OPERA OMNIA – Music of the Past for Audiences of the Future

Celebrating the European Day of Early Music and the first anniversary of OPERA OMNIA, Academy for Early Opera & Dance, Institute at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, here is my article presented by Katerina Antonenko at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Reflective Conservatoire conference, which has become perhaps the most significant forum of its kind, for discussing new developments in tertiary music education.


OPERA OMNIA offers a new model for Early Music: linking Research, Training and Performance; connecting Music and Drama; and hosted not by a conservatoire, but by an opera house. We believe this model can be more historical, more accessible, more practical, and more relevant to the 21st century than the standard approach of trying to squeeze historical aesthetics into 19th-cent performance ideals and previous millenium educational structures!



A year ago we founded OPERA OMNIA, creating a formal institution and unified branding for a variety of collaborative projects developed during the previous five years. We link Research, Training and Performance of Early Music, in an evolving model adapted for the opportunities and constraints of cultural life in 21st-century Russia.



Natalya Sats was founder and director of the Moscow State Children’s Theatre, pioneering Synthesised Theatre, a combination of music and other media. In 1936, she commissioned Prokofiev to write Peter and the Wolf. Statues of characters and instruments from that story adorn the entrance to the present Theatre, built in 1979. Nowadays, her daughter, Roksana continues the Sats tradition of speaking to young audiences before each performance.



The present Artistic Director, Georgiy Isaakyan has extended the programming for young adults and multi-generational audiences: not only family favourites, but also challenging work, including new and early music.

There are two Early Opera productions, both rarely staged today. Celos, the first Spanish opera, is now in its third season. And the very first opera, Anima & Corpo, which won Russia’s highest music-theatrical award, The Golden Mask, has had 55 performances so far.



These two 17th-century operas required collaborations between the Theatre’s resident performers and guests from Moscow’s nascent early music scene. Over the last five years, the Theatre obtained specialist instruments – more are on order and planned for – and in training workshops and performance projects, teams of players acquired the necessary skills.

In cooperation with other institutions, those projects included the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s Vespers. More about Vespers here. Each performance was linked to public lectures, advanced masterclasses, academic seminars etc. Continuing performances of Anima & Corpo at Theatre Sats are also a training ground, with new company members each season.



17th-century music requires singers to have both solo and ensemble skills. Polyphonic vocal consorts, 2 or 3 to a part, were a new challenge to singing-actors schooled in the grand Russian tradition. Vocal ensembles in Anima & Corpo are now shared between the Small Choir (a consort of soloists who do most of the dramatic commentary) and members of the Theatre Chorus (who represent a Choir of Angels and swell the numbers to about 80 in the finale.)



As in Rome in 1600, so in 21st-century OPERA OMNIA: no conductor! Instead, there are multiple Tactus-beaters, relaying a consistent beat between separate groups of performers, so-called cori spezzati. More about Tactus here, and about how to do it here.

Anima & Corpo also provided an opportunity for final-year students from the Russian Institute of Theatrical Arts, who took part in workshops with Lawrence-King and Isaakyan, rehearsed with OPERA OMNIA continuo-players, and performed selected roles alongside professional colleagues in public performances at Theatre Sats. The best graduates were amongst September’s new intake into the professional company.

These performances involving students helped the Theatre reach out to new audience members in their late teens and twenties. But one of the delights of working at Theatre Sats is that we regularly have children, teenagers, and young adults in the audience. The Theatre has front of house staff dedicated to meeting and greeting young visitors, offering informal guidance for individuals, or a short introductory talk for groups.



Theatre Sats is also the administrative centre for the annual ВИДЕТЬ МУЗЫКУ (Seeing Music) Festival of the Association of Russian Theatres, which invites to Moscow directors and performers from all around the Russian Federation, uniting an artistic community that spans nine time-zones! The opening ceremonies last September featured an experimental production with historical staging by the young professionals and advanced students of OPERA OMNIA’s International Baroque Opera Studio: Andrew Lawrence-King’s re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), composed around the surviving Lamento. More about Arianna here.



The astounding visual contrast between the famous Lament scene and the tumultuous arrival of Bacchus immediately afterwards is made audible in Lawrence-King’s work, as the ‘violins and viols’ of the Lament are blown away by ‘hundreds of trumpets, timpani and the raucous cry of horns’. More about how Arianna was re-made, here.

Although most professional ensembles in Europe substitute sackbuts for mid-range and low baroque trumpets, we were able to train up a full consort of natural trumpets, led by guest coach, Mark Bennett.



To close the Festival a month later, OPERA OMNIA provided the orchestra for a gala concert of baroque music at the Bolshoy Theatre, bringing together soloists from Sats, other Moscow theatres, and opera houses throughout Russia. This event provided a fascinating snapshot of the state of Baroque Music in mainstream institutions across the nation.

Alongside Moscow’s offering of Handel arias and the Triumph of Bacchus from Arianna, the choices from regional theatres were strongly influenced by mid-20th-century Russian anthologies of baroque favourites: Lascia ch’io pianga of course, but also arias mis-attributed to Pergolesi and Caccini.

We re-edited these, and made a clean ending with the Sauna scene from Lawrence-King’s Kalevala opera.




OPERA OMNIA enjoys close relations with the Moscow Conservatoire, for whom we provide conference speakers and master-classes. We also coach keyboard teachers within the Tchaikovsky School’s program of Continuing Professional Development.

Some of our best Early Music singers were initially trained at the Moscow Choir Academy ‘Papov’, emerging with a good mix of vocal, musical and ensemble skills. Our master-classes also welcome visitors from Stanislavsky, Bolshoy and other mainstream opera houses, singers with excellent voices and rich stage experience, for whom Historically Informed Performance is new territory.

Our production of Celos has led to close collaboration with the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish embassy and theatres in Spain. We also contribute musically to charitable concerts given by the ensemble of Singing Diplomats at the German embassy.



The rhythmic energy and visual appeal of Spanish baroque has attracted considerable TV and radio exposure, and internet streaming of selected performances.



What remains of the former State education system continues to produce instrumentalists and singers with dazzling virtuosity and rich knowledge of mainstream repertoire. Some baroque aficionados have managed to educate themselves in Early Music with help from visiting teachers, achieving high levels of performance and refreshingly independent academic perspectives. Others studied in Europe, returning to found independent festivals and ensembles in Russia.

With public funding, ensemble Madrigal at the Moscow Philharmonic preserves the style of communist-era Early Music, and Musica Aeterna in Perm brings in most of its players from abroad to play period instruments under a post-modernist baton, but Insula Magica does sterling work in far-off Novo Sibirsk.



In 2012, Theorbo was almost unknown in Moscow. We guided the first generation of theorbists as they transitioned from other instruments.


Video clip of the 2012 premiere of Anima & Corpo here


We are now victims of our own success, in that our theorbists are greatly in demand with other ensembles, so we have had to find a second generation of continuo-players to train up… and this is just how it should be!



Russian theatres have a traditional working practice in which members of the company or orchestra learn repertoire, by sitting-in and observing. We combine that Russian tradition with the baroque concept of apprenticeship.

New-entrant continuo-players begin their studies in a relaxed environment at open workshops. When they reach intermediate standard, they are invited to sit-in and play alongside the professionals at Theatre rehearsals, offering them real-world experience and advanced training on a show which will soon provide them with paid employment.

In the wider arena of the Russian Early Music scene, we measure success not only by absolute standards achieved by young professionals, but also by value added for keen baroque musicians at any level.


Authenti-City: Abandon hope all ye who enter here!


The much-debated question of “What is Authenticity?” requires fresh answers in the post-communist oligarchy of modern-day Russia.

In Europe, Performance Practice theories are often circulated by a system of ‘Chinese whispers’, teacher to student, director to musician, CD to listener, and in heated (rather than illuminating) debates on social media. Some performers believe it’s impossible to assimilate enough historical information. Others feel that period practice has been thoroughly worked out, and it’s time to invent something new.



OPERA OMNIA’s message to Russia (and to the wider world) is that HIP is not what some famous person says, nor is it what you hear on your favourite CD! We encourage everyone to check primary sources for themselves – most of the crucial treatises and many original scores are freely available online.



Our take on HIP focuses on practicalities. But before we look for answers, we interrogate period documents for the right questions to ask. Caccini’s (1601) priorities –

Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all, and not the other way around!

encourage us to look beyond modern-day obsessions with pitch, temperament and vibrato, and far beyond the old-fashioned notion of ‘on period instruments’. More about the Text, Rhythm, Action! project here. The Sats orchestra mixes Early and modern instruments, the training Studio is Baroque only.


Whilst the training Studio works in original languages, the professional Theatre productions of Anima & Corpo and Celos are sung in Russian. Supertitles and printed translations are little used in Russia, and the gain in direct communication between our singing actors and young people in the audience far outweighs the loss of the sound of a foreign language.

We worked very carefully to unite Russian text and Mediterranean music, seeking to achieve natural language, appropriate rhythmic fit, and a perfect match of the word-painting that is so characteristic of this period.



We rehearse the interplay of Text, Rhythm and Meaning with simple but effective hand-exercises, that are themselves fundamental elements of period pedagogy.

In Early Music, Rhythm is directed by Tactus, a slow steady beat symbolically linked to the hand of God turning the cosmos, and to the human pulse.

In an exercise for Text, the hand (now palm up, in the default gesture called ‘how to act’) moves with each accented syllable – Good syllables, in period terminology. More about How to Act here.

We ask singers to think of the meaning of the word, each time they move their hand. Leading questions can then draw out more specific gestures. “Where is that?” prompts singers to connect their gesture to a specific – imagined – location. More about pointing gestures here.

Fixing singers’ attention on the particular word they are singing right now, is also a Mindfulness exercise, which – like the steady beat of Tactus – encourages a state of Flow. More about Flow here. It’s how Monteverdi composed, word by word, and it sits well within the Stanislavsky tradition of Russian theatrical education.

The famous challenge from director to actor

I don’t believe you!

cannot be answered by exaggerated histrionics, by a gesture that is more historical, or by wider vibrato! It demands profound interior work from the actor. Caccini characterised the new, 17th-century style of singing as ‘like speaking in harmony’. Too much singerly attention on The Voice must be challenged immediately with “I don’t believe you”.


More about Emotions in Early Opera here.


Daily Schedule of Performances at Theatre Sats in Moscow, in the same week that this paper was delivered at GSMD in London.


At Theatre Sats, permanent members of the resident company perform all the different shows in a vast repertoire, and each of these shows comes around again every month or so. Singers and musicians have an immense daily work-load, often with two or more performances on the same day, plus rehearsals to revive old shows and yet more rehearsals to prepare new productions.

A typical day might begin with rehearsals for Rimsky-Korsakov, continue with a performance of Puccini and end with 17th-century baroque. To ensure continuity and provide a reserve for any eventuality, every show is double- or triple-cast: similarly for the orchestra.

Our first rehearsal for the violin band in Anima & Corpo was a delicate moment, introducing highly-experienced modern players to an utterly different aesthetic – straight tone, open strings and first position, slow bow-strokes. By lunchtime, we’d got through most of the material, and the musicians began to feel convinced by the unfamiliar sounds they were being asked to make. The afternoon rehearsal would go smoothly, we thought… until we saw a completely different group of string-players sit down for the second session!

A subtle feeling for a different kind of music-making is not something that can be marked into the parts – it has to be acquired through patient coaching and shared ensemble experience. It takes time. But once instilled in the whole company, it can be “absorbed” by new recruits more quickly, thanks to the ‘sitting-in’ tradition mentioned earlier.

Learning new material goes very slowly at the beginning, and then the final days of stage and technical rehearsal pass all too quickly: there is almost no time available in the middle for ‘artistic’ work.

It’s therefore crucial to engage with preliminary rehearsals, assisting repetiteurs as they drill notes into the singers’ heads. What is taught in these sessions tends to become up hard-wired, so mistakes must be ruthlessly eliminated. But this is also an opportunity to build-in fundamental elements of style, so a wise director will not be too proud to do a lot of the donkey-work themselves.


More about learning Monteverdi’s operatic roles here.



With limited time, and performers who spend most of their time working in quite a different style, our rehearsals focus on training general principles which can be re-applied in many different situations. Teaching principles, rather than imposing the director’s personal interpretation, leaves each individual with space to add their own artistic touches, and fits well with the historical concept of Art as a organised set of rules.

Of course, 17th-century aesthetics were also acutely concerned with the beauty and mysterious power of music: this is historical Science. We teach this in workshops, but for daily rehearsals we have to encapsulate complex ideas in punchy catch-phrase1s.

Sometimes it’s helpful to contrast 19th- or 20th-century practice with earlier styles, showing respect for musicians’ normal approach and for the coaching they receive from the Theatre’s mainstream conductors, whilst empowering them to do something very different with us, in the historical context.

The long legato lines of Romantic opera are contrasted with our mnemonic,

Breathe as often as you can!


Long notes long, short notes short!

brings rhythmic clarity, and encourages varied articulations. Subtleties of Tactus rhythm here.

Good & bad

does the same job for text syllables. More on Good & Bad here.

Ornamentation is not always relevant, and it’s certainly not a priority. Some visiting early musicians add ornaments, or ask about them; some resident musicians are keen to try for themselves. They all receive encouragement and advice. We will be more proactive as we come to French and later operas, for which ornamentation is an essential ingredient, like spices in cooking.



There is more time available at weekend workshops, where we explore links between period philosophy and the nitty-gritty of what one actually does in performance. Workshops also offer a ‘safe space’, a chance to try something utterly new. It’s a ‘safe space’ in the sense that we don’t have to demand instant success, and suitably-cushioned failure is accepted as an inevitable part of the learning process.

This training space is essential, not only for beginners acquiring fundamental skills, but– perhaps even more so – for professionals learning a new approach. These workshops are also the experimental laboratory that complements our academic research by providing a test-bed for new ideas.

Supposedly, Early Music is always trying out new performance practice ideas, but in the real world, there is a strong tendency to stay within everyone’s comfort-zone. It is much easier for a director to implement even quite radical decisions, than to change individual musicians’ deeply-ingrained habits.

New research findings demand new skills; new skills require new training methodologies; new methods have to be optimised and applied. All of this has to happen before new research can be applied in rehearsal, and polished for performance.



Our workshop formats vary. Our teaching style is to expound fundamental historical principles, and then guide participants towards making their own choices, within the style-boundaries. We usually have a wide range of abilities. Our motto is

Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has something to learn

– and that includes the tutors!


More about baroque gesture and historical acting here.



Many European conservatoires host a Historical Performance department, and most of those departments have partnerships with professional HIP ensembles. But we are working the other way around. We are hosted by a Theatre, so involvement with professional productions is a powerful, built-in “pull-factor” that sets our educational priorities. The complementary “push-factor” is new academic research, which drives our training agenda.

