of brass instruments, usually reserved to denote royal or noble characters, is to be found in the first aria of the King, Ginevra's father (Voli colla sua tromba Let [Fame] fly with her trumpet). Ginevra, after Duke Polinesso attempts to present himself as a possible suitor, sings an aria that perfectly describes her distaste for him through the large, angular leaps in her melodic line. The first aria of Dalinda, Ginevra's handmaiden, when she turns sorrowfully to Polinesso to try to entice him away from Ginevra and towards herself, is in the melancholy key of F sharp minor, perfectly portraying her feelings at the moment (Apri la luci — Open your eyes). And the duet within which Ariodante and Ginevra pledge their love (Prendi da questa mano — Take from this hand), cast as it is in the form of a pastorale, communicates through its lilting pulse and droning basses the love that the two characters share.

Like Messiah, Ariodante is an attempt by Handel to illustrate poetic texts in a nearly literal way so that the audience can place itself in the drama wholeheartedly. If the audience can give itself over to this process (particularly in this day of supertitles), the experience can be magical!


The action takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland in the late-eighth century.

ACT I: In her dressing room in the royal palace, The Princess Ginevra is making herself beautiful for the man she loves (Vezze, lusinghe — Charms and adornments). She tells her friend and confidant, Dalinda, she is in love and her father, the King, approves of the match. Polinesso, the Duke of Albany rather imprudently enters and declares his passion for her, but she indignantly rebuffs him and leaves. Dalinda, who is in love with Polinesso, informs him that his rival is the knight, Ariodante, and advises him to find someone else, hinting at her own love for the Duke. (Apri le luci — Open your eyes). Left alone, Polinesso devises a plot to overthrow his rival by using Dalinda's love for him (Coperta la frode — If deceit is covered)

In the garden, Ariodante sings of how the countryside speaks of love (Qui d'amor). Ginevra and Ariodante pledge their love for each other in the duet Prendi da questa mano (Take from this hand). The King gives them his blessing and instructs Odoardo to prepare for a wedding (Voli colla sua tromba — Fly with her trumpets). Alone, Ariodante thinks of his happiness (Con l'ali di costanza — With the wings of constancy).

Polinesso asks Dalinda to dress as Ginevra that evening and conduct him to the chamber of the Princess. If she does, his heart will be all hers (Spero per voi — I hope for you). When he leaves, Lurcanio, Ariodante's brother, enters and tells Dalinda he loves her, but she says she is not for him (Del mio sol vezzosi rai — The lovely rays of my sun). Alone, she declares she will be ever faithful to Polinesso.

Ballet: Ariodante and Ginevra meet in a lovely valley where they are entertained by shepherds and shepherdesses.

ACT II: By a ruin from which a door leads to the apartments of Ginevra, Polinesso meets Ariodante and pretends to be amazed when he is told Ariodante and Ginevra are to be married. Overheard by Lurcanio, Polinesso, tells Ariodante he himself is the object of Ginevra's love and offers to prove it. If he is lying, Ariodante says, Polinesso will die. Polinesso knock on the door which is opened by 'Ginevra' (Dalinda in her friends clothes) who leads him inside. The distraught Ariodante tries to kill himself, but Lurcanio stops him and urges him to seek revenge. Alone, Ariodante bemoans his fate in the recitative E vivo ancora? (And I still live?) and aria Scherza infida (The unfaithful woman amuses herself).

Dawn approaches as Dalinda and Polinesso bid farewell; he tells her she will hear only lover's sentiments from him. Naïvely she believes him and leaves him to rejoice at the success of his scheme.

As the King is preparing to announce the up-coming wedding, Odoardo tells him that the despairing Ariodante has thrown himself into the sea and is dead. When Ginevra is told, she faints and is carried off. The King tries to comfort Lurcanio on the death of his brother, but he wants only justice, not comfort. He hands the King a letter detailing what he had observed the previous evening and vows he will support his accusations with the sword. As a result, the King denounces his daughter.

Ballet: In her madness,Ginevra imagines a battle between pleasant and sorrowful Dreams.

