Baroque Opera then and now: 1600 & 1607, 1970-2020

How did Baroque ‘opera’ develop in the first decade of the 1600s?

And how have our modern-day performances of early music-drama advanced in a half-century of Historically Informed Performances?

This post is based on an interview for Radio Orpheus (Moscow)  in which the presenter, Russian poet, novelist and dramaturg, Alexey Parin asked me to compare and contrast two of the earliest surviving baroque operas: Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo (1600) and Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). Both operas can be seen in regular repertoire at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, in award-winning productions by Georgy Isaakyan, and in collaboration with OPERA OMNIA, the Academy for Early Opera & Dance.. My thanks to Alexey for his profound enthusiasm for opera, for his translation of the libretto of Anima & Corpo, and for his provocative questions in this interview.

 

With his long experience of opera in Russia, Alexey Parin finds the audience’s experience of the two works very different from one another.  Both productions succeed admirably, but why are they musically so different?

 

I think the first thing that strikes us, looking at the scores and listening to the music, is the similarity between the two works. Both composers are starting from the text, as if they were setting a spoken play to music.

But Monteverdi’s subject gives him the possibility for a lot more music, arising ‘realistically’ out of the drama. Since the protaganist is Orpheus, the great musician, the famous singer, of course we want to hear him sing and make music. And so he sings a magnificent Aria in Hell, accompanied by all the latest instruments of the early 17th-century Italian baroque. These are actually the same instruments that we hear in Cavalieri – violins, cornetti and the double-harp – but what’s now very different, is that with the excuse of Orpheus, Monteverdi writes virtuosi solos for these instruments. So although we have similar instruments, the sound of Monteverdi’s music begins to change.

Also in the earlier scenes, we are in pastoral Arcadia, and the shepherds of Arcadia all sing. They invite the Muses to descend from Parnassus to play instruments. So once again, Monteverdi has the chance to bring in a lot more ensemble music, proceeding ‘realistically’ from the mythological story.

Comparing the libretti

Another difference between the two works comes also from the text. With Orfeo, we are following one protagonist, we could almost say that the other characters are two-dimensional, only Orfeo is truly ‘there’. So while earlier operas exist on the same story, called Euridice, this drama is really the story of Orpheus. Eurydice has only two lines in the whole opera, but nevertheless what she says is extremely important, and perhaps her lines are the clue for understanding the whole opera. More about Eurydice here.

At the beginning when Orpheus sings beautifully of all his love for Euridice, her reply is that she cannot speak, and we should just ask Love, in order to know her feelings. And so we realise that Orpheus is perhaps speaking too much.

And this suspicion is reinfored with Eurydice’s second speech at the crucial moment in the drama, when Orpheus fatally turns to look at her. She says that the sight of him is too sweet, but also too bitter, and for the sake of too much love, he is going to lose her. And so in this very short speech, the word troppo, too much, comes three times. The poet is making it very clear for us here: this is the message. Orpheus was ‘too much’: too happy, too sad, too much love, too excessive in every way.

And so the message of the opera is then to look for the golden mean, for the perfect balance. But nevertheless, I think that Striggio as librettist and Monteverdi as composer both know that the audience enjoy the excesses. More about the message of Orfeo here.

And this brings us right back to Cavalieri again, because in his Preface, Emilio de’ Cavalieri says that the emotions in this kind of music come from rapid contrasts of opposites. More about Cavalieri’s Preface here.

Comparing the scores

It’s important to realise that a score in the early 17th-century had a very different purpose. It was not there for musicians like me to create a performance four hundred years later. More than anything, it was a souvenir for the public who had been to the performance and wanted to study the work further.

This reminds us how new this style of music-drama was. Cavalieri’s religious music-drama was so different from what had gone before, that he wanted to give his audience a chance to look at it again.

Nowadays, if we go to an opera we like, we might listen to the CD afterwards, as a nice memory of the real theatrical experience. So in Cavalieri’s score there is a lot of detail to help the reader remember the whole experience. He prints the music and the libretto and cross-references one to the other with numbers, number 1 in the music corresponds to number 1 in the libretto.

But, from the performers point of view, other information is missing. Many musical details are not specified in the score, and must be decided by the performers. In particular, the score provides no information about the orchestration of the instrumental parts, which instruments should play where.

In contrast, Monteverdi working at the Ducal court, wants to show off not only the opera, but also the court orchestra. So in his score, which is also a kind of souvenir-edition, he includes not only details of the drama but also a lot of information about the instruments. Especially at very strong dramatic moments…

This focus on moments of high drama shows us the purpose of publication. It’s not a score for musicians to work from. It’s to help audience members remember the show they saw. And so the score makes a kind of ‘close-up shot’ of the orchestra when it comes to the most dramatic moments. This gives us today, as musicians working with this historical material, vital information.

From the score, we know that in the original production of Orfeo, the instrumentalists appeared in different positions around the stage. We know that sometimes the instruments were part of the stage action. In a new piece of research, part of my investigation reveals that in one particular scene, when the Muses appear and the character La Ninfa says “you Muses have come with your instruments, so we’ll sing and you play, and everyone’s happy”, the score describes precisely which instruments play, and there are 10 of them – Apollo and the 9 Muses. So here the instruments are not just the accompaniment, they are part of the stage picture, and essential to the poetic concept.