This is quite a different, and more integrated relationship between research, training and performance than one finds in most conservatoires.

Our Early Music focus on chamber-music skills, rhythmic accuracy and empowering individual performers is also beneficial to the Theatre’s mainstream work.



In today’s Russia, public funding comes from the State of Russia, or the City of Moscow. The City is richer than the State. Our host Theatre is State funded, and we do not expect additional public funding for this new venture against the current background of annual cuts in arts budgets, international sanctions etc.

Commercial sponsorship is focussed entirely on the highest slice of elite mainstream activity: there is no tradition of small or medium businesses supporting regional or local culture. But we have found some private support from enthusiastic individuals, and there are State and City funds available for specific activities, such as travelling productions.

The funding gap is covered by informal cross-subsidies that in Europe would be managed by assigning itemised costs to specific budgets, with cross-payments between departments. Performance fees, whilst smaller than European expectations, encourage directors to spend time on blue-skies research, and encourage musicians to invest in their own continued professional training.

Theatre Sats supports the Academy by providing resources off-budget. In return, OPERA OMNIA’s activities support the Theatre’s artistic, educational and outreach aims. We are blessed with senior management who take the long and wide view of this. We are also blessed with good team spirit, powerful ‘start-up’ energy, and a strong sense of involvement from all participants.

When money does change hands, it is rigorously controlled. But we devote less time to formal meetings and paperwork than in Europe. We can get things done quickly when there is a need or an opportunity.



We don’t pretend to be a full-time educational institution, rather we try to complement the work of conservatoires with our specialist focus on cutting-edge research, new training methods, new skill-sets and professional performance. We take a pragmatic approach, trying to fill gaps in knowledge and experience for each individual, leading towards specific performances.

Our concept of training as a ‘safe space’ and an experimental lab encourages us to respond continuously to new research findings. If there is a tendency for some conservatoires to educate for the past, for the world in which teachers themselves grew up, we are training for the demands of performances now and in the future, creating skill-sets beyond the limits of today’s Early Music habits.



Making baroque music in modern-day Moscow is often challenging. But the vibrant cultural scene, the energy and talent of Russian performers, enthusiasm from young audiences, and the Theatre’s support, create unique opportunities.

Last year, Theatre Sats was honoured with the European Opera prize for Education and Outreach. We at OPERA OMNIA are excited about our plans for the next few years. And we are proud to be developing performers and audiences for the Early Music of the future.


Organised Chaos – Rebel with a Source

Celebrating the European Day of Early Music 2018, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra’s concert of The Four Elements with Andrew Lawrence-King Saturday 17th March 6pm at Mustpeade Maja (Tallinn, Estonia) links Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Élémens (1737) to music from

  • France – Rebel’s teacher, Lully, of course
  • England – Henry Purcell
  • Spain – the Madrid serenade scene from Campra’s L’Europe Galante (1697)
  • Turkey – the harem scene from L’Europe Galante

The Turkish scene features the Sultan’s favourite girl, Zaide, and the palace gardener, the Bostangi, represented in this instrumental concert by the orchestra’s flautist and bassoonist respectively.

I’m happy to have this chance to revisit L’Europe Galante, which I first directed at the Amherst Festival. Surely this is the perfect choice for the European Day of Early Music, and we are planning to start a staged production of the full opera with OPERA OMNIA at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’.

Meanwhile, here in Tallinn, our Spanish Entrée also includes variations on Les Folies d’Espagne, and the choice of movements for each of the ‘Suites’ we have constructed favours dances for which period choreographies survive, many of them published in Feuillet’s Chorégraphie (1700).


See also ALK’s solo recording here.

Rebel by Watteau c1710

Whilst French baroque music poses technical challenges for performers – intricate bowings, complex ornamentation – it offers easily appreciated delights to listeners: elegant dances with a lively swing, dramatic contrasts of theatrical characters. The complete program and program-note is below, but as the title promises, this post takes a closer look at the first movement of Rebel’s elemental suite, his famous depiction of Chaos.  Many listeners will know this from Christopher Hogwood’s (1980) recording with the Academy of Ancient Music here.

When I first performed Les Élémens, I had to work from the published Ur-text edition. As always, such editions are a mixed blessing. No matter how scholarly the editor, no matter how carefully they own up to their own editorial interventions, there is always more to be discovered in the primary sources. There is also the subtle question of whether variant sources should be conflated into a single version: perhaps these variants are neither ‘better’ nor ‘worse’, but just different. It would be historically appropriate to perform any one particular variant, but any conflated version is a modern construction! So, whilst secondary sources offer valuable commentary, any serious performer will prefer to see the original material for themselves.

I have seen mention of surviving instrumental parts, but if these exist, I haven’t been able to study them. So if some Rebel specialist can point me in the right direction, I’d be delighted to know more. I’ve also seen a statement that no score exists. However – God bless IMSLP! – the original (undated) printed score and Rebel’s c1737 MS are now freely available online (print of the complete suite and manuscript of Chaos only).



As you can see, the print is beautifully clear. It designates the work as Symphonie Nouvelle, and presents the suite of dances in a different order to that chosen by Hogwood: Chaos – Air pour l’Amour – Air & Chaconne – Ramage – Rossignols – Loure – Tambourins – Sicillienne – Caprice.  The Chaconne is clearly notated to continue directly from the preceding Air, and that Air has nothing of Loure (Hogwood’s title) about it. Rather, the rhythmic structure of the Air corresponds to a triple-metre Chaconne (phrases go across the bar-line, 2 3 / 1), though the harmonies and four-bar patterning of Chaconne are not present.

The print includes Rebel’s explanatory article, which reminds us of the close links between music and dance in baroque France: the concept of the four Elements offers a ‘pleasing variety’  of different music genres as well as costumes and dance-steps. Rebel describes the introductory movement, Chaos, as ‘natural’. In baroque terms, this implies an absence of artistry, the abandoning of the organising principles that would normally guide the transformation of raw nature into sophisticated art. And thus the famous first chord, containing every note of the scale simultaneously. Little by little, in 7 sections (suggesting the 7 days of Creation), musical organisation, principles of dissonance and resolution are imposed, and once the fog of Chaos is dispersed, a well-constructed final cadence brings this movement to a harmonious close.

In parallel, Rebel uses particular instruments to represent each element: Water (flute), Earth (low strings), Air (piccolo), Fire (violins). To begin with, the four elements are entangled and misplaced, but gradually they find their proper places, so that at the debrouillement (de-misting), each instrument, each element is correctly ordered.


If the print is clear, the manuscript gives an impression of primeval Chaos before the fog cleared.

Obviously, an earlier version of the piece is being adapted, with instructions to play certain bars twice, to add an extra bar of minims etc. But even when all the last-minute instructions are applied, the MS remains quite different from the print. The famous, shocking dissonance of the print’s first chord is delayed until bar 4: the MS begins doux (softly), with a single note, low D, in unison.

The flute part is given separately, on another page, leaving more space for the violas. And there are two staves for the bass section, shared between celli, bassoons, basses and continuo. Both bass staves feature low A (a third below a modern cello C-string), also seen in the single bass stave of the print. But there is no hope of filling in from the MS the viola parts missing in the print: the two versions are too different. At most, the MS gives an example of the composer’s viola writing, that can be imitated by present-day editors/directors. But the viola staves show frequent confusion of clefs, and many problematic passages defy any neat solution.

So the MS is a fascinating snapshot of Rebel’s creative process, of work in progress, but has limited use as a supporting source for the print. One could edit up the MS version, trying to make sense of all the additional instructions and reconciling this with the separate flute parts. Perhaps once audiences have become accustomed to the surprise of the chaotic opening dissonance, one could shock them anew by performing the MS version, with its soft, unison start!


What does emerge from parallel study of both versions is that Rebel’s work can be played by a standard French baroque line-up of five-part string ensemble, 1 bassoon and 2 high-wind players (who double flute, piccolo and oboe). Although the scores suggest multiple ‘flutes’ and ‘petites flutes’ (piccolos), only two high wind parts are notated at any given moment. With one player making a quick change from flute to piccolo and back, two musicians can manage everything. Usually, oboe and flute parts were played by the same musicians, and oboes are not mentioned at all in the Chaos. There is one horn part and one trumpet part – the D trumpet part includes the note treble c#, which is not part of the harmonic series. The violin and viola parts include many chords – it’s not clear if these would have been double-stops or divisi: in my own parties de remplissage I chose to make all chords playable as double-stops.


So that was my task for this month – organising Chaos!  My Creation – the program and note – follows below.








Jean-Féry Rebel Les Élémens (1737)


Baroque Dance-Music from France, England, Spain & Turkey

by Lully, Purcell & Campra


directed by

Andrew Lawrence-King (baroque harp, harpsichord)


The word ‘Baroque’ suggests to us today the thrilling virtuosity of Vivaldi’s concertos and Italian operas; the intricate complexity of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Art of Fugue; perhaps even the exotic rhythms of Spanish and South-American music. But in the late 17th century, a fourth national style was the dominant element across most of Europe: the noble art of French dance.


It was the French who defined the dance-types that form the conventional baroque Suite – Allemande (originally an actual dance, but later a dance-like prelude), Courante (the noble entrance dance of Kings), Sarabande (elegant poses balanced on one leg, alternating with sudden fast turns and jumps), and Gigue (a lively leaping dance). The Loure is an elegant, slow version of the Gigue. The Chaconne and its minor-mode cousin, the Passacaille were grand ensemble-dances for the end of an opera, in which solo dancers and corps de ballet, solo singers and chorus, solo instruments and the full orchestra, would alternate in choreographically complex and harmonically expressive variations on a four-note descending ground-bass.


Composers and performers were free to assemble sequences of all kinds of dances, united by tonality, but contrasting in every other way. Each dance is quite short, and instantly recognisable, so that the audience can enjoy rapidly changing contrasts from one dance to the next. At a formal ball or Assemblée, courtiers would dance couple by couple, changing place in strict order of aristocratic precedence. In the theatre, each dance would feature different characters, in brightly coloured and contrasting costumes.


The Sun-King, Louis XIV himself, was a superb dancer, leading the way at court and dancing alongside the top professionals on stage. The beginning of his personal rule was dramatized as the Ballet de la Nuit, a ballet that lasted all night, culminating in Louis’ appearance at dawn as Apollo. “Now I alone guide the chariot of light. A divine hand has given me the reins, and a great goddess sustains my rights. I am the Star among Kings!”


French composers and playwrights linked sequences of dances with spoken or sung dialogue to create a variety of dance-based theatrical genres. As the 17th century progressed, plots became more serious. Dances were no longer merely entertainment, but became central to the dramatic story and to the artistic structure. Around 1700, however, the trend from charming comédie-ballet to serious tragédie en musique was reversed with a new genre, the opera-ballet, dramatically unified and formally structured, but more light-hearted than the tragedies.


Each dance-type has a characteristic rhythm, corresponding to its particular dance-step. This vrai mouvement  – true movement – guides not only tempo and rhythm, but also ‘swing’. 17th-century French musicians played medium-fast notes inégales – with a subtle swing – just as jazz musicians do today. The vrai mouvement is the ‘groove’ of each dance, giving a specific identity and feeling: courtly, theatrical or rustic; tragic, happy or comic.


In France, dancing and music were inseparably linked. The best violinists were also the best dancing-masters. Jean-Baptiste Lully was an expert dancer, violinist and singer, as well as the most famous composer of the age. Bow-strokes for the violin were light and airy, just like a dancer’s leaping feet. A flourish of the dancer’s wrist, or a brilliant swivel of the feet in mid-air correspond to the many trills and ornaments in French music. Dance choreographies transform a simple straight-line walk into an elegant and stylish display: similarly, underneath all the decoration of French baroque music there is a straightforward melody, often taken from folk-music.


In 1698, composer Georg Muffat summarised Lully’s violin style, cataloguing bow-strokes and left-hand ornaments for violinists. Dancing-masters published collections of choreographies, detailing every step of the most admired theatre and social dances. Muffat’s Florilegium and Feuillet’s Chorégraphie fed an insatiable public demand for new dances, new entertainments, as the dance-craze spread across Europe. Campra’s L’Europe Galante (1697) reflects the latest international fashions with scenes set Spain (the Sarabande, Chaconne and Folies d’Espagne were Spanish imports) as well as France itself. Campra’s finale is set in exotic Turkey, contrasting the passionate love-affairs of beautiful girls in the Sultan’s harem, with the wild exuberance of the palace gardeners, the comic Bostangis. In England, Purcell’s music combined Italian counterpoint with the ‘gaiety and fashion’ of French dance-styles, presenting Dido & Aeneas at the girls’ school founded by dancing-master Josias Priest.


This was also a period of change in the scientific understanding of the natural world, from Galileo’s Mecaniche (1599) to Newton’s Principia (1687, 1713 & 1726). New theories had to be reconciled with older models and with religious doctrine. The concept of Four Elements was expounded by Plato and Aristotle and survives today as the four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas and plasma). The classical Four Elements are Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These were all mixed together in the primordial Chaos, but during the Seven Days of Creation, they were disentangled so that each Element could find its proper place.


Lully’s pupil, Jean-Féry Rebel associates each element with particular instruments. As they emerge from primeval Chaos,  the characters of his ballet are: Water (L’Eau – Flute), Fire (Le Feu – violins), Air (L’Air – Piccolos),  Earth (La Terre – cellos and basses). String tremolos and bassoon create the sound-effect of Fremissage (earthquakes). In the following dances, low violins also represent Earth, and flutes represent Water. The piccolos create the stage scene of Ramage (green-leaved trees), where we hear Rossignols (nightingales) represented by the flute. Meanwhile, when harmony emerges from chaos on the seventh day of Creation, a fifth character appears in the circle-dance of a Rondeau: L’Amour (Love).


A fifth Element, the Quintessential or aether, occupied the highest, heavenly sphere. 17th-century writers identify the Quintessential as the Divine, as Love, or as the mysterious Spirit that communicates emotion from performer to audience. This baroque idea survives as our modern sensibility that music is more than just a physical process of vibrating strings and sound-waves in the air; that music, dancing and other arts can have some additional, indefinable, spiritual quality,


French baroque music was created by the collaborative work of dramatists, choreographers and composers. It was performed by singing actors, dancers and instrumentalists. So as you listen to these Suites, imagine casts of actors and troupes of dancers. See elaborate stage sets and thrilling machine-effects. Place yourself amidst the splendour of Louis XIV’s Versailles and the delights of André Le Nôtre’s formal gardens. Look for birds singing in the trees; for the enchanted palace of the witch, Armide, being consumed by fire; for the chivalric knight Amadis; for beautiful princesses in love and a noble Queen lamenting; and for a Turkish gardener busy with his shovel!




