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Scheming in Scotland: Handel's 'Ariodante'

You'll find the word "cosmopolitan" in a wide variety of contexts, from biological descriptions of hardy and versatile organisms, to the cover of a racy magazine.

Generally, though, it's applied to anything that crosses a lot boundaries — both physical and cultural. And when it comes to classical composers, few were as cosmopolitan as George Frideric Handel.

Just look at one of his most famous pieces, the oratorio Messiah. Unlike most works of European classical vocal music, it's most often sung in English. And that's not because it was translated for English-speaking audiences. It was actually written in English, because Handel, though born in Germany, made his musical fame — along with a considerable fortune — during the decades he spent in London.

Still, it wasn't English oratorios that truly put Handel on the musical map. Handel, who was born in German city of Halle, became a superstar in London by writing Italian operas. During the first few decades of the 1700s, Italian opera may have been London's hottest ticket, and Handel's operas were the most popular of them all.

Through much of the 1720s, and into the '30s, Handel basically ran his own opera company — with support from wealthy subscribers, and from England's King George I. Performances took place at the King's Theater.

By late 1734, things had changed, and there was a new George on the throne. Handel's agreement to use the King's Theater had expired, and he was muscled out by a rival company. Fortunately, he had an alternative venue. It was a then brand new theater in a place that has since become synonymous with opera in London: Covent Garden, where the premiere of Ariodante took place in January of 1735. Opera is still being performed at Covent Garden today, in the theater known as the Royal Opera House.

Over the centuries, Ariodante has become one of Handel's most enduring operas, and it's also emblematic of his cosmopolitan status: an Italian opera, premiered in England by a German composer, and set in Scotland.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production that brings one more country into the mix. It was given outdoors at the Cour des Hospices, the courtyard of a 15th-century hospital in Beaune, France, and stars soprano Karina Gauvin and mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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