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Making Early Opera Sing
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Opera America Magazine12/1/2008

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One of the major recent trends in opera has been the resurgence of operas written before the time of Mozart. The gems of Monteverdi, Gluck, Handel and others are being dusted, polished and displayed, dazzling opera fans across North America. A handful of companies — such as Toronto's Opera Atelier or Washington, D.C.'s Opera Lafayette — specialize in this repertoire. But just as mainstream opera companies have become more adventurous in programming works of the 20th and 21st centuries, they are also bringing older works to the attention of their audiences.

Any opera production requires a number of decisions. Regardless of whether an opera was written four centuries or four years ago, companies must consider how they wish to approach casting, scenery, costumes, movement and more. Today's opera audiences can choose from productions ranging from scholarly period recreations to modern interpretations employing cutting-edge technology.

When it comes to realization of scores, early operas present particular challenges for mainstream opera companies. These operas can differ sharply from standard repertoire in terms of size and makeup of ensemble and style of playing. They may call for obsolete instruments and voice types, specialized improvisatory skills, and shifting relationships between singers, instrumentalists and conductor.

The Orchestra
While producing companies, to a certain extent, begin with a blank stage when they think about the physical aspects of a production, the musical scaffolding — in the form of the company's regular orchestra — is usually already in place.

When Christopher Mattaliano became Portland Opera's general director, he quickly decided to inject Baroque opera into the company's repertoire. In 2006, Portland Opera's Studio Artists performed Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses. The company produced Handel's Rodelinda on its main stage earlier this year.

"We are fortunate to have the Portland Baroque Orchestra in this city," noted Mattaliano. "We brought in some of their period experts for Rodelinda. We would've used some for The Return of Ulysses the previous year but the scheduling didn't work out, because our production conflicted with their Messiah concerts."

Since the Rodelinda production augmented the house orchestra with Baroque instrumentalists, Mattaliano felt it was crucial to have conductor George Manahan on the podium. During his years as music director of New York City Opera, Manahan has led the company's standard opera orchestra in revivals of a number of Baroque works.

Although Manahan brought significant experience in conveying period style to modern musicians, he advocated the inclusion of Baroque specialists in the continuo section. Fortunately, Portland Opera's orchestra agreement allowed this. "In the contract with our house orchestra, if there is a need for specialists, we can bring them in," said Mattaliano. "With the right conductor you can make everything seamless."

In March, Portland Opera will present Cavalli's La Calisto in a production featuring the company's Young Artists Studio. The performance, which will take place in an alternate venue, will be accompanied by an orchestra consisting entirely of Portland Baroque Orchestra members. PBO's executive director, Thomas Cirillo, who also has a background in opera administration at the Metropolitan Opera and The Santa Fe Opera, has provided invaluable assistance in the planning of the production.

"La Calisto presents questions about instrumentation," remarked Cirillo. "It is not set in stone like a Verdi opera. For most operas, you can easily find the instrumentation for a given opera like what the wind counts are and how many percussionists you need. But for 17th-century opera like Calisto, that information is not written down anywhere. Then it's best to go to experts."

According to Cirillo, La Calisto features a large continuo and requires some instruments that are not used in any other period of music. So, PBO and Portland Opera will import Bruce Dickey, a premier cornetto player who lives in Italy, for this production.

In most cases, opera companies don't have the luxury of assembling an entire period ensemble. Antony Walker, music director of Pittsburgh Opera, has conducted Baroque opera with modern and period ensembles and notes that a hybrid ensemble poses special challenges.

"You can't simply put Baroque players with their period instruments in a modern orchestra without tuning up to the modern pitch," explained Walker. "The resulting sound would be very strange, because modern instruments are tuned to 440 Hz and period orchestras tune to 415 Hz or 430 Hz. Yet even though strings, harpsichord and chamber organ can be tuned up or down, the woodwinds are centered on a specific key; so period woodwinds won't be able to match up to the higher pitch of a modern orchestra. Even if you transposed the music, people would have to play in awkward keys."

Walker feels one of the best solutions is an orchestra that plays on modern instruments with Baroque bows. Baroque bows are lighter than modern bows, and with them the string section can approximate a period sound. "With appropriate coaching," he said, "I have found that many modern ensembles are more than willing to change their sound."

The issue of vibrato and non-vibrato is another stylistic question. Michael Beattie, a Boston-based conductor and harpsichordist, has found that most modern ensembles he has worked with have enjoyed exploring new sounds and styles.

"A lot of modern string players are stuck in the idea that their playing must vibrate by default," said Beattie, "rather than using vibrato as a color, or varying the speed of vibrato, which is something that singers might do. It's kind of like asking a violinist to stop thinking about their left hand and to start thinking about their right hand, which is the bow arm. If you can get a modern orchestra excited about rethinking those ideas, then you can have a lot of fun."

Violinist Gregory Ewer is a member of both the Oregon Symphony and of the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Besides his modern violin, Ewer plays a Matthias Kloz that was made in the 1720s, which he keeps strung with gut strings. "With the heavier, modern conventional violin, you can have more vertical relationship with the strings, so you can press down harder." explained Ewer. "With gut strings, the playing is more horizontal. It's almost as if you are running your finger over the perimeter of a wineglass. If you press down too hard, you won't get a sound. If you have a nice, soft, fast touch, it resonates."

According to Ewer, violinists in modern orchestras use the tip of the bow to play short notes, and they have to be responsible for starting the bow stroke and stopping it, keeping pressure on the string so they don't make extraneous noises. "But in the Baroque period," noted Ewer, "in order to achieve shortness, you almost bow in an arc. You start above the string, hit the string and then come off, so it's short and resonant. There's a lot of string crossing."

Preparing the Performance
Early opera scores are incomplete by design. Singers are expected to ornament vocal lines in a way that both heightens the drama and shows off their particular vocal gifts. Continuo players work from a single line to create a colorful instrumental backdrop that is appropriate for the singer, the production and the venue. Depending on the musicians' comfort level with the style, ornamentation and continuo parts may continue to evolve over the course of rehearsals and even over the course of performances.

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