Overture: Le Retour des Plaisirs                           Jean-Baptiste Lully Alceste (1674)

Courante: La Bocane (Jaques Cordier c1625)     Marin Mersenne Harmonie Universelle 1636

Sarabande                                                                 Lully Une nopce de village (1663)

Gigue: La Vignonne                                                 Wilhelm Brade Neue Lustige Volten (1621)

Passacaille d’Armide (Pécour 1713)                     Lully  Armide (1786)



A new Ground                                                          Henry Purcell Welcome to all the Pleasures (1683)

Lament                                                                      Purcell Dido & Aeneas (1689)

Round-O                                                                   Purcell Abdelazer (1695)



Sommeil                                                                    André Campra L’Europe Galante (1697)

Entrée Espagnole (Pécour 1704)                           Campra L’Europe Galante

Les Folies D’Espagne (Feuillet 1700)                   after Jean-Henri D’Anglebert



Prélude: Zaide                                                          Campra L’Europe Galante

Entree des Bostangis




LES ÉLÉMENS                                                     Jean-Féry Rebel (1737)

Le Cahos

Air pour l’Amour


Air [La Terre, L’Eau, Le Feu]

Chaconne [Le Feu]


Ramage [L’Air]

Rossignols [L’Air]

Loure [La Terre]

Tambourins [L’Eau]






Prélude                                                                      D’Anglebert (1689)

Fantasie de Chaconne                                             Francesco Corbetta La Guitare Royalle (1671)

Chaconne d’Amadis (L’Abbée 1725)                      Lully Amadis (1684)





The Practice of Tactus – Owners Workshop Manual


A Practical Guide – Part 1

There are many posts on this blog about Tactus, a key concept in Early Music. For an introduction, try Rhythm, what really counts; for technical details, Monteverdi’s Time; for inspiration, The Power of Tactus. This post is different – it is the first in a series of practical guides to help you do Tactus for yourself and with your ensembles. So I start from the assumption that you know what Tactus is, and that you are keen to put it into practice.


Science, Art & Use

In mainstream music, there is a conventional distinction between Technique and Interpretation. In Early Music, we avoid that binary, because many aspects of historical techniques are designed to produce specific elements of style, and because the word Interpretation is itself problematic. We prefer to talk about Style, style boundaries, and Choices within those boundaries. The historical categories are different again – Science, Art & Use – and each of these terms has a period significance that differs from our modern understanding.

Renaissance Science is the study of mysteries beyond the everyday worldly experience: according to the Science of the Music of the Spheres, our earthly music-making is connected to mysterious cosmic forces that influence our souls and bodies. That same  connection operates also within the phenemenon of Time itself. This historical Science covers some of the territory that we would nowadays call Art, the mysterious beauty of music, the power of the arts to take us beyond ourselves into some higher realm. There are many posts in this blog dealing with the Science of Tactus, e.g. Emotions in Early Opera.

Renaissance Art refines Nature according to a set of organised principles. This concept is hard for some modern-day musicians to accept, since it lays down a set of rules that guide creativity within the boundaries of a specific style. We might compare such musical ‘rules’ to the rules of grammar: they do not dictate what you want to say, but they do guide how you say it. Specifically, they offer choices between different pathways you might follow, from a given starting point. In music, these principles include concepts of Rhetoric & Poetics, as well as Harmony & Counterpoint, Articulation (i.e. short-term phrasing), Melody and Rhythm. The Art of musical Rhythm is guided by the principles of Tactus. Again, there are many posts in this blog on those principles, e.g. Tactus & Proportions in Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

Period Use is the ‘down & dirty’ of what one actually does, putting the principles of Art into practice, in order to realise the beauties of Science. This post is about the Use of Tactus.


To become proficient in the Use of Tactus, it’s not enough to read Zacconi & my blog-posts, any more than reading Bassano and articles by Bruce Dickey is enough to make you an expert cornetto-player, unless you also put in many hours of focussed individual practice and ensemble experience. The 10,000 hour rule and beyond. To read about Tactus and then perform Early Music with modern conducting is comparable to researching cornetto and then performing the Monteverdi Vespers with soprano saxophones: the input is no doubt informative, but the output is not the real thing.

Like proprioception and postural balance, awareness and management of Tactus is more than a technique that you learn and practice: ultimately it becomes a quality that you have. But to have Tactus, you have to do Tactus a lot. And to do Tactus, you have to practise Tactus first. The decision to play in Tactus is similar to the decision to play in a historical temperament, say quarter-comma meantone; or for a modern string orchestra to adopt baroque bows. Ensemble members have to acquire new skills, both individually and as a group, and some rehearsal time will have to be devoted to specific training.  You have to build skills, deepen experience with progressive drills, and trouble-shoot problems in rehearsal, so as to have confidence in performance.

This post suggests a practical approach and training exercises, to get you started.



Share the Power of Tactus

This “start here” article is divided into four sections: Prerequisites; Development exercises; Maintenance exercises; Rehearsal techniques. Remember, it’s not enough to read this advice: you need to do it, if you want to make progress.

1. Prerequisites

Each member of the ensemble has to understand the fundamentals of Tactus, and be ready and willing to base their music-making on Tactus (at least, for the duration of the experiment!).

Those fundamentals are:

  1. Early Music is directed by Tactus, a slow steady beat, around one pulse per second.
  2. Tactus is practised with a slow steady movement of the hand, down for one second, up for the next second.
  3. It is the responsibility of every individual to maintain the Tactus steadily, and to coordinate it with everyone else: there is no conductor who takes precedence, no-one is allowed to change the Tactus.
  4. Shorter notes and complex rhythms have to conform to the Tactus.

Each member of the ensemble also has to agree that a certain amount of rehearsal time will be devoted to Tactus exercises: say half an hour initially, and five minutes at the beginning of the next few rehearsals. And that the following rehearsal will be run on Tactus principles.

Just like learning to play in mean-tone, you need every individual member to ‘buy into’ the experiment. You can give it a try, and review the outcome after several rehearsals. But you do need everyone’s support. By the way, it’s an infallible rule that the people who most resist doing the hand-exercises are the people who most need to do them.

2. Development exercises.



Rule 1: do NOT use a metronome.

It is helpful to have an objective reference, so that group sessions don’t degenerate into “I’m right, you’re wrong” arguments. But the sharp click of a metronome gives the wrong kind of information (this is the first practical illustration of the fact that playing Tactus is not ‘metronomic’). Instead…

Rule 2: make a simple 1 metre pendulum (a piece of string with something tied to the end to make a weight). This will “tick” at one beat per second (Mersenne Harmonie Universelle 1636)

Rule 3: do NOT use a metronome.

I hope you will find that the following exercises are not difficult. As in Feldenkrais Method’s Awareness through Movement exercises, these drills are intended to be easy, so that you can manage them without effort. But doing these simple drills, whilst keeping your concentration strongly on the Tactus, will gradually change the way your body/mind/hands/ears manage rhythm, installing Tactus awareness and Tactus skills at a deep level.

Exercise One

Give the pendulum to a person in the group who tends not to be a ‘leader’. Pass the pendulum to another person every five minutes or so. (This will encourage the ‘leaders’ to follow more, and the ‘followers’ to lead more, counter-balancing out any inherent tendencies within the group).

Set the pendulum going, and using it as a reference, everyone waves their arms down/up, with the hand palm outwards/downwards, mostly flexing at the elbow, but using the whole arm. Synchronise to the pendulum and maintain the Tactus movement. Imitate the movement of the pendulum, coming gently to momentary rest at the end of each movement, then moving smoothly away again.

The concept of arsis and thesis describes a subtle difference between down and up. Imagine that you are in a swimming-pool, holding a beachball under the water. As you push the beachball downwards, you have to give some extra effort against the buoyancy provided by the water; it comes up again by itself. Think about this, as you maintain the Tactus movement.

After a while, ask everyone in the group to close their eyes. Keep the eyes closed for ten seconds, and then ask everyone to open the eyes again. Calmly re-synchronise with each other and with the pendulum, and repeat. 10 seconds eyes closed, 10 seconds eyes open. Continue for a minute or two.

Stop and rest. Notice the atmosphere in the room. Typically, the feeling will have subtly changed. The room is quieter, people are calmer and more concentrated. You might be more aware of small background noises. This is one of the hidden benefits of Tactus – it has an almost hypnotic effect, giving you calm, concentration and heightened awareness of small acoustic signals: what a perfect set-up for making music!

Enjoy the feeling for a moment, and then repeat Exercise One, with a new pendulum operator. Give a reminder about the subtle difference between down/up.

When you feel that the whole group is ready, repeat Exercise One again without pendulum, synchronising with eachother.

Most trained musicians find this exercise easy. Nevertheless, it sweetens the atmosphere if you give some appreciative comments along the way: “Good! Well done! That went better!” etc. If people are having difficulty staying together, shorten the time with the eyes closed. If some people still don’t get it, try mentioning that one of the ‘secrets’ is that as everyone moves their arms, there are tiny sounds, and you can synchronise with those.

Exercise Two

Now you are going to use your new-found awareness of Tactus to guide the creation of different rhythms, dividing the slow Tactus beat to find the shorter note-lengths. This is crucially different from the modern practice of adding up the various note-lengths in your part to see what results as a bar-length. In mathematical theory, you would come out with the same answer, but in practical music-making, there is a crucial difference between dividing the Tactus and adding up the little notes. So this exercise practises dividing the Tactus.

Use the pendulum as a reference. Everyone beats Tactus together. Synchronising to the Tactus, say the following rhythms together, repeating each one perhaps three times.

We meet syllables on semiquavers (sixteenth notes) in Monteverdi’s Combattimento, for example. The text can be tricky to pronounce at such speed, but I hope you find the underlying concept easy to understand and practise. Here you are dividing the slow beat of a complete Tactus (down and up again) into 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16. This is closely related to the concept of Diminutions as a way of ornamenting a slow melody: there you divide a long note into many smaller notes. In both cases, it is the slow beat that guides, and the short notes that must fit in.

Once the exercise is going well, do this variant: The whole group maintains Tactus continuously with the hand and by saying “Tea”. Each individual takes a turn to speak a divided rhythm. Enjoy changing unexpectedly from one division to a contrasting one.

The concept of Divisions is closely related to the principle of Proportional Notation. Academics disagree on precisely how the notation of Monteverdi’s period should be de-coded, but the underlying principle is clear: the Tactus remains constant across each change. However, in the slow ternary rhythm of Sesquialtera, the movement of the hand is ‘unequal’: you spend longer on the Down than on the Up, whilst the complete Down/Up cycle takes the same time as before (about 2 secs). Try these Proportional changes, at first with the whole group, and then individually, as with the previous exercise.

Once you have the feeling for these changes in your Tactus Hand, and listening ears, try the same exercise again, reading from period notation. To keep things simple, my transcription has a complete Tactus movement (down-up) for each bar. This Tactus (and my bars) remain constant. In real 17th-century notation, the bar lengths may vary, or there might not be any bar-lines at all: it is the Tactus (not any arbitrary bar-length) that remains constant.

You can download Exercise Two as a pdf here: Tactus: Divisions & Proportions.


You can also make up your own words and rhythms. As the text changes, the phrasing will change too, within the steady beat of the constant Tactus. In my first example, notice the difference between Pour me a large cuppa and Pour it out steadily. That’s what it’s all about – this is how Tactus is ‘not metronomic’, how we can observe subtle Rhetorical (i.e. text-based) freedoms within the steady Tactus beat.


Exercise Three

Take a short polyphonic piece from your repertoire, something you already know, not too difficult, but with rhythmic differences between the parts. Ideally, a short movement or section of vocal polyphony.

Everyone beats Tactus, with the pendulum as a reference if required. Part by part, beginning with the bass and working upwards, the whole group speaks the rhythms of each individual part, guided by Tactus. If the music has text, speak those words; otherwise use doo-bee-doo, like Frank Sinatra. [Doo-bee-doo has Good and Bad syllables, so it produces text-like articulations, whereas Dah Dah Dah does not]

Then repeat the exercise, with the whole group maintaining Tactus, and each individual speaking their part in turn, beginning with the bass and working upwards.

Finally, repeat the exercise, with the whole group still maintaining Tactus, combining the individual parts: first bass alone, then bass and the next part up, then a trio of the three lowest parts, and so on until everyone is speaking.

Exercise Three with music

If your ensemble is a vocal consort, now repeat Exercise Three (in unison, individually, building up the polyphony from the bass) singing, whilst maintaining Tactus with your hands.

For instrumentalists, it’s rather more difficult, because you need your hands to play. Experiment with pushing your foot into the floor (down) and releasing (up) – not a light tap, but a slow throb. As you become accustomed to this, you can minimise and internalise the movement, into a sense of sinking into the floor (down) and floating free (up). Choosing a specific, small, subtle, and somewhat unusual movement helps your subconscious mind focus on those physical sensations, and link them to the focus on Tactus. Ultimately, your sense of Tactus is fully internalised, but can be instantly externalised into a foot-tap or hand-movement or a nod of the head, whenever needed (for example, to communicate with other ensemble members, or during rests).

Once instrumentalists have found and practised their “Look, no hands!” Tactus, then repeat Exercise Three (in unison, individually, building up the polyphony from the bass) playing, whilst maintaining Tactus internally, and with the pendulum.

In your first Tactus Training session, spend about 10 minutes on each exercise, half an hour in total. If you are properly focussed, that will be demanding (and rewarding) enough. Try to run the rehearsal that follows according to Tactus principles (see #4 below).

3. Maintenance exercises

You might need to repeat the Development Exercises over two or thee sessions. After that, you can incorporate a brief moment of Tactus work into your warm-up (just as you take a moment to tune together carefully at the start of the rehearsal).

Exercise One (Beat Tactus, eyes open/shut) 2 minutes

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

Exercise Three (Whichever piece you are working on) 2 minutes

If there is any feeling of agitation or stress, extending Exercise One will help you find calm and focus.

Run the rehearsal according to Tactus principles (see below).

4. Rehearsal techniques

The exercises above help you practise Tactus. But if you are going to have Tactus in your performance, you have to do Tactus throughout your rehearsals.

  • Use the pendulum as a reference. If you need a different tempo for a particular section, adjust the pendulum accordingly. However, the strong theory of Tactus suggests that (approximately) the same tempo should work for an entire piece, even for the entire repertoire, in this period.


  • Give frequent reminders to yourself and colleagues to ‘think in Tactus’. To begin with, it’s tempting to return to the modern habit of controlling each note-length as it comes along. Use some external movement, and/or the pendulum to reinforce your awareness of Tactus.


