Opera as a Political Platform: Ariadne, Allegory and Opera Pairs

The essay below is a slightly edited version of an assignment I submitted as part of my MA in Music in November 2015 at the Open University. While reading it through again I’ve come across a laundry list of things I’d edit or do differently, but I’ve kept almost everything the same in order to give students an idea of what MA assignments are like. The biggest change I made was converting footnote referencing to Harvard, as it simply worked better in that format here. The total word count is 2,432 and I received a 2:1 for this assignment.



The discussion of politics with opera can be approached from various different views or methodologies, such as performance situations; compositional circumstances; stylistic interpretations; reception; music as a form of protest; and so on. In the following essay, I will be analyzing the correlation between the marriage of Princess Anne and William of Orange and two operas from the season of 1733-34.

I chose two operas to use as case studies, both of which were performed in the 1733-4 opera season in London. The first is Pietro Pariati’s and George Frideric Handel’s Arianna in Creta and the second case study is Paolo Rolli’s and Nicola Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso. When analyzing the operas themselves, I will be exploring both the internal and external political aspects by examining historical context, allegorical devices and musical constructs in order to study the music in context to politics.  As Aspden states, “allegoresis was an essential part of eighteenth-century life” (Aspden 2001, p.736), so it is a large feature of the operas in question and allows much scrutiny in terms of political comparisons.

The political context raises several questions; what allegorical parallels are there between the operas and the political situation? What does the choice of characters or plots entail? Politically, what do the two different settings detail? What political connotations did the contemporary operagoer glean from these operas? After analyzing the operas, I will then compare the results against each other and the contemporary political circumstances in an attempt to answer these questions.


There is a large quantity of work on Handel and London Operas in the 1700’s. In slightly older sources, Judith Milhous and Robert Hume discuss the Operatic situation of the 1730’s in London with regards to finances and management. More recent sources such as Suzanne Aspden, Xavier Cervantes and Thomas McGeary expand on the rivalry between Handel and the Opera of the Nobility (Milhous 1984; Hume 1986 ; Cervantes & McGeary 2001). Both McGeary and Milhous approach this subject from a financial point of view, showing that though there was indeed rivalry, the prince supported both companies fairly equally over this time period despite contemporary sources claiming otherwise, such as Hervey as cited in Aspden (Aspden 2001, p.738).

In contemporary sources there were several links between Handel’s Opera, rivalry between members of the royal family, and the wedding between Princess Anna and Prince William of Orange for which Handel composed a wedding anthem. This marriage was the first of a Princess Royal for over a hundred years, and at first garnered much publicity though interest waned after several impediments delaying the ceremony from November to March. There was a tendency to represent William as figures such as Adonis and Anna as Britannia, despite some less than flattering accounts that tell a much grimmer tale.

Such is the mystique of a royal marriage that only a very few witnesses of the splendid ceremony saw a woman of twenty-five, badly marked by smallpox and “with a great tendency to fat,” being escorted to the altar by her two brothers, with whom she was barely on speaking terms, to join a political nonentity whose physical deformity made her mother weep.

(Baker-Smith 1995, p.xi)

This wedding was apparently a source of contention and bitterness between the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal which was further exacerbated due to her marrying before him. According to Aspden, they saw the opportunity to “exploit the opera as a means of asserting alternative modes of political expression” (Aspden 2001, p.741)  . As there was also competition between Handel and the Opera of the Nobility, the opera was a useful landscape for political symbolism and so an ideal place for the royals to choose sides. Though there was not necessarily a political motivation behind the formation of the Opera of the Nobility, the result did have political and social implications and divided much of London society as to which company they supported (Strohm 1985). As such, we will need to look at the two sides of the coin, and to clarify the extent to which the two operas were politicized.


Arianna in Creta

Handel completed Arianna in Creta on the 5th October 1733, though the premier date was much later, on 26 January 1734. Arianna in Creta was Handel’s only new opera of the season at the Kings theatre (Hicks n.d.). This same libretto had also been previously set by various others, including Porpora though he did not mount another production of it in this season. Handel’s Arianna in Creta tells the story of Ariadne with the Minotaur and the labyrinth on Crete. The theme of this opera very much revolves around love and honor- common themes of operas during this period (Aspden 2001, p.747). Though there are several love stories intertwined through the opera, politics is a somewhat more prevalent theme.

During the 1733-4 season, there were sixteen performances of Handel’s Arianna in Creta (Hume 1986, p.351). Despite this fairly large number, it was not particularly well received and over the season Handel lost large sums of money. Much of this loss can be credited to the fact that the two companies often had performances on the same nights, harming both subscriptions and daily sales. An added issue was that of Handel’s reliance upon da capo arias, as opposed to simpler ariettas which were more palatable for English audiences (Hicks 2009; Handel 1902).

