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The Story of 'Ariodante'

The opera's three acts are set in Scotland, and the story revolves around a young woman named Ginevra — daughter of the Scottish king. Ginevra is in love with a vassal named Ariodante, and the two have received her father's permission to be married. As ACT ONE begins, Ginevra explains all this to her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda.

George Frideric Handel completed Ariodante in 1735, for a premiere at a brand new theater at Covent Garden, in London.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
George Frideric Handel completed Ariodante in 1735, for a premiere at a brand new theater at Covent Garden, in London.

But there's a problem. A Duke named Polinesso is also in love with Ginevra, and he shows up to make his case. Ginevra tells him to get lost, saying he's repulsive to her. This doesn't sit will with Polinesso. So, when Dalinda tells Polinesso that she'll have him, even if Ginevra won't, he decides to use her — to get back at Ginevra, and ruin Ariodante.

Polinesso wants Dalinda to dress as Ginevra, and let him into Ginevra's chambers late at night. The lovesick Dalinda agrees. Then, when Polinesso leaves, Dalinda confirms her feelings for him by rejecting the love of Ariodante's brother, Lurcanio.

Meanwhile, the lovebirds Ginevra and Ariodante are entertained by a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses.

ACT TWO act opens at nighttime, in the garden outside Ginevra's palace apartment, and Polinesso's plan is set to go into action. Polinesso is there, along with Ariodante. Lurcanio is also in the garden, hidden in the shadows to eavesdrop. When Ariodante tells Polinesso that he's engaged to Ginevra, Polinesso laughs at him, saying everyone knows that Ginevra is a bit of a loose woman. In fact, Polinesso says he's been fooling around with Ginevra himself, on the sly. Ariodante says if that if Polinesso can prove this, he'll kill himself. But if he can't prove it, Ariodante will kill Polinesso. Polinesso tells him to hide behind a tree, and watch.

Before long, Dalinda opens Ginevra's door, dressed in Ginevra's clothes, and quietly lets Polinesso in. Watching this, Ariodante sees exactly what Polinesso wanted him to see, and he draws his sword to stab himself. But Lurcanio steps out of hiding and stops him, saying it's better to stay alive and get revenge than to kill himself over an unfaithful woman.

The next day, at the King's court, there's bad news. Word comes that Ariodante has been seen plunging from a cliff into the ocean, and is dead. When Ginevra hears this, she faints and is taken away. Lurcanio then arrives, bitterly claiming that his brother's death is Ginevra's fault. He produces a sworn statement that he personally witnessed Ginevra betraying Ariodante with Polinesso, and says he'll defend his statement against anyone who would stand up for Ginevra's honor. The King immediately summons Ginevra back to the court — and disowns her. Not knowing what she's done wrong, Ginevra falls into a tormented sleep, dreaming of the Furies.

But as ACT THREE begins, it seems that Ariodante has survived. If he actually did fall off a cliff into the ocean, it must have been a short drop — because now we find Ariodante wandering in the woods, where he discovers a frantic Dalinda. She's being chased by two men who are trying to kill her before she reveals her role in Polinesso's plot. Ariodante saves Dalinda from her pursuers, and she tells him the truth: Ginevra has been faithful to him all along.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Ginevra is sentenced to death for her supposed disloyalty. To everyone's surprise, that champion turns out to be Polinesso himself. He and Lurcanio joust, and Polinesso is mortally wounded. Then another champion arrives on the scene. This time, it's Ariodante, who tells everyone what he has just learned from Dalinda. To confirm the story, Polinesso confesses as he dies.

Ginevra's reputation is saved. She and Ariodante can now be married, after all. And at the King's urging, Dalinda agrees to marry Lurcanio. The opera ends as everyone celebrates the double wedding.

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