  • Word-accents (or musical accents) often, but not always, coincide with Tactus beats. The period terminology is not ‘accent’ (which has other meanings) but Good (for an accented syllable/note) and Bad (for an unaccented one). The Good, the Bad, and the Early Music phraseWhere you have a Good note, avoid a sharp ‘hammer-blow’ accent – rather look for a slow intensification: singers can be coached to intensify the vowel (not the intial consonant); string players can be asked to use a slow bow; anyone can be asked to make the note “slow developing” or “late blooming”.


  • Good/Bad should not be loud/soft. But they can be (subtly) long/short: Caccini’s terms for Good/Bad are Long/Short. More about Caccini.


  • The down-stroke of the Tactus will often (but not always) be associated with a slow-developing Good note.


  • If something is not together, resist the temptation to micro-analyse. Don’t get everyone’s minds focussed on tiny note-values. Rather check the Good/Bad notes, and then rehearse the difficult moment with everyone focussed on synchronising to the Tactus.


The two coaching hints that I repeat most often combine the Tactus principle (constant, steady Tactus) with the Rhetorical (i.e. text-based) concept of Good/Bad notes. In 17th-century poetry, the last syllable is nearly always Bad. Thus in 17th-century music, the last note is nearly always Bad.

Last note short! 

Hanging on to the last note results in a late entry on the new phrase, and shows the audience that the singer has lost touch with the words. After all, when you are speaking, you would not sustain the last, weak sylla-BLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLE…

17th-century composers will set a Good syllable onto a Good note. Just as observance of Good/Bad syllables brings poetry to life, so observance of Good/Bad notes creates fascinating articulation patterns, in contrast to the constant legato (or consistent mezzo-staccato) of mainstream playing.

Long notes long, short notes short!


In the next post in this series, we’ll work on Advanced Tactus Skills, using the subtle freedoms of the Tactus principle to create the Shape of Time.

Meanwhile, this video shows a vocal consort working with Tactus principles and the Good/Bad concept. They are using two different hand-techniques: some are using a simple gesture on the Good syllable; others are maintaining steady Tactus. At the time of this project, we had not fully realised the significance of the particular movement of historical Tactus (down/up, palm outwards): some singers are beating Tactus side-to-side, or palm up. And ultimately, all this movement should be internalised, with only one singer per choir actually beating Tactus with the hand. Nevertheless, I hope you will enjoy watching their work in progress, and listening to the result.  Video: Monteverdi in Tactus.

Praetorius (1620): three choirs, each with its own Tactus beater. The three Tactus-beaters face inwards, watching each other to synchronise the Tactus.

The next article in this series introduces Advanced Tactus Skills, with which you can create the Shape of Aristotelean Time.

Emotions in Early Opera

As a student in London in the early 1980s, I was told by some tutors (who should have known better) that there was no place for emotion in early music. But nowadays, in a development that owes more to changes in current social norms than to improved historical awareness, emotion has become a buzz-word amongst academics and performers aiike. Nevertheless, even amongst Early Music practitioners, the search for emotional intensity is often neither historical, nor informed.

Many directors and teachers do not work directly with performers’ emotional engagement. But handling emotions is a performance skill that must be taught, learnt, rehearsed and practised, like any other element of a well-rounded delivery. And, like every other aspect of musical and dramatic presentation, the performance practice of emotions changed over time, and between one location and another.

Most conservatoires, even those with a Historical Performance department, teach emotions (if at all) within a late romantic framework, focussing on the intensity of the performer’s emotional engagement, and modelled on the concept of the performer “expressing” their emotions through the medium of the composed score. But we have plenty of easily accessible and self-consistent period evidence as the basis for a more historically-informed approach.

In some debates amongst singers, an argument is sometimes advanced that seems dangerously close to saying: “just use more vibrato”! I am all in favour of historically informed use of vibrato, but let’s all agree that there is more to the rich inner world of human emotions than a wobble in the voice! Singing louder is also not the answer: in Cavalieri’s preface to the very first baroque music-drama, Anima & Corpo, he warns against forcing the voice, which would be detrimental to emotional communication. Rather, he (and many other sources) ask for frequent changes between forte and piano, and between contrasting emotions. Act with the heart, act with the hand: Motion and E-motion in  Cavalieri’s preface

In the urge to convey baroque passions, many performers reach for the Romantic tool of rubato. Nearly all of us were taught this in our initial training, but in earlier periods, Rhetorical emotions were framed within the structure of measured rhythm, guided by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Yes, this tactus could be tweaked according to changing emotions, but if you are not using Tactus in the first place, then you have no idea what you are tweaking! Frescobaldi Rules, OK? Caccini’s much-cited sprezzatura is even more misunderstood and mis-applied. The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura. It’s certainly not the secret of emotional vocals (read below what Cacinni says that secret actually is).

In this post, I offer a brief introduction to the vast topic of Historically Informed Performance of Emotions. The post is dedicated to participants in Opera Omnia’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608) from which only the famously emotional Lamento survives. But I hope the information will be useful to anyone working in early opera, indeed in any genre of baroque music.



There is ample historical evidence that emotions were highly significant in 17th-century music. The principal aim of Rhetoric is


muovere gli affetti – to move the Passions


From this well-known phrase, we should note two all-important points. Firstly, the historical discourse is not about “emotion” (singular), but about “Passions” (plural) and about “moving” from one Passion to another. All too often, modern-day coaches will ask for “more emotion!”. The performer might well ask in reply: “Which one?”. Emotion is not an all-purpose sauce that can be poured over any performance! In the historical context, we need to study various emotions, and practice moving between them.

Also, the concept of ‘moving the Passions’ begs the question: whose emotions are we trying to change? As soon as we ask the question, the answer is obvious: the audience’s. Here is the vital difference between Rhetorical (say, pre-1800) and Romantic concepts of emotional performance. In baroque opera, the purpose is to move emotions from the text and music into the hearts and minds of the audience; we do not really care about the performer’s own feelings. This is a world apart from the romantic cliché of the ‘genius performer, expressing emotions beyond those of the ordinary folk in the audience’!

Which Emotion?

Modern studies of emotions, facial expressions etc,  attempt various classifications, based on 6 or more principal emotions. In the Rhetorical age, emotions were understood within the concept of the Four Humours. Although this model does not entirely match modern medical science, psychologically it works very well and can be used very effectively in modern-day performance of early music, just as singers use suggestive imagery (alongside hard science) to guide vocal technique. Of course, the vast array of human emotions cannot be mapped onto just four types. But the Four Humours provide general directions for moving the Passions, just as the four cardinal points (North, South, East, West) provide general directions for travel.

The Four Humours are at work in poetry, music and visual arts; in personality traits, moods and emotional impulses; in performance; and in psychological and physiological responses. The four well-known types are Sanguine (love, courage, hope: a warm, moist, outward passion associated with generosity, enjoyment of music, good food and red wine); Choleric (anger, desire: a hot, dry, outward passion associated with violence and strong drink); Melancholy (thinking too much, unlucky in love, sleepless: a cold, dry inward passion associated with what we would today call ‘the blues’); Phlegmatic (passive acceptance: a cold, moist inward passion, the feeling one has when influenza seems to have filled the entire head and body with green phlegm).


Character roles and individual lines of text often combine subtle mixtures of Humours. Dramatic speeches and operatic scenes often move from one Humour to another. But in this style, there are often frequent changes from one Humour to its contrary, word by word: this was considered to be the most powerful way to ‘move’ the audience’s passions.


How to move the Passions


I use simple exercises to help performers experience and convey each of the Four Humours, spending time on exploring each Humour individually by words, postures and movements. Then we practise moving from one Humour to another: slowly at first, and then faster, so that we can snap from one Passion to its contrary.

Working with a specific text (dramatic speech, poem, opera libretto, song-text etc), we identify which Humour (or which blend of Humours) is at play, word by word. It’s very important to bring this analysis right down to the word-by-word level at which baroque emotions operate. The first exercise is to determine how to perform each word: what colour of voice, what facial expression, what physical posture etc? All of this goes far beyond ‘changes in dynamics’, the simple contrast of forte, piano etc. Rather, each individual word gives a wealth of nuanced information, making it unnecessary for the composer to indicate such ‘dynamic markings’, which would in any case be facile and shallow.

To optimise the delivery of each word, we have to match the precise meaning of each specific word. At first, students tend to suggest approximations: “let’s sing this word loud, warmly, with more vibrato, brightly etc.” But there is a better way, what I call

the  -LY principle

If the word is dolce ‘sweet’, sing it sweet-ly! If the word is amore ‘love’, sing it loving-ly! If the word is crudel ‘cruel’, sing it cruel-ly! And so on. The idea is simple, but powerful, and utterly historical. Try it! Experimental-ly!


Baroque Gesture is not merely a hand-ballet, though it should look elegant. Gesture is Rhetorical, i.e. based on the structure and passion of the words. And it’s always painfully apparent, when an actor puts their hand precisely where the director instructed, in the perfect historical position: it comes over to the audience academical-ly! Rather, each well-chosen and historically appropriate gesture has to be connected to, motivated (literally, set in motion) by the text, passionate-ly!

All this intense focus  – on the specific word being sung at the particular time  – results in increased Mindfulness, being ‘in the moment’. You don’t need to plan ahead or review backwards what you have just performed: stay intently in the present moment, and trust the librettist and composer to have done their job with (that previous element of Rhetoric), long-term structural planning.



The renaissance concept of the Music of the Spheres linked cosmic energy to the harmony of the human body and to practical  music-making. In parallel, period Science considered that emotions were communicated from performer to audience by Pneuma (the mystic spirit of creation, also the mystical energy of the body – like oriental chi – the mystical spirit of dramatic communication), transmitted as Enargeaia (the emotional power of detailed verbal description, poetic imagery, word-painting in baroque music), and carried by Energia (emotional energy) emitted from the actor’s eyes. You can practise believing this, whilst you perform: it will change what you are doing, in subtle, hard-to-describe, but powerful ways.

How to sing the Passions

The secret is not rubato, nor ornamentation (discouraged in the reciting style, according to Cavalieri, Peri, Monteverdi, Il Corago and many other early 17th-century sources), and certainly not vibrato. So what is it? How can we use the voice in this repertoire, passionately, appropriately, effectively?


Caccini’s preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) (here’s the link again) encapsulates the priorities, the method, and the technique, if you want to move your audience’s passions, in this repertoire. The priorities are Text and Rhythm: focus on the text, stay in the steady rhythm of Tactus. The method is a vocal production that is ‘between singing and speaking’ – see also Peri’s preface to Euridice (1600): you are not there to sing, your task is to help the audience understand every single word.


Don’t sing at me, speak to me!


By the way, the quickest way to destroy the illusion that you are ‘speaking’ in song, is to sustain the weak final syllable of the line. Amarilli, mia bel-LAAAAAA. So a very useful general rule is


Last note short!

Caccini’s recommended technique when there is a sustained note on a Good syllable, is to use crescendo/diminuendo on that single note. Caccini repeats this advice many times within his Preface, and he gives detailed examples of how to apply messa di voce (starting a long note softly, with crescendo) and exclamatione (starting a word like Ahi! or Deh! loud, then going immediately soft, and then crescendo). The standard way to present a long note is what I call


The Long Note Kit


Start softly and wait – then add crescendo – at the peak of the crescendo, relax and allow vibrato. Time this carefully with the Tactus, and with the typical process of Preparation-Dissonance-Resolution in a suspension. See How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles for more detail.


And that’s it. The crucial concepts are not academically complex, just remember SSS:

  • Speak each word according to its meaning
  • Stay in tactus
  • Shape long notes.


The challenge is that these simple ideas demand constant Mindfulness and intense concentration on Caccini’s priorities of Text and Rhythm. So of course, it’s much easier just to add vibrato and mess up the rhythm with rubato, and to create a false pretence of generalised emotion, without any particular link to what you are talking about. But the audience will see through that pretence, just as easily as we spot the insincerity of a fake politician!  So let your Passions be strong, your Tactus stable: don’t rely on weak rubato and wobbly vibrato!



For further reading, I highly recommend Joseph Roach The Player’s Passion, which analyses theories of acting in light of the history of science, examining acting styles from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and measuring them against prevailing conceptions of the human body. The author explores how dominant theories of emotion, from the Galenic humor to the Pavlovian reflex, have shaped the critic’s changing standards of the natural order of life and the actor’s physical embodiment of it. The Player’s Passion has become a classic among theater historians and students of acting, and received the prestigious Barnard Hewitt Award for outstanding research in theater history.

For an analysis of the use of 17th-century Rhetoric to ‘move the passions’  in terms of modern medical science, try The Theatre of Dreams, which takes the Prologue for La Musica, in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as a case-study.

How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles

Are you Arianna or Apollo? Orfeo or Euridice? Penelope or Ulisse? Nero or Poppea? Or are you fighting a Combattimento, writing a Lettera Amorosa, or dancing a Ballo?

Now you don’t have to go to Hell and back, to learn a baroque role. Here, to celebrate Monteverdi’s anniversary year, is a guide to studying his dramatic roles.

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. You can also read about WHY we are remaking Monteverdi’s Arianna.

This post was written to guide singing actors in that production, but is equally relevant to any of Monteverdi’s surviving music-dramas, including the three ‘operas’ [Monteverdi did not use the O-word] Orfeo, Ulisse Poppea as well as Combattimeno, the Balli and other works in genere rappresentativo [in show-style, i.e. meant for acting, not just singing].



Whilst our modern ideals of theatre might send us on a deep psychological investigation of the character of the role to be played, in this article I suggest an alternative, historically informed approach.

When, as modern HIP performers, we take on the role of Arianna or Apollo, there are two stages to our work. The first step is to acquire the skill-set of Francesco Rasi (the tenor who sang the roles of Orfeo in 1607 and Apollo & Bacco in 1608) or Virginia Andreini Ramponi, known as La Florinda (the commedia dell’arte actress who triumphed in the role of Arianna in 1608, surpassing all the court singers); the second task is for you-as-Rasi or you-as-La-Florinda to play your character role.

The first of these two stages – acquiring the skill-set of the best historical performers – is by far the more challenging. After all, it was hardly a stretch for Rasi (great singer, somewhat self-obsessed) to play Orfeo or for La Florinda (prima donna, fond of lamenting) to represent Arianna!