ACT III: As Ariodante, who survived his suicide attempt, wanders in a wood denouncing the gods for letting him live, he hears cries. It is Dalinda who is trying to escape from assassins set on her by Polinesso to murder the only witness to his deception. Ariodante drives them off, and Dalinda confesses the trick she and Polinesso played. Ariodante hastens to return to court, while Dalinda cries down the wrath of heaven on the man who betrayed her.

Back at the palace, the hypocritical Polinesso offers to be Ginevra's champion in a joust. Under sentence of death, Ginevra is brought to the King. She protests her innocence, begging to be allowed to kiss his hand. Her sorrowing father takes her hand and tells her Polinesso will be her champion. Although she tries to refuse, he insists.

At the jousting grounds, the court watches the fight between Polinesso and Lurcanio. Polinesso is mortally wounded, and Lurcanio offers to fight anyone else who wishes to defend Ginevra. An unknown knight appears with the visor of his helmet down. He is revealed to be Ariodante who promises to tell all if Dalinda is pardoned. Odoardo comes with the news that Polinesso, on his deathbed, has confessed his misdeeds . The King pardons everyone and hurries to find his daughter, followed by Ariodante.

Lurcanio again professes his love for Dalinda, and she admits the man she had loved is a traitor.

As Ginevra, in the prison, is preparing for death, the others arrive and apologize for doubting her.

Ballet: In a Royal Hall, the happy couples are entertained by the dances of knights and ladies of the court as the curtain falls.

The Castrati

What singing! Imagine a voice that combines the sweetness of the flute and the animated suavity of the human larynx — a voice which leaps and leaps, lightly and spontaneously, like a lark that flies through the air and is intoxicated with its own flight; and when it seems that the voice has reached the loftiest peaks of altitude it starts off again, leaping and leaping, still with equal highness and equal spontaneity, without the slightest sign of forcing or the faintest indication of artifice or effort; in a word, a voice that gives the immediate idea of sentiment transmuted into sound, and of the soul into the infinite on the wings of that sentiment.

So wrote the music historian Enrico Panzacchi (1840-1904) in describing the voice of one of the last castrati in the Vatican chapel, and this was long after the hey day of the famous operatic castrati. He goes on to compare the voice with such famous singers as Adelina Patti; the women come out a poor second. Who were these men, the matinee idols of their day, fawned on by both men and women, and for whom the most important composers of the day wrote operas? The practice of castration to preserve the high voice of a boy is shrouded in mystery. Although officially frowned upon, it probably started with the church. Much church music was written for high voices, but boys voices not only soon changed but lacked power. St. Paul had written that women should be silent in church (mulier taceat in ecclesia) so they could not be used in choirs. Falsettists were sometimes employed, but the overall effect of their voices was artificial. Castrati were the answer and, for over two hundred years, they ruled the musical world.

The attitude of the Church was ambivalent. Officially the practice was condemned, but there was hardly a church in all Europe which did not use them in its choir. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) preferred their voices and proclaimed: "the creation of castrati for church choirs was to be held ad honorem Dei (to the honor of God).

For the most part, they started as small boys from impoverished families who had been discovered to have beautiful voices. They then faced many years (from about ages eight to twenty) of rigorous training in musical conservatories. Naples had four such conservatories for all boys, not just the castrati. Discipline was very strict and the training extremely rigorous. A typical daily schedule has been described as follows:


  • One hour singing passages of difficult execution
  • One hour studying letters [including how words should be sung for understanding]
  • One hour singing exercises in front of the guard against ugly grimaces


  • One-half hour theory
  • One-half hour improvisation
  • One hour studying counterpoint
  • One hour studying letters

They also had to study composition and learn to play the harpsichord.

Since women were banned from the stage in many locations, castrati also formed a function in early opera. Even when women were allowed, the public preferred the sound of the high male voice. The original cast of Peri's 1600 Euridice — often called the first opera — consisted of:

  • Two castrati men playing women
  • Six men (one a castrato) playing men
  • One boy playing a woman
  • One woman playing a woman.

