Arianna in Creta
was first produced at the King’s Theatre on 5 January 1734, about halfway through the first season in which Handel faced the rival productions of the Opera of the Nobility, then at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The first of the Nobility Opera’s productions was Porpora’s Arianna a Nasso
, which may have prompted Handel’s choice of a version of Pietro Pariati’s Arianna e Teseo
for his new opera, not only because both operas explored aspects of the myth of Ariadne, but also because it was Porpora who composed the first setting of Pariati’s libretto for Vienna in 1714. Arianna (Ariadne) is the daughter of King Minos of Crete, where the action of Handel’s opera is set. Every seven years the Athenians send seven maidens to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur, a monster which lives in the labyrinth at Minos’ palace, and the Cretans send seven young men to Athens to die in ritual games. This gruesome custom was instituted in memory of Minos’ son, who was murdered in Athens, and can be ended only when a hero slays the Minotaur and defeats the Cretan champion Tauride. The day for the exchange of youths and maidens has come round again, but this time the Athenian prince Teseo (Theseus) is determined to take up the challenge of fighting the Minotaur and Tauride. He is in love with Arianna, but complications arise when Carilda, one of the Athenian maidens, falls in love with Teseo, while she in turn is loved by Alceste, Teseo’s friend. Teseo increases the confusion by offering to fight Tauride to save Carilda, intending to prove that he is worthy of Arianna’s love, though Arianna and Alceste assume he loves Carilda. In Act 2 Carilda becomes the object of unwanted advances from Tauride, who says he will save her from the Minotaur if she will marry him. She explains her plight to Alceste. He offers to help, but cannot say that he loves her because he believes she is loved by Teseo. His melancholy state is expressed in one of the most beautiful arias of the opera, with a flowing line for solo cello. The minor key persists in the middle section, conflicting with the suggestion of hope in the words. The part of Alceste was originally sung by the soprano castrato Carlo Scalzi.
from notes by Anthony Hicks © 2000