When the first ‘operas’ were performed, circa 1600, there was no such thing as an Opera Singer. Since the genre itself was new and experimental, there was no previously existing system for educating performers for new demands. Rather, the participants in these first fully-sung baroque music-dramas brought skill sets from other, related disciplines. Court and chapel singers (Euridice was played in 1607 by a ‘little priest’ castrato) had a high level of general musicianship, sight-reading and ensemble skills. Many of them were competent composers and skilled instumentalists. As courtiers, they would have been trained in Rhetoric and courtly Etiquette, and would know how to stand, move, gesture and how to comport themselves in courtly situations: in the presence of a Prince, in a duel, at a dance, on horseback etc. Much of what we would today consider to be historical stage-craft would have been understood in the period as everyday courtly behaviour.

A modern singer of baroque opera would do well to study Historical Dance, Historical Fencing, and for that matter horse-riding. For an introduction to courtly posture and gesture, i.e. the beginnings of period acting, Start HereCaccini sets out the priorities for singing c1600 as Text and Rhythm – read more from Caccini. Close study of the libretto is essential: the sung text includes many hints for movement, costume and characterisation, as well as a detailed map of ever-changing emotions – affetti. In this repertoire, the performer’s concentration is best kept ‘in the moment’, on the particularly word you are singing right now, on the affetto of this instant, ready for swift and bold changes from one affetto to its contrary, as Cavalieri recommends for the earliest surviving seicento music-drama, Anima e Corpo (1600), read more about how to Act with the Hand, Act with the Heart.

La Florinda’s success in Arianna (1608), surpassing all the star singers, reminds us of the basic meaning of the word recitare – it means ‘to act’. Musica recitativa is acted music, i.e. music-drama. Singers would do well to think less about the voce, and more about How to Act in this historical style. 

It is not your job, as performer, to create a big structure of emotions, drama or music for the whole work: trust the librettist and composer to have done their work in this area. Your job is to realise the text and music from moment to moment, structured by the slow, steady pulse of baroque rhythm – Tactus. This blog has many posts about 17th-century rhythm: here is a small selection. Rhythm – what really counts? introduces the concept of Tactus; the theory of Proportions is the secret to Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time and for a practical approach there is this Hands-on guide to Tactus

This post presents a step-by-step guide on how to study your role. If you go through these 10 exercises, you will be well on the path towards acquiring that 17th-century skill-set, your approach will be utterly historical and securely practical, and after at least 10 repetitions of each phrase, linking together text, music and gesture, the task of memorisation will also be well begun, if not yet completed.

Have fun – approach these exercises and your study in general in a spirit of enthusiastic but relaxed concentration. Learning a big role is not ‘a mountain to climb’, it’s a journey to experience and enjoy. And your first performance is not ‘the end of the road’, it’s just one more step on the path, a place from where there is a good view of the distance you have already covered, as well as of the endless road ahead.





1. Hold the music in your left hand

An easy one to start with, but it’s a game-changer! Acquiring this habit will allow you to make gestures with your right hand, one of the most important principles of historical acting.


2. Take up the contrapposto posture

If you do all your practice standing in period posture, that posture will gradually become ‘normal’ for you, and you will feel relaxed and look good in it, on stage.


  1. Stand diagonally, rather than square-on to your audience
  2. With your weight all on one foot (doesn’t matter which one)
  3. Bend the other (unweighted) leg, and let it show.
  4. Relax at the hips, so that your whole body forms an elegant curve.
  5. Your right hand is somewhat raised/extended
  6. Your left hand relaxed by the body (or holding your music!)
  7. Look out into the audience.
  8. Relax.



The toga is optional!

At first, you might find it difficult to maintain this posture. Don’t get tense, just switch your weight from one foot to the other, moving through the hips.  Relax, and let your weight fall through the supporting leg into the floor.

But don’t move too often, and – in this style – you don’t walk and talk at the same time.


If your singing teacher has taught you to centre and relax, dropping the weight down into your feet, super! Do this, but allowing the weight to fall from that centre through ONE leg.


Don’t bounce up and down. If your singer teacher has taught you to bend your knees before high notes, don’t let this be seen by anyone, ever!

Don’t stand square-on to your audience, knees bent in the sumo-wrestler position of certain famous modern coloratura sopranos. That’s not baroque! Rather, look at and imitate period paintings. Be as beautiful as a picture!



3. Speak the text, dramatically, like a great actor in a 1,000-seater hall.

3a. Paying close attention to Good/Bad syllables (this is period terminology for accented/unaccented syllables or notes: Caccini calls them Long/Short as in poetic analysis)
3b. And single/double consonants
3c. And the meaning of each individual word

You should be utterly comfortable with the text, ready to go on stage and act it in a spoken play. The anonymous 17th-century guide for a theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago (c1636) emphasises that singers should model their singing on the speech of a fine actor.

4. Speak the text again, waving your hand expressively on each Good syllable



On the final Bad syllable, just let your hand return to the body, relaxed.



5. Still speaking like a great actor, try to bring your spoken version close to the pitch-contours and rhythms of the music


In his preface to the first secular ‘opera’, Euridice (1600), Jacopo Peri explains that recitative is structured by the rhythm of the bass-line, and by the pitches of spoken declamation. Agazzari (1607) confirms that it is the continuo bass that ‘supports and guides the whole ensemble of instruments and voices’.


Check #1 (music in your left hand) and #2 (baroque posture) again!

6. Sing the music, beating TACTUS

With the palm outwards, move your hand down and up, about 1 second down, 1 second up. Keep the movement steady, smooth, relaxed but with calm inner strength. Think of a big, slow-moving pendulum. Or the hand of God, turning the wheels of the cosmos.


  • In C-time, this represents minims: down for one minim, up for the next.
  • In 3/2 time – tripla, this represents three minims: down for three, up for the next three.
  • In 3/1 time – sesquialtera, the complete movement represents three semibreves: down for two, up for the next one. The complete movement occupies the same total duration of time, but the movement is now unequal, down for two, up for one. You might need to practise changing from C to 3/1 and back again.

According to Zacconi (1592), Tactus is “even, solid, stable, firm… clear, secure, without fear and without any kind of wobbling” [equale, saldo, stabile, e fermo … chiaro, sicuro, senza paura, & senza veruna titubatione]


If you have trouble maintaining a steady beat, you can easily make yourself a Tactus-pendulum. Take a long string and tie something heavy to one end, to make a simple pendulum. You need 1 metre to make a 1-second beat (Mersenne, 1636).





Whilst dramatic music is guided by Tactus, as the historical concept of rhythm, there was no conductor in early ‘opera’ (Il Corago specifically rules out beating time in recitative), and of course actors cannot beat Tactus on stage (nor even in a courtly performance in genere rappresentativo, as Monteverdi indicates for the Lettera amorosa]. So the next exercise asks you to feel the Tactus internally, whilst you use your hand in a new way, linked to the Text.

7. Sing the music, waving your hand on the Good syllables, not on the Bad

This is the same as #4, but singing, rather than speaking. Many singers find that their good speaking habits get overwhelmed by bad singer habits, as soon as they start to sing. So…

7a. Check that you do not wave your hand on any Bad syllable.

7b. Check that your hand is already relaxed on the last (Bad) syllable

7c. And sing this last note short, just as you would speak it.

The next exercise refines this, by taking into account the length of the composed notes. Some singers reduce the contrast between long and short notes: such laziness makes the performance boring. Don’t do that! A most useful reminder in this style is “Long notes long, short notes short”, within the steady pulse of the Tactus.

8. Sing the music, waving your hand slow/quick according to the length of Good syllables

If the note is long, move your hand slowly at the beginning, so that you have plenty of movement in reserve for the end of the note. You’ll find that doing this exercise changes the way you sing long notes – that’s the whole idea of the exercise!

8a. Apply the Long Note Kit to Good syllables on Long Notes



  • Start the note slowly and straight.
  • Wait as long as possible.
  • Crescendo towards the end of the note
  • At the very end, relax the crescendo and allow vibrato to happen

Plaine note (with messa da voce),
Waived note (with messa da voice and late-arriving vibrato)
Roger North (1695)
cited in Greta Moens-Hanen
“Das Vibrato in der Musick des Barock”

For a fine demonstration of baroque vibrato, listen to Whitney Houston And I will always love you


9. Alternating Tactus and Good/Bad hand-movements, alternating speaking and singing, bring the sung version as close to speech as possible, structured by Tactus.

In this exercise, as you change between various options (speech/song; Tactus/word-accents) the aim is to unify all these into a version that is ‘between speech and song’ [Peri & Caccini], with exciting contrasts of word-accents (the essential ingredient of good poetry) and steady Tactus (the essential ingredient of 17th-century music).


Check #1 (music in the left hand) & #2 (baroque posture) again!

10. Perform the whole  speech, thinking of the meaning of the word, each time you wave your hand on a Good syllable.

Do this several times speaking, before you try to combine gesture with singing. The gestures you want are text-based, speech-based: quite different from typical gestures of modern singers.

One of the simplest, but most powerful gestures is simply to point (typically with the whole hand, rather than a single finger) at whatever you mention in your speech. See Baroque Gesture: what’s the Point? 



And the ut pictura principle encourages you to create a mental image of whatever you are talking about, so that your gestures are directed towards imaginary objects in your vision, as well as to real objects, dialogue partners etc, on stage with you.


But as Cavalieri reminds us, 17th-century Action is not only hand-gestures – it’s also movements of the whole body, the way you walk, and especially facial expressions and Energia from the eyes.


Two things you don’t have to worry about: ornaments (many sources, including Cavalieri & Monteverdi, warn against ornamenting in this style); your own emotions. The concept of ‘moving the Passions’ – muovere gli affetti – is concerned with changing the audience’s emotions: not yours. Some performers like to work ‘hot’, being very involved themselves in the emotions of the moment, others prefer to stay ‘cool’, keeping control of their own feelings so as to be better able to influence the audience: most people find a good balance between those two extremes. But in this style, we are not interested in the performer’s emotions, we are trying to sway the audience’s feelings. That’s what matters.

So now you are ready to perform, playing the role of Rasi playing the role of Bacco… or playing the role of La Florinda playing the role of Arianna.

And as Dorilla (Arianna’s irrepressibly positive maid-servant) would say:


(Don’t worry, be happy!)



Alessandro Turchi ‘Bacchus & Ariadne’ (c1630). Historical Action is more than just Baroque Gesture.

How – in what format- to remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

ARIANNA a la recherche

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. Singers, continuo, instrumentalists and technical theatre specialists may apply to take part, here.



HOW to remake Monteverdi’s lost Arianna?


The first article in this series explores “WHY remake Ariannahere. Right now, I’m in the midst of the research and creative process of writing my own remake of Monteverdi’s lost Arianna: the prologue and finale have been composed, and I’m polishing the detailed plans for the many choruses and small ensembles.

There are two parts to the question of ‘how’ to remake a lost baroque opera: how should the result come out, what kind of work should it be? And how should that result be achieved, by what methodology? This post looks as the first part of the ‘how’ question: what is the remake intended to be?

Inspired by the impeccable scholarship, yet fundamentally practical approach of Tim Carter’s book, Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre here, I have a clear goal in mind. I’m not trying to re-create a lost musical masterpiece: I’m writing the score for a music-drama, for a performance in a theatre, with singers and musicians, and for an audience. Just as was the case for Monteverdi in Mantua in 1608, whatever ideas I might have of an ‘ideal’ composition, I have to write for the situation at hand, for particular performers, for a particular venue, for the anticipated audience.

If this project lives on, and my remade Arianna has a revival, perhaps with another cast, maybe in another venue, certainly with another audience, then there will need to be certain changes, for practical reasons. This is what we see, for example, in the two manuscript sources of Poppea, which reflect not only changes made after the premiere, but also further changes for two different productions, in two different cities, Venice and Naples.


Keeping a practical outcome in mind encourages me to see the libretto not only as a text to be set to music, but also as the script for a theatrical performance, with hints of scenery, costumes, entrances and exits, of the emotional background and changing moods of the various characters. Without wanting to impose a Stanislavski-style, method-actor’s back-story on every anonymous chorus-member, there are nevertheless clear differences in character between the various soloists from the choir (I’m grateful to Tim Carter for the suggestion to investigate such differences). In Orfeo (1607), these ensemble-soloists are named as Pastori (idealised Shepherds in pastoral Arcadia); in Arianna (1608), they are members of a choir of Pescatori (similarly idealised Fishermen, who tend their nets just as the shepherds tend their sheep, and who – like the Pastori – spend their free time in love-affairs, singing and dancing). Following Professor Carter’s lead, and with his many helpful comments in private correspondence, my organisation of the various choirs – Soldiers of Teseo, Fishermen, and Soldiers of Bacchus – reflects cues and clues given by the sung texts.

Considering the end result as a theatrical performance, rather than merely a musical score, also encourages thinking about gesture, one of the most important aspects of rhetorical delivery and character acting. Indeed, the anonymous c1630 Il Corago  here defines acting as ‘imitating with gesture’.

Recitare … imitando le azioni umane, angeliche o divine con la voce e gesti… rappresentare le medisme azione cantando

To act… by imitating the human, angelic or divine actions with the voice and with gestures… to perform the same action singing.

[Notice that the 17th-century Italian word recitare means simply ‘to act’: it does not carry the baggage of our modern assumptions about Recitative. Indeed, Il Corago’s definition lists three ways of acting – tre maniere di recitare: spoken drama, sung ‘opera’, and wordless mime.]

Whilst there is tendency nowadays to think of gesture as a ‘bolt-on’ extra to historically informed musical performance, historical sources make it clear that Action (not only gestures of the hands, but facial expressions and movements of the whole body) was fundamental, ‘built-in’ from the outset. As he began work on a new project, Monteverdi himself searched through the libretto, looking for powerful emotions to express, and also for gestures (implied by the words) which could be imitated in instrumental music.

In a series of letters to Alessandro Striggio (who wrote the libretto for Orfeo) concerning an opera being planned in 1627, La finta pazza Licori (a few months later the project was abandoned), Monteverdi discusses and links the concepts of ‘imitation’ (dramatic representation, whether in acting, singing or instrumental music) and gesture.

The words [should] mimic either gestures or noises or any other kind of imitative idea that might suggest itself (24 May)

I am constantly aiming to have lively imitations of the music, gestures and tempi take place beind the scene (10 July)

So instrumental music (played di dentro, behind the scenic backdrop, as specified in Orfeo) would imitate not only the singer’s music (the lead role was to be sung by Margherita Basile), but also her acting, specifically her gestures. Monteverdi’s instructions for the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda similarly call for the actors’ passi & gesti, the instrumentalists’ varied sounds and the declamation of the text to be delivered in such a way that the three Actions (i.e. three ways of presenting drama) come together in a united representation.

che le tre ationi venghino ad’incontrarsi in una imitatione unita.

Rehearsing Combattimento in Andrew Lawrence-King’s production for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, incorporating swordplay from Capo Ferro (1610).