There is a clear theme of putting duty before love, or at the very least emphasising political triumph in relation to romantic plots in Handel’s rendition. Though this is not a direct parallel to the situation in London, it could be viewed as a hope of peace and unity for London politics. In the libretto, when Theseus victors over the Minotaur, not only does this win him Ariadne but also puts “a glorious End to the calamities of his Country” (Aspden 2001, p.748). Theseus also states that he won’t put love over his countries’ cause. After ridding the Athenians and Cretans of the threat of the Minotaur, Theseus further victors over Taurus, the Cretan champion and therefore source of political rivalry. All of these plot and character choices could be viewed as potential allegorical devices.

In that Handel’s version of Arianna in Creta favours duty over love, there is a superficial disparity to the way in which the wedding was portrayed. Despite the union being “supremely happy” (Baker-Smith 1995, p.xi) on a personal level, it was heavily romanticised and mythologized in print. It was, as was often the case, primarily a political match which allowed the Princess Royal a suitable counterpart. The alliance with the Dutch would also hopefully gain popularity for the King, as he revived traditional links and strengthened the Protestant succession. Consequently, the hope for greater unity and peace in the historical context was in a way mirrored by Handel’s opera.

With the obvious rivalry between the two opera companies, it is unsurprising that it should be mentioned in print. One example of this is the satirical pamphlet attributed to Hurlothrumbo Johnson titled Harmony in an uproar: a letter to F-d-k H-d-l, esq. which imagines a mock trial of Handel, in addition to hinting that the two operas provoked political division (Cervantes & McGeary 2001). As such, it is clear that the contemporary operagoer would have detected political undertones.

Arianna in Nasso

Arianna in Nasso was the first production by the Opera of the Nobility and premiered on 29th December 1733. Many of its performers had been poached from Handel, which gave this production of Ariadne a slightly better cast. Musically, it is different from Porpora’s previous works; with more musical diversity and a simpler plot. It had a larger ratio of accompanied versus simple recitatives as well as ariettas to da capo arias adds a great deal of musical characterization (Robinson n.d.). While Handel’s opera focuses on the story of the Minotaur, Rolli only spends a brief time on this. Instead he quickly moves on to their departure from Crete and focuses on Theseus’s adventures on Naxos and subsequent abandonment of Ariadne.

The Opera of the Nobility’s production had 23 performances, seven more than Handel (Hume 1986). Throughout the season the companies, operas and composers were featured in various correspondences and prints. One image, named ‘Harmony’, particularly stands out. It is shown and discussed in great detail in Cervantes and McGeary’s Handel, Porpora and the ‘Windy Bumm’ (Cervantes & McGeary 2001, p.608). This engraving, based on one of French origin from the 17th century, describes a caricature of Porpora at the organ, upon which sits an owl hooting the title of Porpora’s oratorio. Some of the imagery featured in this was later turned against Handel by Joseph Goupy.

As for the Opera of the Nobility production, Ariadne becomes “the honourable sentiment of patriotism”  (Aspden 2001, p.748), an aspect of the plot that is also an important symbol in various other Arianna operas. However, unlike the Handel’s Arianna, Rolli’s version is heavily centred on Theseus, with his deception of both his first wife of Anthiope and the new wife he found in Ariandne. Therefore, the Nobility’s production was named for a minor character and it was primarily Theseus’s actions that were central to the plot.

Looking at the plot of Rolli’s libretto, it seems to question the suitability of the protagonists as a couple. Should we see Ariadne as a symbol of Anne and Theseus as William in both operas, then potentially this could be slightly slanderous. However, should we view Bacchus as a construct of William in Rolli’s production, a different nuance is presented. As Ariadne ends up with Bacchus instead of Theseus in this telling, it undermines Handel’s production in which Ariadne remains with the deceitful Theseus.

In most tellings of the Arianna on Naxos tale Theseus has not yet met, let alone married, Anthiope, which traditionally happened after their visit to Crete. In Rolli’s changing of these details, it can be argued that Ariadne finally ends up with a much more suitable match. It also better compliments the political situation, so as to reflect the previous discussions of marriage between Anne and Louis XV of France or more seriously the Crown Prince of Prussia, both of which fell through. That there were possibilities of marriages before the eventual union between Anne and the highly suitable William was loosely mirrored in Rolli’s libretto. This shows, then, that there are different political readings of the two operas due to the different plot choices.


There is a long history of opera pairs, and the two Ariadne productions seem to lend themselves towards this type of analysis (Strohm 1998). The rivalry between companies, the naming of the operas, and especially the different treatment of the story makes it imperative to view the two operas together to fully appreciate the nuances of interpretation in this context. Though there is no clear proof that a link between the Ariadne operas and the wedding exists, the historical precedent of linking Ariadne and weddings, as well as the issue of naming the operas lends plausibility.

In certain circles, both operas went by other names in one form or another. The Pariati libretto had in previous settings been named Teseo in Creta or Arianna e Tese, while the Porpora production was occasionally referred to as La Clava di Teseo (Aspden 2001, p.749). This emphasis of Ariadne in the official title then suggests an intentional link between the two operas, and may even support the association between Anne and Ariadne.