In reading descriptions of castrato voices, one is struck by two adjectives that appear over and over again: sweetness and power. What people heard was a boy's voice, produced by a man's lungs. It has been said to have had the beauty of a woman's, the power of a man's and the purity of a child's. While women characters, such as Lucia, often sing against a flute, a castrato such as Farinelli, could hold his own in a duel with a trumpet. Moreover the man had had exceptional training and was a true artist.

Very few of the thousands who attended the conservatories ended up singing opera. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that the beautiful voice of a boy would persist into adulthood. Most of those whose voices remained ended up in church jobs. Others lost their voices completely and, forbidden to marry, many found a career in the priesthood.

They were forbidden to marry because the Church held that the purpose of marriage was to create children, and castrati could not become fathers. Yet they did fall in love, have affairs and some did marry — and were excommunicated. One of the physiological effects of their condition was that they often grew to be extremely tall and ungainly. This is shown in many of the caricatures which were drawn of them. While there were exceptions, many of them were awkward on stage and, for this reason, were restricted in their movements. People came to hear them sing, not to see them move, and had no objection to them planting themselves and letting the music flow.

The castrati were primarily Italian, but they sang all over Europe. Only one German, Berenstadt, ever achieved fame. Handel used them extensively for his Italian operas written and produced in England. Their popularity persisted, even when women were allowed on stage. Napoleon admired them and Goethe was so enthusiastic he recommended them for women's roles in spoken plays as well. Near the end of their reign in opera, Mozart would use both a castrato and a woman mezzo to sing male roles in his opera La clemenza di Tito. Rossini, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was one of the last opera composers to write for them; their days of fame were numbered. Voltaire railed against them in his attacks on traditional religion and what he perceived as a corrupt society. The French started the practice of transposing music of the high male operatic roles so that it could be sung by tenors.

Castrati persisted much longer in church choirs, especially in Rome. The last well-known castrato was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) who sang with the choir of the Sistine chapel and later became its director. He was late enough to have made recordings, and these have been collected on a CD: Opal CD 9823 (Pavilion Records). He was well past his prime when they were made and even Caruso does not sound all that great on his early recordings, but some of the sweetness of Moreschi's voice does come through. Unfortunately, the chosen selections do not portray his power. Never will the modern audience be able to hear the voices which took the world by storm. The voices of women and of countertenors, while beautiful, can not produce the sound which so entranced the audiences of their day.

Three Famous Castrati

(Castrati were usually known by the pseudonyms)

Carlo Broschi (Farinelli): Perhaps the greatest castrato of all. He is best known today because of the film which was made of his life. He was unique in being of noble birth and was always at ease in high circles. He spent many years at the court of Philip V of Spain whose life he was instrumental in prolonging by singing to him daily. While there, he also became the director of the court operahouse, improved the irrigation system, and imported Hungarian horses to breed with Spanish ones to improve their strain. In performing this latter task, he consulted the famous librettist, Metastasio, who wrote the words of all but one of the operas in which Farinelli sang. He spent a number of years in London with the Opera of the Nobility but never sang for Handel.

Francesco Bernardi (Senesino): He was Farinelli's greatest rival, and his salary was twenty times that of most composers. Handel was sent to Italy specifically to engage him, and Jonathan Swift reported: "In London...Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man who ever lived". While he appeared in 20 Handel operas, their relationship was an uneasy one and Senesino became one of the founders of the rival Opera of the Nobility. "He had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with perfect intonation and an excellent shake [trill]....He sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner....His action was natural and noble,...but his aspect and deportment were more suited to the part of a hero than of a lover."

Giovanni Carestini (Cusanino) was born the same year as Farinelli. He studied for seven years and debuted in 1730. Handel heard both singers in Italy and preferred Carestini. He had an exceptionally rich contralto voice and demanded (and sometimes received) huge fees. He was the first to sing the title role in Ariodante. Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814), the English music historian wrote of him: "His person was tall, beautiful, and majestic....With a lively and inventive imagination, he rendered everything he sang interesting by good taste, energy and judicious embellishments." Carestini seldom used his pseudonym.