In both these works, Monteverdi’s aim was for his music to create effetti – not only a good effect in general, but also the ‘special effects’ of non-musical noises (e.g. the sounds of battle), and the emotional effect of ‘moving the passions’ – affetti. In this remake of Arianna, my aim is similarly to unite the essential concepts underlying Monteverdi’s vision of what we now call ‘opera’: drama as Action; acting as Gesture (of hands, face and the whole body); music and acting as Imitation; musical Effects that move the Affects (the audience’s emotions); all rooted in the communicative power (Energia) of detailed poetic imagery Enargeia.

Read more about affetti/effetti, Energia/Enargeia in Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche here.



Three ways to represent Monteverdi’s lost Arianna


Our project is certainly not the first attempt to construct an opera around the Lamento d’Arianna. Of course, many ensembles have programmed other baroque music around the Lament, in order to create structure and flow, perhaps even a dramatic plot, within a concert performance. But in 1995, Alexander Goehr composed a modernist score for an ensemble including extensive pitched percussion, saxophone, sampler etc, but preserving some of Monteverdi’s vocal lines. A couple of excerpts are available to listen to on YouTube, the Lament here and another scene here both from the 1998 recording. In spite of the talented cast of singers, critical reviews were unfavourable. Writing for both Musical Times and Opera News, Tom Sutcliffe dismissed the project as ‘perfunctory’: ‘The opera reached its nadir in Goehr’s setting of the great surviving fragment itself [..] the harmonic implications of Goehr’s bass-line distortions destroyed the dramatic build-up’.

In 2015, Claudio Cavina, director of the ensemble La Venexiana, presented a semi-staged performance of his assemblage of Monteverdi’s music, reset to the texts of Rinuccini’s Arianna libretto. Using contrafacta in this way is a thoroughly historical procedure – we have 17th-century settings of Monteverdi madrigals to devotional texts and even a contrafactum of Arianna’s Lamento with a religious text in Latin, the Pianto della Madonna. The proof of a good contrafactum is not only that the word-setting works in terms of accentuation, word-painting and changes of affetto, but also that any remembered associations connected to the original text complement the new function of the music. This requires careful consideration and adaptation of the new text and the pre-extant music. Whatever success the private performance in 2015 enjoyed was sadly eclipsed by Maestro Cavina’s subsequent illness, preventing any follow-up to the initial experiment. It is to be hoped that he will continue to make a full recovery, and perhaps even return to the challenges of Arianna.


Alessandro Turchi ‘Bacchus & Ariadne’ (c1630). Historical Action is more than just Baroque Gesture!


My re-make differs from both these previous projects in that the final product is intended to be a Historically Informed baroque performance (not only musically, but in the stage production too), and that it is new-composed, rather than an assemblage of contrafacta. Nevertheless my writing is carefully modelled on Monteverdi’s c1608 compositions.

In a number of works of this period, a particular word or short phrase is set to precisely the same notes. A good example is Ohime!, often set falling through a ‘forbidden’ interval, c F#, syncopated against a strong bass D between the two syllables.Probably this is the musical representation of a conventional way of declaiming such words in the spoken theatre, which (as Peri tells us) is the model for seicento recitative. Where such words or short phrases occur in Rinuccini’s Arianna, I’m copying Monteverdi’s standard recipe for them. So the word mirate is set in my constructed final scene to the same rising third to which it is set in Monteverdi’s music for the Lamento.

In other instances, a similar poetic image within a longer phrase, calls forth a similar (but not identical) musical setting. This encourages me to take suitable models from Monteverdi’s oeuvre as inspiration for a similar (but not identical) parallel setting. Thus my string ritornello for Apollo’s Prologue, a tenor singing tenderly to the lyre of love – su cetera d’amor teneri carmi – takes its rhythmic structure and rising phrases from the ritornello to the tenor solo from Monteverdi’s Book VII (1619)  Tempro la cetra – I tune my lyre to sing the honour of Mars, god of war. But instead of the hard hexachord of G major harmonies and sharpened notes in Monteverdi’s melody, my music for Apollo’s cetra adopts the soft hexachord with G minor harmonies and melodies with Bb, Eb and F. Of course, it’s important that any associations my models evoke are appropriate: here, if the listener is reminded of another lyre being tuned, that’s all to the good, especially if the listener also appreciates the significance of the shift from warlike major to pastoral, even melancholy minor, from hard to soft hexachords in period terminology.

Of course, I’m taking care to provide appropriate word-painting, whenever the poetry calls for a gesture that can be imitated in music. Apollo’s first words Io che ne l’alto… (I, who on high…) naturally require a high note on alto, matching the actor’s upward extended right hand.

My next article will continue this theme of ‘How to remake Arianna’, with a detailed comparison between Monteverdi’s procedures in setting the libretto and the methodology I am evolving for this challenging (not to say, daunting) project!


It was Professor Carter, playing devil’s advocate, who first challenged my Arianna project with the question, “Why?”. Since then, he has been immensely generous with comments, guidance and historical information. Inevitably, we will disagree here and there, but this project could not succeed without him. Thank you, Tim.


Why remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?

ARIANNA a la recherche

At the end of September 2017, OPERA OMNIA will present the premiere of Andrew Lawrence-King’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), performed by the young professionals and advanced students of the International Baroque Opera Project at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’. Read more about the project here. Singers, continuo, instrumentalists and technical theatre specialists may apply to take part, here.


WHY remake Monteverdi’s Arianna?


Recalling the famous question, why climb Mount Everest, I’m tempted to answer for Arianna, “because it’s not there!”. All that survives of the original music is the famous Lamento, published for voice and continuo in 1623, also transcribed as a 5-voice madrigal and in religious contrafacta. As Tim Carter writes in Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre (2002), Monteverdi regarded Arianna, composed in Mantua the year after Orfeo, as his greatest work for the stage; he revived it as his first production for the public theatre in Venice (1640);  it came closest to the via naturale alla immitatione, ‘the natural way to represent’ drama in music.

Arianna was by all accounts a huge success, and its central lament for the protagonist reportedly moved the ladies in the audience to tears.


Certainly, the construction of almost the entire opera is a formidable challenge, a musicological and artistic mountain to climb, with a huge pile of text to set, including a Prologue for Apollo and a virtuoso final aria for Bacchus, both sung by Francesco Rasi, who also sang the title-role in Orfeo. Any half-way decent setting will present a similar challenge to performers and an intriguing experience for audiences, as well offering irresistible grist to the mill of critics and musicologists.


So ARIANNA a la recherche attempts to set the famous Lament in context, with all due humility that the exercise of imitating Monteverdi can never be more than an exploration, an Essay in music, a baroque Versuch.


It is the task of the historian to create appropriate frames of reference within which Monteverdi’s works might plausibly have been viewed and understood by competent members of their first audiences. We are helped by various more or less obvious signposts in the works themselves; we are hindered by the unclear nature of early seventeenth-century theatrical and musical semiotics. Much hangs on the question of how precisely the music both informs and shapes our understanding….

Constructing meaning is an exercise both challenging and fraught with danger. But it is an essential part of the theatrical experience.


And the investigation of this ‘lost opera’ is a fascinating research project, following Professor Carter’s lead once again:


The longest chapter in [Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre] concerns the ‘lost’ works, where Monteverdi’s music does not survive, for all that one can still say a good deal about it. In general, however, my approach tends to be less philosophical or aesthetic than pragmatic; I am not so much concerned with my own, or even Monteverdi’s grand statements as with the nuts and bolts of how a seventeenth-century musician might have written for, and worked within, the theatre.


Composing, rehearsing and performing a setting of Rinuccini’s libretto (which survives in several variant editions) is the ultimate practical investigation, a hands-on study that should complement traditional musicology and reveal new insights.


Treating Monteverdi’s operas … as being of and for the theatre does not diminish their stature.

The status of his operas as the first ‘great’ examples of the genre means that they are rarely studied in this more practical light: thus their careful design and even content made to suit his performers have not hitherto been fully appreciated. Not that these works suffer as a result; indeed, one is forced to recognise still more Monteverdi’s remarkable achievement as a man of the theatre.



It’s always possible that the publicity surrounding this ‘reconstruction’ might flush out of hiding an original source for Monteverdi’s setting, held perhaps by some private collector, or buried in some as yet un-catalogued archive. For performers and academics of the future, this would be a great result from our humble endeavour. And the investigatory effort would not be wasted: on the contrary, comparisons between original and reconstruction would reveal gaps in our knowledge and understanding.


Reverse-Engineering Arianna


Many of the world’s most inspiring teachers take the trouble also to study new disciplines, deliberately placing themselves at the other end of the teacher/pupil axis. For this, amongst other reasons, I began studying Tai Chi. In the academic study of any of the arts, the reverse side of the coin from analysis is creativity. Early Music, our discipline of Historically Informed Performance, is sometimes characterised as searching to understand and follow the composer’s intentions: the reverse of that process is to become the composer oneself, transforming the libretto not only into a musical score, but into a dramatic performance and an emotional experience for the audience.


In short, the journey ‘a la recherche’ of lost Arianna is empowered by the connections between Research, Training and Performance that define the theatrical mission of OPERA OMNIA, that have guided my academic and artistic work ever more strongly over the last decades. I hope that, in your different individual ways, you will be interested to join us on this unique journey.


[Pioneering musicologist, Nino] Pirrotta wished to dispel any lingering Romantic vision of Monteverdi as a transcendental genius, and the related claim that opera as a genre emerged fully formed and perfect in his hands. Rather, he sought to place the composer and his work for the theatre squarely in the context of his life and times. Monteverdi was a working musician… and his operas, for all their undoubted status as masterpieces, were the product of artistic struggle where problems were exposed and not always solved.



It was Professor Carter, playing devil’s advocate, who first challenged my Arianna idea with the question, “Why?”. Since then, he has been immensely generous with comments, guidance and historical information. All the musicological citations in this article are from Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre. Inevitably, we will disagree here and there, but this project could not succeed without him. Thank you, Tim.



So much for “Why?”. The next question is of course, “How?”. Watch for my next post!

Act with the hand, act with the heart: motion and e-motion in Cavalieri’s Preface to ‘Anima & Corpo’


On the occasion of the 50th performance in repertoire of Cavalieri’s Anima & Corpo in George Isaakyan’s production Игра о душе и теле at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’ [Golden Mask award-winner in 2013], this article offers a translation of the Preface to the 1600 print, in which the publisher, Alessandro Guidotti, presents Cavalieri’s advice on ‘how to create a baroque opera’. Published in association with OPERA OMNIA Academy for Early Opera & Dance, read more here.


Emilio de Cavalieri’s ‘Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo’ (1600) is indeed the ‘first opera’. Jacopo Peri, whose ‘Euridice’ was performed later the same year, acknowledges Cavalieri’s role as originator of the style. (Earlier music-dramas by these two composers, notably Peri’s ‘Dafne’, have not survived.) So how did Cavalieri and his contemporaries seek to develop a new theatrical genre of fully-sung plays?


Guidotti’s original print with the full text of the Preface is available free online, here. More about Cavalieri’s music-drama here. Any (modern-day) debate about whether this work is ‘the first opera’ or ‘the first oratorio’ is icrrelevant, since neither genre existed in 1600. The original designation is Rappresentatione – a representation, a show. Cavalieri’s music-drama on a moral subject is the earliest surviving example of the genere rappresentativo: it is through-sung in three Acts with a spoken Prologue, two Sinfonias to separate the Acts and a final Ballo. We are very fortunate that this beautifully printed score was published, a sumptuous collector’s item for seicento music-lovers, as a souvenir of the original production.

The Preface has very little discussion of airy philosophy. This is a practical guide, drawing on Cavalieri’s long experience as a Corago (artistic director) for spectacular theatrical entertainments involving music. And clearly, in composing Anima & Corpo Cavalieri followed his own advice, so that his music-drama is a perfect example of how to put into practice the principles he recommends.

This practical approach is found again circa 1630 in the anonymous MS Il Corago, and the two sources are remarkably consistent in their advice. Framing the period of court ‘opera’ as they do [Venetian commercial opera  began in 1737], these two practical guides give us a clear understanding of the working priorities for the first ‘operas’ by Peri, Caccini, Gagliano and Monteverdi as well as offering insight into Roman music-dramas.

I’ve chosen a simple style of translation that stays close to Guidotti’s vocabulary and word-order, so that it’s easy to check the English version against the original Italian.  Difficult or old words, or words whose meaning has changed since 1600 have been been translated using John Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary. So that readers can distinguish my comments from Cavalieri’s text, my commentary appears below in red. 

One way to discover Cavalieri’s priorities is simply to count how often he mentions key words. Crucial concepts emerge clearly:

  • Contrast: diversi mutare varieta variare cambiar  and their derivatives, 9 hits
  • Passions: affetti and derivatives 6 hits;
  • Specific Passions: pieta giubilo painto riso mesto allegro feroce mite etc, 10 hits
  • Moving [the passions]: commova, muovere and derivatives 5 hits

This supports the argument that seicento music favours contrast, emotion, and contrasts of emotion. The importance of specific emotions and of changes one from emotion to another differs subtly from the Romantic aim for intensity of emotion. Sometimes, modern-day coaches ask singers for ‘more emotion’, as if emotion itself were a quality, as if one could pour all-purpose emotion into a performance, like pouring sauce. But in this repertoire, a request for ‘more emotion’ begs the question: ‘which one?’. A more appropriate coaching method for seicento opera is to look for, and intensify changes between specific emotions.

Other words also recur frequently:

  • Recitando: with its derivatives, 6 hits
  • Gesture: gesti, motivi, 5 hits
  • Rappresentatione: with its derivatives 4 hits, plus 6 more mentions of specific genres of theatrical show
  • Ballo: together with the verb ballare and their derivatives, 18 hits, plus 7 more mentions of specific genres/dance types, plus many mentions of specific steps

Recitare must be understood in its period meaning: certainly not ‘to sing Recitative’, and usually not as specific as ‘to Recite’ [whether singing or speaking]. The principle meaning is ‘to Act’. It’s important to keep this distinction in mind, and to avoid the modern assumption that there is a musical genre of ‘Recitative’, which has different rules from ‘normal’ seicento music. Cavalieri is discussing how to act in a stage show, specifically in a stage show that is through-sung (what we nowadays call ‘opera’).

Three decades later, Il Corago defines acting as ‘imitating with gesture’, whether silent, spoken or sung. Gesture is a vital part of early seicento acting, but as Cavalieri reminds us (below), it comprises not only gestures of the hand but motivi of the whole body. Period ‘body language’ is described in exhaustive detail in Bonifaccio’s L’Arte de Cenni (Vicenza, 1600), my English translation will be published later this year. My introduction to historical acting for the first operas, Shakespeare etc starts here.