 

Combining the information

But these differing levels of information in the two scores make today’s artistic process different for historically informed performers. Often Monteverdi writes details about the instrumentation that we don’t know from Cavalieri. For example, at the beginning of Act III, Monteverdi is extremely clear: the scene changes to Hell, the violins, the theorbos, the harp and the beautiful organs stop playing, and instead we have the cornetti, trombones and the regal. And so we can understand the two worlds, Hell and Arcadia, in Monteverdi’s opera. And this gives us a suggestion for the two worlds of Cavalieri’s opera, again Hell, and (now) Heaven. So from the point of view of a researcher and music director working with the score, it’s good to combine the information from both scores, to help us understand the cultural context of the period.

We don’t know if the Maenad ending was ever composed or not, but for sure it’s now lost. There’s a hint of  how the lost music might have been, in the Moresca that survives as the finale of the happy ending with Apollo. This Moresca starts in the score without time signature – there is no 3/2. This is very strange, and perhaps it’s because this Moresca was the continuation of something else, and that something else, whatever it was,is now lost. A Moresca, which is a danced battle, would also be an appropriate finale after the Bacchic ending with the Maenads. On the other hand, we should remember that often they would put a dance at the end that had no relation to the rest of the drama. After one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the actors – including characters who had died – would all stand up and dance a jig. Cavalieri says that you can put whatever dance at the end of a show, but then what he actually writes is the perfect dance finale, actually, yes, very connected to the show. More about dancing in Orfeo and Anima & Corpo here.

Personally, I’m fascinated by this question of the end of Orfeo. In another production, in Helsinki, we showed both endings (with my reconstruction of the Maenad scene from the 1607 libretto), and I’m intrigued by the idea of letting the audience vote: should the final triumph be for Apollo, or for Bacchus?

Here in Moscow, in this production, in Georgy Isaakyan’s particular style, it seems to me that he doesn’t tell the audience what happens, he encourages them to ask themselves: does Orpheus live or die?

7 years of Early Opera, half a century of Historically Informed Performance

As we work on Orfeo at OPERA OMNIA, we now have the advantage of 7 years of work together in Theatre Sats on the baroque style of Cavalieri. More about how to study early operatic roles here. No doubt 17th-century musicians also developed their ideas in the 7 years between Anima & Corpo and Orfeo. And I think it’s also fair to say that Monteverdi is musically more difficult than Cavalieri. In our production of Orfeo, we have the opportunity to sing in the Italian language, which makes some things easier for the music, but challenges the actors to make that direct contact with the audience that we have when we sing Anima & Corpo in Russian. More about OPERA OMNIA here,

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the musical approach for the Orfeo production is that we have effectively two musical directors, in the same way that Monteverdi effectively had  two orchestras: the orchestra of the violins and wind instruments who play written parts; and the orchestra of the continuo who improvise their parts. And just as Georgy Isaakyan’s staging is an encounter between Monteverdi’s 17th-century story, and Russia of the 1970s and 1980s; so there is a similar contrast within the musical realisation. Amongst the continuo and soloists, we share the latest ideas of Monteverdi’s baroque style; whilst in the orchestra and chorus the audience are presented with the Russian way to play baroque from the 1970s.

 

 

This juxtaposition of fundamentally differing approaches to early opera within one production has led to me reflect on how Historically Performed Performance of Monteverdi has changed in my own lifetime. In the table below, I attempt to identify some key topics and trail-blazing pioneers associated with significant re-discoveries. Any serious early opera production should at least consider these topics. Nevertheless, even decades later, some findings are still considered too “radical”, whilst others are routinely ignored, even by ‘historically informed’ ensembles.

 

How HIP is your Monteverdi?

 

  • Chitarrone  1960s Robert Spencer

 

  • Cornetto  1970s Bruce Dickey
  • Vocal ornamentation    1970s Nigel Rogers
  • Quarter-comma meantone   1970s Mark Lindley
  • Negri/Caroso dance  1970s Julia Sutton
  • Renaissance recorders  1970s Bob Marvin, Martin Skowroneck

 

  • No conductor  1980s Roger Norrrington
  • Recit without bowed bass  1980s Graham Dixon
  • Baroque harp  1980s Frances Kelly, ALK
  • Led from continuo  1980s Ensemble Tragicomedia
  • Renaissance violin band  1980s David Douglass, Peter Holman
  • Count recit in minims  1980s Ensemble Tragicomedia
  • Metre in Music  1980s George Houle
  • Baroque Gesture  1980s Dene Barnett
  • Il Corago  1980s Fabbris & Pompilio
  • Chiavette  1980s Andrew Parrot
  • Vibrato  1980s Greta Moens-Haenen

 

  • Proportions  1990s Roger Bowers
  • Pitch  1990s  Bruce Haynes

 

  • Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre  2002 Tim Carter
  • 1615 print free online  2009 IMSLP

 

  • Tactus throughout  2010 ALK
  • Historical swordsmanship  2012 Guy Windsor
  • 1609 print free online  2013 IMSLP
  • Beating time & measuring music  2014 Roger Mathew Grant
  • Arianna a la recherche  2017 ALK

 

  • Violini alla francese  ?
  • 5 trumpets  ?

Of course, this list reflects my own personal experiences and fortunate encounters with individual experts. So I look forward to your comments, corrections and additions. And most importantly, I look forward to new research findings in the 2020s, which will provide new impetus for re-thinking, re-imagining and re-working Monteverdi’s theatrical music.

 

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