Aspden suggests that there may be a link between the symbol of Theseus as the founder of Athens and William III founding ‘modern’ Britain, and therefore a further association with William of Orange (Aspden 2001). This interpretation would be more favourable in Handel’s production, as it ends before Theseus’s abandonment of Ariadne. This would also support the patriotism of Handel’s character and his victories creating unity, particularly in relation to Britain’s protection from threats such as Catholicism. At first glance Handel’s production seems the more suitable and nationalistic of the two.

However, if the pair of operas are compared directly, Rolli’s libretto paints a much more patriotic image in replacing Theseus, a duplicitous demigod, with Bacchus, a true god as Ariadne’s ultimate husband. Viewed in this light and by drawing parallels between Anne and Ariadne, it could be construed that Handel is questioning the suitability of the wedding to William. As such, Handel’s use of Pariati’s libretto shows slightly poor taste. With regards to the questions I posed in the introduction, there are clearly implications due to the different uses of characters, but also slightly different political connotations of the plot.

Although it was suggested that the royals were divided in support of the two companies, there is little proof that this was such a large source of conflict within the family as Hervey suggested. Anne was a long-time friend and student of Handel, and along with her mother, father and two sisters were more likely to attend Kings Theatre in support of Handel, while the Prince of Wales was more regular at Lincoln Inn Fields during this season. Financial records, however, shows things to have been much more even (Aspden 2001; Milhous 1984; Scouten 1961; Taylor 1984).


As the argument has shown, there does seem to be certain parallels between the operas and the royal wedding. While it does seem highly likely that the political situation had an impact on the two Ariadne productions, it is less clear that opera in turn affected politics. The historical precedent of linking Ariadne with brides, as well as the changes of plot and naming leans towards politicising opera. This is further supported by treating the productions as an opera pair, which gives suggests greater political intention. The use of theatre as a way of proving a point, and a slight tendency of certain members of the royal family to frequent one company more than the other may indicate an effect of opera on politics, though perhaps not to such a point as Hervey seemed to suggest in his Memoirs.

There are certain limitations to the analysis as it has been applied here, as it would be useful to put the two operas into further context by analysing the works that both companies dedicated to the nuptials. It could be taken even further and the works of the other main theatres could be taken into account. As such, while the analysis provided here does seem to suggest the use of opera as a political platform, as it is such a small sample a broader cross section of operatic works could be contextually beneficial.


Citation list

Aspden, Suzanne, ‘Ariadne’s Clew: Politics, Allegory, and Opera in London (1734)’, The Musical Quarterly, 85 (2001), 735–70 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/mq/85.4.735&gt; [Accessed 21 September 2015]

Baker-Smith, Veronica P. M., A Life of Anne of Hanover, Princess Royal (Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 1995) <https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=h1alEmaR5GMC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=A+Life+of+Anne+of+Hanover,+Princess+Royal&ots=mQdIoP-8Bu&sig=WXKHCp9BnaiATrNn6d33biC5i54#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt; Google ebook

Cervantes, Xavier, and Thomas McGeary, ‘Handel, Porpora and the “Windy Bumm”’, Early Music, 29 (2001), 607–16 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/em/ca1039&gt; [Accessed 19 October 2015]

Handel, George Frideric, Arianna in Creta, HWV 32, ed. by Friedrich Chrysander (Bergdorf-bei-Hamburg: Chrysander, 1902) <http://search.alexanderstreet.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/view/work/373140#page/1/mode/1up&gt; [Accessed 19 October 2015]

Hicks, Anthony, ‘Arianna in Creta’, Grove Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/subscriber/article_citations/grove/music/O900176?q=arianna+in+creta&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1&gt; [Accessed 21 September 2015]

Hicks, Anthony, ‘Handel Arianna in Creta: An Opera in Three Acts’ (London, 2009) [Accessed 19 October 2015]

Hume, Robert D., ‘Handel and Opera Management in London in the 1730s’, Music and Letters, 67 (1986), 347–62 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ml/67.4.347&gt; [Accessed 19 October 2015]

Milhous, Judith, ‘Opera Finances in London , 1674-1738’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 37 (1984), 567–92 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/jams.1984.37.3.03a00050&gt; [Accessed 06 October 2015]

Robinson, Michael F, ‘Arianna in Nasso’, Grove Music Online <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/subscriber/article/grove/music/O008859&gt; [Accessed 21 September 2015]

Scouten, Arthur H., ed., The London Stage 1660-1800: A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments & Afterpieces Together with Casts, Box-Reciepts and Contemporary Comment Part 3: 1729-1747 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961) Google ebook

Strohm, Reinhard, ‘Dramatic Dualities: Metastasio and the Tradition of the Opera Pair’, Early Music, 26 (1998), 551–61 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/em/26.4.551&gt; [Accessed 06 October 2015]

Strohm, Reinhard, Essays on Handel and Italian Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) Google ebook

Taylor, Carole, ‘Handel and Frederick , Prince of Wales’, The Musical Times, 125 (1984), 89+91–92 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/964194&gt; [Accessed 19 October 2015]



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