We should keep in the back of our minds the academic nicety that Cavalieri’s music-drama was not called ‘opera’, with all the anachronistic expectations that word arouses, but rappresentatione: a show. And it’s quite a surprise to see how significant dancing is in Italian music-drama, conventionally regarded as text-based and opposed to later French ideals of dance-dramas. But in the context of Cavalieri’s experience as overall artistic director, his triumph with the dance-finale to the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, his practical insistence on variety and lively entertainment for the audience, and comparisons with the later Il Corago MS, as well as the popularity of social dancing in this period, dancing emerges as vital theme, often undervalued, in the development of the ‘first operas’.

All these key words – contrast, passion, acting, gesture, theatrical shows, dancing –  are encapsulated in the period phrase muovere gli affetti, ‘moving the passions’. Cavalieri’s practical guide is all about motion and E-motion.


If you want to present on stage this work or others similar to it, and follow the advice of Signor Emilio del Cavaliere, so that this type of music, which he has revived, moves [the listeners] to different passions, such as to pity and to joy; to crying and to laughter and to others similar, as has been seen to be effective in the modern scene of La Disperatione di Fileno [The Despair of Fileno], composed by him, in which the acting of Signora Vittoria Archilei, whose excellence in music is very well known to all moved [the listeners] to tears marvellously, whilst the role of Fileno moved [them] to laughter:

Cavaliere is described as having ‘revived’, not ‘invented’ this type of music – dramatic monody, the representation in music of speech on stage. This reflects the period interest in re-discovering the power of emotional communication they had read about in classical Greek and Latin drama. The idea of ‘moving the passions… to tears and laughter’ is therefore a key topic.

As I say, if you want to put the show on, necessarily every element should be excellent: the singer should have a beautiful, well-pitched voice, they should keep the voice steady, they should sing with passion, piano and forte, without divisions (ornamentation) and in particular that they should pronounce the words well so that they [the words] are understood, and they should accompany them with gestures and motions not only of the hands, but of steps as well – these are most effective aids in moving the passion.

This advice for singers is an excellent check list of essential skills. Keeping the voice ‘steady’ encourages solid, well-supported voice-production and reminds us that vibrato is welcomed as an ornament, or a special effect, rather than as constant. Some early-music singers may be surprised to read that ornamentation is very restricted in this genre: passagi  are prohibited, and cadential ornaments (discussed below) appear only infrequently. But Cavalieri’s restrictions on ornamentation are consistent with other sources, including Il Corago.

The instruments should be well played, and more or fewer in number according to the venue, whether a theatre or hall, which to be proportionate for this acting in music should not have a capacity of more than a thousand people, who should be comfortably seated, for greater silence and for their own satisfaction: since if you put on a show in a very large hall, it is not possible to make the words heard for everyone, and then it would be necessary for the singer to force, from which cause the passion is reduced; and so much music, lacking audible text, becomes boring.

Monteverdi’s Orfeo was played in a ‘small venue’, and most modern commentators are sceptical about period claims that Arianna  had an audience of 6,000 Nevertheless, Cavalieri’s ideal venue is rather larger than the 400/500-seater chamber-music halls we sometimes think of as typical for early opera. And there is plenty more about large-scale ensembles below. But two important concepts from are already getting their second mention: no forcing (singers should even sing piano, when appropriate); it’s essential that the audience understands the words. And (singers take note!) in this repertoire passion is reduced if you sing too loud – as every actor knows, over-playing lines, shouting, generally ‘chewing the carpet’ just turns the audience off.

The need for the audience to be silent reminds us of the last stanza of the Prologue to Orfeo, in which La Musica calls on all nature (and by techniques similar to modern-day NLP, the audience too) to be still and silent.  Read more about how La Musica hypnotises the heroes… 

And the instruments, so that they are not seen, should be played from behind the backcloth of the scene, and by people who go along with the singer, without diminutions [ornamentation] and full [sound]. And to throw some light on those that have been useful in similar places, a lirone, a harpsichord, a chitarrone or theorbo as it is called, together make a really good effect: like also a soft organ with a chitarrone.

Cavalieri seems to seek the illusion that characters on-stage are just speaking, by hiding the instruments. In this period, the continuo ‘supports’ singers, ‘guiding’ the whole ensemble [Agazzari 1608, further discussion here], rather than ‘accompanying’ or ‘following’ in the modern sense [more about Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz here]. Continuo-players should not add diminutions, but should play with full sound (to ‘support’ as Agazzari requires]. Many period sources ask the continuo to play grave.

Monteverdi also specifies organo di legno and theorbo in several places in Orfeo.

And Signor Cavaliere would praise changing instruments according to the passion of the actor; and he judges that similar music-dramas would not be good if they exceeded two hours, and should be divided up into Acts, and the characters should be dressed beautifully and with variety.

Changes of continuo instruments in Orfeo are according to the changing affetti: it’s not as simple as putting a certain instrument with each character (a solution sometimes favoured today).

Passing from one passion to another contrary, like from sad to jolly, from fierce to mild etc is enormously moving.

Cavalieri requires changes of emotion, and specific emotions – not just dollops of undifferentiated emotionality. And the importance of all kinds of contrast is beginning to emerge as a central principle.

When a soloist has sung for a bit, it’s good to sing some choruses, and to vary often the mode [tonality]; and that now the soprano sings, now bass, now contralto, now tenor: and that the rhythms and music should not be similar, but varied with many proportions [metres], which are Tripla , Sestupla [fast triple metre] and Binario [duple metre], and adorned with echos, and as many features [‘inventions’] as possible, like in particular [dances in varied metres], which bring these shows to life as much as possible, just as has been, in fact, the judgement of all the spectators;. and these Balli or Morescas if they can be made to appear out of the ordinary standard practice, they will have more beauty and novelty: like for example, the Moresca for a battle, and the Ballo based on a game or pastime: just like in  La Pastorale di Fileno [The Pastoral of Fileno] three Satyrs came to battle, and based on this they did the battle singing and dancing on the Moresca ground. And in the game of La Cieca  [Blind Man’s Buff] four Nymphs sang and danced, whilst they played around a blindfolded Amarilli, obeying the rules of the game of La Cieca.

Cavalieri calls for plenty of variety, contrast and novelty. He mentions Tripla and Sestupla, but not the slow triple-metre proportion of Sesquialtera [though all three triple-metres appear in Monteverdi’s Orfeo]. Given the strong correlation between the Preface and the music that follows, we would expect to find Tripla and Sestupla but not Sesquialtera when we realise Cavalieri’s notation of the proportional changes. My theory of proportions is supported by Cavalieri, some other modern-day theories are not. Read more about Monteverdi’s Time, here.

That’s certainly not to say that one shouldn’t do at the end with good reason a formal Ballo: but be well advised that the Ballo needs to be sung by the same [performers] who dance it, and with good reason to have instruments in their hands, which they themselves also play, for like this it will be more perfect and out of the ordinary, like that one which was put on by Signor Emilio in the great Comedy acted at the time of the wedding of the Most Serene Duchess of Tuscany in 1588.

The reference here is to Cavalieri’s spectacular success with the Ballo del Gran Duca, the finale to the Florentine Intermedi of 1589 [modern calendar]. There is more about performers simultaneously singing, dancing and playing below. The fact that singers simultaneously dance has implications for choice of dance steps and for proportions – leaping steps are impracticable for singers. See also this discussion of Cavalieri’s ideas applied to the Ballo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

When the composition is divided into three Acts, which according to experience gained should be sufficient, one would be able to add four fully-staged Intermedi, distributed so that the first would be before the Prologue, and each of the others at the end of its Act, observing this rule, that within the scene one makes small-scale music and a harmonious sinfonia of instruments, to the sound of which should be coordinated the movements of the Intermedio, having regard that there is no need for [sung or spoken] acting, as there would not be for example in showing the Giants who wanted to make war on Jupiter, or something similar.

Cavalieri’s term is intermedij apparenti – these include ‘sets and costumes, as well as recognisable narrative fragments, usually adapted from mythology; these are associated with the most spectacular of court entertainments… In contrast, intermedi non apparenti were far simpler, often consisting merely of a madrigal and performed without [changes of] costumes or sets.’  [Emily Wilbourne Seventeenth-Century Opera and the Sound of the Commedia dell’ Arte (University of Chicago, 2016, page 37)

The impression of seamless continuity given by the printed scores of Anima & Corpo and Orfeo is probably misleading: Cavalieri is recommending inserting Intermedi into this kind of three-act music-drama. But – an important point – since the drama itself is sung, the intermedi should avoid singing, whereas in a spoken drama such as La Pellegrina (Florence 1589), sung intermedi provide contrast as well as spectacle. Within Anima & Corpo itself, there are episodes (e.g. the entrance of Piacere and the Companions) that come close to being intermedi non apparenti. Indeed, the dramatic structure of the whole work, as a series of entrances, linked by the characters of Soul and Body whose story we follow [Intellect and Consiglio also make repeat appearances]

And in each [Intermedio] one could make that change of scenery appropriate to the theme of the Intermedio: which, it should be advised,  would not be able to include descending from clouds [stage machines], which could not synchronise the movement with the tempo of the Sinfonia, which would happen beautifully when there are Moresca or other dance-steps.

In the Preface to La Dafne (1608), Gagliano advises singers to walk in time to the music of their Ritornelli. But nevertheless, this comment of Cavalieri’s is puzzling: when can a descending cloud be appropriate, since there will always be the difficulty of synchronising its movement to the accompanying music?

The libretto should not exceed 700 lines, and to be suitable it should be easy, and full of short lines, not just of 7 syllables, but of 5 and 8, and sometimes in sdruccioli [accent on the ante-penultimate syllable] and with close rhymes, through the beauty of the music it makes a graceful effect:

Cavalieri is arguing for relatively simple poetry – the music will supply whatever gracefulness that might be lacking. High-style poetry would be in 11 and 7 syllable lines, and close rhymes would be avoided. Again, Cavalieri’s preference is for entertaining variety.

And in the dialogues statements and replies should not be very long; and the narratives of one solo [character] should be as brief as possible. And there is no doubt that the variety of characters enriches the scene with great beauty; as is seen well observed in the Pastorals of Satiro and of  La Disperatione di Fileno, which, conforming with the intentions of Signor Emilio, the most noble Signora Laura Guidiccioni, of the Luchesini, noble lady of Lucca was happy to write; she also took the game of La Cieca from Signor Cavalier Guarini’s Pastor Fido, adapting that noble spirit very beautifully for her own purpose.

Once again, Cavalieri argues for contrast and variety.



Placed at the end [of the published book] are the words without music, and with numbers corresponding to those that are in the music, in order to make it easy to check the music, and from those numbers can be recognised the different scenes and the characters who speak alone and together. At the beginning, before the curtain falls, it will be good to do some full music with doubled voices and a great quantity of instruments: one could very well use the madrigal number 86, with the text O Signor santo & vero: which is in 6 parts.

Cavalieri’s earlier recommendation suggests that there would also be an Intermedio at the very beginning, presumably before this ‘full music’ that begins the music-drama proper. 

As the curtain falls, the two youths who have to act the Prologue will be onstage: and after delivering their material, Tempo [Time] will appear, and the instruments who have to accompany the singers, putting the first chord will wait for him to make a start.

The continuo repeat the first chord until Tempo is ready to start. Monteverdi’s Ulisse  has a similar introduction to a scene, and Il Corago also recommends the continuo to repeat the harmony if extra time is needed for stage action. This (I argue) is what is meant by the idea of accompanists going with the singer – they ‘vamp till ready’ when stage action requires it, but they do not ‘follow’ in the sense of breaking time, even if the singer chooses (temporarily) not to be on the beat. Monteverdi frequently notates the vocal line anticipating or delaying, over a continuo-bass that maintains Tactus, in the Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) Caccini  describes what seems to be the same practice, see here. Both practices (free vocal line over timed bass, and ‘vamp till ready’ maintaining steady rhythm) are standard practice in today’s jazz, whereas mainstream ‘classical’ music expects accompanists to follow singers by breaking time, in the tradition of circa 1910 rubato.

The Chorus should be onstage, some seated, some standing, getting to hear what is presented, and amongst them sometimes changing places and making movements; and when they have to sing, they stand up in order to make their gestures, and then they return to their places:

As any stage director knows, characters on-stage, even Chorus-members, must be active listeners to the drama. Period art gives an idea of gestures of reacting and listening.

And the music for the Chorus being in four parts, one can, if wanted, double them, singing now four, and another time [all] together, assuming the stage is large enough for eight.

This is consistent with our modern understanding that the default expectation in this period was one singer per part. Monteverdi’s Orfeo was first performed with about 8 singers taking all solo roles and singing the choruses.

It will be good if Piacere [Pleasure] with the two Compagni [Companions] have instruments in their hands, playing whilst they sing, and playing their ritornelli. One could have a chitarrone, the other a Spanish guitar, and the other a little tambourine with jingles in the Spanish style which make little noise, exiting then whilst they play the last ritornello.

The scene of Pleasure & Companions is musically charming, with lively alternations of Binario, Tripla and Sestupla from the trio, contrasted with comments from the Body and Soul in what we today call ‘Recitative’. Cavalieri’s recipe for simultaneous playing and singing brings the instruments on-stage, visible to the audience (remember that the continuo-group is hidden behind the back-cloth), and gives the scene the flavour of an intermedio within the second Act.

When Corpo [Body] says the words Si che hormai Alma mia and what follows, he could remove such vain ornament, like a gold necklace or a hairpin, or something else.

This crucial moment marks the denouement of Act I, the Body’s decision, after much questioning and introspection, to follow the lead of the Soul rather than seek for earthly gratification. As composer, Cavalieri draws attention to these words with a sudden change of pace and harmony; as corago he suggests an action that goes beyond the usual hand-gestures, to make a symbolic rejection of earthly vanity. Underlying this small item of advice are two profound concepts of seicento music-drama, which differ sharply from the approach of modern-day Regieoper [in which the stage director seizes the freedom to create whatever he wishes]: music and stage-action work in parallel to tell the same story; both music and action are based on the text of the libretto. These concepts are stated explicitly in the Preface to Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi & Clorinda here page 19, and also in the anonymous Il Corago MS, modern edition hereIl Corago explains that a corago [artistic director] has universal authority in the theatre, but must serve the poet’s text. Choice of text is therefore an important consideration for both Cavalieri [who was himself a corago] and for the anonymous c1630 writer. 

Mondo [World] and Vita Mondana [Wordly Life] in particular should be very richly costumed: and when they are divested, they should show that great poverty and ugliness underneath those costumes: this shows the body of death.

