First love, much of it stymied by fate or families, is one theme of the Opera Holland Park 2020 Season. Another theme is dance – a component of opera since its infancy in the palaces of Italy. The names alone are wonderfully seductive: pavana, bergamasca, passacaglia, ciaconna. First performed in 1607 in the ducal palace of Mantua, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo opens with the Gonzaga family fanfare and closes with a moresca.

Taken to an extreme in the opéra-ballets of seventeenth and eighteenth century France, dance was not merely an entertaining diversion from an often convoluted plot: it provided armchair tourism in the form of exotic rhythms and instrumentation, imagined flavours of Turkey, Spain or India, and vicarious cosplay in picaresque rigadouns and bosky musettes for lovesick sailors and shepherdesses.

Purcell assayed hornpipes and Scottish, Chinese and Mexican dances in his semi-operas. Fifty years later, Handel gave a boost to a lacklustre season in London by adding a gavotte, rondeau and bourrée to his Scottish opera, Ariodante, for the French dancer Marie Sallé and her troupe. Dance music described Elysium and Hades in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and provided a backdrop to the dénouements of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.

In the buttoned-up nineteenth century, dance also offered the rare spectacle of exposed ankles, calves, thighs, wrists and arms in a semi-respectable arena. To see more than that, one would have to leave one’s wife at home with her needlework and set out for a cabaret – birthplace of the galop or cancan.

In Paris in 1861, Richard Wagner caused outrage among the members of the Jockey Club when he programmed the ballet in Tannhäuser immediately after the overture, clashing with their dinner, and denying them the post-prandial glimpse of dancers’ stockings that they considered their right. The premiere was consequently a fiasco.

Six years later, the same gentlemen enjoyed the sight of the courtesan and adventuress Cora Pearl ‘half-naked’ in tunic and tights as Cupid in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers. (Pauline Viardot had baulked at a similarly revealing ensemble for her role as Orpheus in Berlioz’s 1859 recreation of Gluck’s opera.) Offenbach was cannier than his coevals when catering to the tastes of his audience.

The waltz was long considered indecent – too close a form of contact for unmarried couples, too suggestive of sex in its breathless propulsion, and, in England, too foreign. When it was first danced at court, The Times thundered that ‘it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females’. The editorial concluded censoriously that ‘we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion’.

Contagion was, of course, the same threat that The Times perceived in La traviata at its 1856 London premiere. The waltz was by now both indelibly associated with Vienna and truly international. In opera, meanwhile, dance remained a useful means to conjure class, place and period, and to throw characters into close, sometimes dangerous, proximity. (Remember the climax of Un ballo in maschera?)

In Lehár’s second-time-lucky romantic comedy, The Merry Widow, which premiered in the same month of 1905 as Richard Strauss’s Salome, Hanna and Danilo literally waltz their way back into each other’s arms. The setting may be Paris, as illustrated by the cancan led by Valencienne, and the leading players may be Pontevedrin, as illustrated by the kolo danced at Hanna’s party, but the operetta is Viennese to the core, peppery and polyglot.

Puccini’s Le Villi, the second opera in the 2020 double-bill of rarities, opens with a choral waltz in celebration of Roberto and Anna’s betrothal (‘Gira! Balza! Gira!’) and closes with a fevered tarantella, as the unfaithful Roberto dances to his death with the ghost of the girl whose heart he broke. Neither dance is local to the Black Forest setting of the original story, though the waltz is a distant relative of the rustic Bavarian Welle.

The only opera in the season not to feature dance music is, curiously, Delius’s Margot la Rouge – companion piece to Le Villi in the double bill, and another narrative of pastoral innocence corrupted by urban evils. Similar to Puccini’s Il tabarro in its setting in working class Paris, its compression and its violence, it eschews the off-key barrel organ waltz that Puccini used for local colour in favour of a painterly lyricism. The sad-eyed grisette in Degas’s L’Absinthe springs to mind.

Of the composers in the 2020 Season, Tchaikovsky is the king of the dance. Those who saw the 2019 production of Iolanta may recall that it was written to be performed in a double bill with The Nutcracker. In Eugene Onegin, Onegin humiliates Tatyana at her name day party by dancing with her sister, and falls belatedly in love with her when he sees her again at a ball.

The peasants on the Larin estate sing a khorovod in Act I, the folk lyrics describing the arrival of a handsome but dangerous stranger. A waltz and a mazurka are danced at Tatyana’s party. Monsieur Triquet’s birthday tribute nods decorously in the direction of a minuet, and is sung in French, the language of the Russian court, while the Act III ball in St Petersburg features an aristocratic polonaise and ecossaise.

Pushkin’s verse novel was set in the 1820s, whereas Victor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse, the source for Verdi’s Rigoletto, was set in the sixteenth century. Censorship forced a relocation to Mantua.

Our first glimpse of the Duke of Mantua is at a festa da ballo at which the dances include a perigordino. His first aria, ‘Questa o quella’, is written in the form of a ballata, while ‘La donna è mobile’ is a canzone. Verdi had done his musicological homework. Even the jester’s name is a corruption of a renaissance round-dance, the righoletto. Italian opera had returned to its birthplace and made an antihero of a member of the Gonzaga family, patrons of Claudio Monteverdi and the first audience to hear L’Orfeo.