At the moments where each of these characters is divested, the score does not provide any extra time for the necessary stage action. These are examples of where the continuo would ‘vamp till ready’, either on a single harmony, or on a chord sequence, as recommended by Il Corago. Notice that the extra time is ‘quantised’ – the continuo will remain in Tactus.

The Sinfonias and Ritornelli can be done with a great quantity of instruments: and a violin, which plays the soprano part precisely, will make a very good effect.

This advice seems to look back to the kind of varied consorts heard in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, and reminds us that polyphonic ensemble music might be performed with diverse consorts of chordal and melody instruments, as well as with the more homogenous ensembles of melodic instruments that we know from Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo.

The ending can be done in two ways, with a Ballo or without: if you don’t want to do a Ballo, it should finish in eight parts with the line which is number 91, doubling the voices and instruments as much as possible: the verse goes Rispondono nel ciel scettri e corone. If you want to finish with the Ballo, you should leave this verse unsaid, and starting to sing Chiostri altissimi e stellati the Ballo starts with a reverence and continenza [dance step]: and then follow other passi gravi [steps, as opposed to jumps], with heys [the dancers weave around each other] and solemn steps for all the couples: in the ritornelli it’s done by four who dance exquisitely a jumping dance with capers and without singing: and like this it follows in all the stanzas with the dance always varying, one time galliard, another time canario, and another corrente, which in the ritornelli will come across very well. And if the stage is not large enough for four to dance, at least two should dance: and get this ballo choreographed by the best maestro that can be found.

The stanzas of the ballo should be sung tutti, on- and off-stage: and all possible instruments should be put into the ritornelli.

All this detailed advice throws light also on the ballo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo – Lasciate i monti – see here for further discussion.



In the vocal parts will be found sometimes written in front of some notes one of the four letters g m t z  which mean that which is shown in the example below.

Like this, for whomever is singing, as for whomever plays, it will be warned never to alter flats to sharps or sharps to flats except where the particular signs are placed: and similarly this should be understood for the notes that are raised with the sharp sign #, that only those specifically marked with # should be raised, even if the note is repeated.

The use of barlines was quite different in this period, our modern convention that accidentals apply within the same bar does not apply. This should be kept in mind, if working with a modern edition that imposes barlines.

The small figures placed above the notes of the instrumental Basso Continuo signify the consonances and dissonances according to the figuring: like 3 third, 4 fourth, and so on. When the sharp # is placed before or below a figure, that consonance will be raised: and in this way the flat b makes its own effect. When the sharp is placed above the notes [of the Basso Continuo] without any figure, it always means a major tenth.

Some dissonances and parallel fifths are made deliberately.

Some dissonances that are resolved ‘incorrectly’ are disguised in notation (but not in sound). Such transgressions of the rules of counterpoint are frequent in the ‘first operas’ – this is the ‘artistic licence’ that Peri requests, in his Preface to Euridice (also 1600) see here. Contrary to modern assumptions, there is no implication of rhythmic freedom.

The sign .S.  means coronata [the ‘crowned’ symbol, looking like a modern fermata sign], which is used to take breath and give a bit of time to make some gesture.

As in polyphonic music of this period, time for breathing (and gesture) is taken out of the last note of the phrase, maintaining the Tactus and starting the next phrase on time. The ‘fermata’ sign derives from the renaissance signum congruentiae, showing a consonance at the end of a phrase. In this period, the sign carries no implication of prolonging the note or breaking time: on the contrary, the assumption is that the note marked by this sign will be shortened, by default to approximately half-length.


Peri Preface to Euridice (1600) here

Caccini Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) here

Agazzari Del sonare sopra’l basso (1607) here

Monteverdi Orfeo (1607) here.

Gagliano Preface to La Dafne (1608)

Anonymous Il Corago (c1630) here

How to Act in Early Opera & Shakespeare here

The title of this article cites the libretto, the end of the first speech of Time: ‘opri con la man’, opri co’l core’. The meaning of the Italian is ‘act with the hand, act with the heart’, but in the sense of ‘do good works’ – operare is cognate with ‘operate’. But since period acting links passions to gestures of the hand, it is not inappropriate to read into this line a reference (whether or not intended by the librettist) to historical stage-craft.





England’s favourite carols are Finnish: Piae Cantiones origins



Piae Cantiones – music of half a millenium before 1582 – performed by Helsinki’s Utopia Chamber Choir at the Saksalainen Kirkko on Saturday 3rd December, 2016.




Piae Cantiones (Spiritual Songs), the first Finnish music ever to be printed, was published in Greifswald in 1582 under the direction of Theodoricus Petri Rutha, a Finnish student matriculated at nearby Rostock University. The songs and texts were edited by Jaakko Suomalainen, also known as Finno, Headmaster of the Cathedral School at Turku, who also published the first Finnish hymnal. But although many of the texts are on religious themes, the Piae Cantiones songs are not hymns, they represent a varied repertoire sung as extra-curricular entertainment for the Turku students. The styles range from the lively dance-rhythms and catchy refrains of Gaudete, and the cool renaissance counterpoint of Jesu dulcis memoria to the austere restraint of chant-like melody in Angelus emittitur, the first song in the book.




In 1616, Hemminki Maskulainen published a Finnish translation of the song-texts in Stockholm, but without music.




A second musical edition, published in 1625 by two scholars from Viipuri, former Rostock University students, was edited by Daniel Friderici, cantor at the church of St Mary’s, Rostock. A celebratory facsimile of the 1582 print was published in Helsinki in 1967. The songs heard this evening were transcribed from the original 16th-century notation by Mats Lillhannus, with additional work by Valter Maasalo and Andrew Lawrence-King. Many modern editions transpose the songs freely, for the convenience of church choirs, but we have chosen to perform each song according to the original clefs. Some songs are notated for high voices in treble or soprano clefs; others are written in tenor or baritone clef. Psallat scholarum concio in hoc convivio begins in bass clef, on what is in theory the lowest note of the medieval hexachord system, low G or Gamut, from where it descends! We can perhaps imagine a gang of older students (scholarum concio) singing and playing instruments (psallere means to sing psalms, or to play a psalm-inspired instrument, such as a psaltery, or King David’s harp) at a Christmas party (convivio).





A selection from Piae Cantiones was published in England in the winter of 1853-1854 as Carols for Christmas and Eastertide with English texts, and in 1910 England’s Plainsong & Medieval Music Society published an edition of the whole book with the original Latin texts. These carols became highly popular, and many were republished in 1961 as Carols for Choirs, leading to countless performances on the model of the famous service of Nine Lessons of Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Across the entire English-speaking world, singers and Christmas revellers would be amazed to discover that many of their favourite ‘traditional’ carols, including the melody of Good King Wenceslas, come from 16th-century Finland! Nevertheless, the Piae Cantiones are not limited to Christmas carols, but also include texts for Passiontide, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday; meditations on the Eucharist and prayers; songs ‘of the fragile and miserable human condition’, of scholastic life and of harmonious society; epic verse and spring-time lyrics.

The story of how melodies and texts from Piae Cantiones inspired composers from Praetorius in 17th-century Germany to Willcocks and Rutter in 20th-century England could itself make a fascinating subject for a concert, but that is not our purpose this evening. One might present the whole collection according to the historical performance practice of 1582, but this too is not our intention. Most of the songs Finno edited had been passed down through aural traditions for many centuries, before appearing in print in the late 16th-century. Divinum mysterium (a mediation on the Eucharist) dates back to the 10th century, much of the collection is from the 14th-century. The book could well be compared to an archaeological site, with layers of material from various centuries, and considerable mixing between the layers. So our performance approach varies too, according to the origin of the music: medieval, renaissance, even some early baroque settings from the 1625 print.



Turku Cathedral

Some Piae Cantiones songs are of Finnish or other Nordic origin. Cedit hiems, a celebration of the end of winter, is found in many Finnish sources. Other texts and melodies come from all parts of Europe, particularly Bohemia. There is ample evidence that Turku was a significant academic centre, with connections not only in renaissance Rostock, but also in medieval Paris with its great university and the circle of composers associated with the cathedral of Notre Dame. This same international network of scholars and musicians facilitated experiments with new styles of polyphony, with liturgical drama and student plays, and with the high-status musical instruments of the Middle Ages: harp, psaltery and organ.

Many of the Cantiones began as medieval Tropes. As a mnemonic for melismatic chant, with a single syllable sustained over several long phrases in the music, monks would invent extended texts. Thus Kyrie… e… e… eleison (Lord have mercy) becomes Kyrie fons bonitatis Pater ingenite, a qua bona cuncta procedunt: eleison. (Lord, fount of goodness, Father uncreated, from whom all good things proceed: have mercy). Such tropes then became established texts, for which new music would be written. And then the additional music would be troped again, creating extended textual and musical Sequences. Divinum mysterium first developed as a trope of the Sanctus, sung at the most sacred moment of the Eucharist, during the Prayer of Consecration. Congaudeat is a trope of the final versicle and response at Mass: Benedicamus Domino / Deo gratias (Let us bless the Lord / Thanks be to God). Similarly, Puer Natus ends with Benedicamus Domino, alleluia. Laudetur Sancta Trinitas. Deo dicamus gratias, alleluia. (Let us bless the Lord, alleluia! Let us praise the Holy Trinity. Let us say, thanks be to God, alleluia!)

In the 9th-century monastery of St Gall, Notker and Tuotilo added such tropes to Alleluias and Kyries and created a Book of Sequences. In England, Salisbury Cathedral preserved an ancient ritual tradition that included many extended tropes. Laus Virginis Nati and the other Sequences in Piae Cantiones represent the high-point of Finnish medieval artistry, but are rarely performed today. Music and text present varied rhythms, harmonies and melodies, each phrase being repeated to a parallel text. The energy builds up in a succession of peaks, marked by the urgent rhythms of very short lines of poetry, sometimes just a single syllable: Audi nos / dos / honoris et flos/ inter florum (Hear us,/ Gift / of honour & Flower/ of flowers). ‘Rose of roses, Flower of flowers’ are medieval titles for the Virgin Mary, but in those early days of the Reformation, Jaakko Finno rewrote many medieval texts to praise Jesus instead.

Although the 1582 book presents most of the music as a single melody line, medieval singers would have improvised organum – instrumental style – with drone basses, parallel fifths, varied melodies and standard cadence-formulae. In the 15th-century, a sonorous texture of rich harmonies in thirds and sixths was imported into France from the ancient styles of the Celtic fringes of the British Isles. This contenance angloise (English manner) offered improvising students an entirely new way to harmonise such popular melodies as In Dulci Jubilo.

The two- and three-part settings in Piae Cantiones are in polyphonic styles much older than the few, 16th-century four-part songs. Zachaeus is a roundelay, in which two equal voices swap melodies from phrase to phrase. The accompanying voice of Puer Natus became an independent melody, which later triumphed in popularity over what was originally the principal voice. These medieval examples served as a model for the Turku students’ improvised polyphony, and for ours. Elsewhere in the collection, there are the processional and dance rhythms of medieval conductus poetry, with verses in strong, regular accentual metres (ideal for improvised polyphony). Songs like this were ‘cut and pasted’ into the New Year music-drama of the circa 1200 Ludus Danielis (Play of Daniel), an all-night party inserted into the cathedral service of Mattins as a liturgical ‘opera’. In Piae Cantiones, multiple re-tellings of the Christmas story hint at miniature dramatisations, with students playing the familiar roles of Angel, Shepherds & Magi (not to mention the Ox and Ass).

In the final Historical Song Ramus virens, Jaako records a fragment of Finnish national Epic, with a stirring refrain calling on the People of Finland to celebrate their conversion to Christianity. The story begins with a metaphor of Noah’s Ark finding dry land after the great Flood: an Englishman, Bishop Henry lands in Finland on his way to Uppsala. Henry and the saintly King Eric of Sweden subdue the pagan demons, but Henry is martyred. ‘So, rejoice, people of Finland!’ Other accounts of Henry’s story, in the secular metre of pre-Christian Kalevala poetry, name Henry’s murderer as Lalli, who ends up ‘skiing in Hell’. He is the first Finn to be known by name.




Obviously, the story of Noah’s Flood resonates strongly in a country of lakes and swamps, but the poetic imagery also recalls the creation scene in the Kalevala, in which Ilmatar creates dry land from endless water, as well as the biblical creation story in the Book of Genesis. And the frontispiece of Piae Cantiones shows a harpist, perhaps Theodoricus Petri himself, kneeling by the rivers of Rostock, with an angel-choir, presumably improvising heavenly harmonies. We are reminded of Psalm 137 ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ and of the Christmas angel, suddenly joined by a multitude of the heavenly host to sing the Gloria, in the Gospel of St Luke. Petri’s guardianship of the aural tradition of scholastic songs is proclaimed in a verse from Psalm 89: cantabo in generatione & generationem (I will sing from one generation to another). This echoes the opening and closing cantos of the Kalevala, which are both sung ‘nuorisossa nousevassa / kansassa kasuavassa’ (amongst the young people growing up, for the folk of the future).




As Finns celebrate Christmas in renaissance Rostock and modern Helsinki; as ancient legends unite the Hanseatic ‘East Sea’ with Britain, far out in the western Atlantic; as timeless melodies intrigue modern scholars and offer medieval students (and Utopia’s singers) opportunities for daring improvisation; the simple joy and authentic tradition of music and words in Piae Cantiones still appeals, like Christmas itself, across the generations, and to the child in each of us.



‘Celos’ in translation



My first encounter with the earliest surviving Spanish opera, Celos, aun del aire matan (1660) was a concert performance in Vienna in 2001 with (mostly) Spanish singers directed by Jordi Savall, and sung in the original Spanish. In the same festival, The Harp Consort performed the Spanish and South American dances of Ribayaz’s Luz y norte (1677)Since then, I have directed the first productions of Celos in UK (2003) and (last night) in Russia with local singers. All these projects necessarily involved some kind of translation of Calderón’s verse drama, for the audience and/or for performers.

In Vienna, it was assumed that singers understood the libretto. Indeed, Calderón’s vocabulary is not difficult for native speakers. But behind the mostly simple choice of words lies a wealth of hidden meaning, historical and cultural references. English speakers might well make a comparison with Shakespeare’s plays: we probably understand nearly all the words, but there is much that we will fail to grasp without further study. For that concert performance, there was insufficient rehearsal time for detailed text work with the singers, or for detailed work on Hidalgo’s quicksilver Hispanic rhythms. [Jordi subsequently captured those rhythms marvelously in the on-going Folias Criollas project, in which he directs the combined forces of Hesperion XXI and Ensemble Tembembe (Mexico)].  The Viennese audience were provided a German-language translation to follow, but it is fair to say that performers and audence alike were largely baffled by Calderón and Hidalgo’s masterpiece.



In Sheffield, we had the advantage of a production team already familiar with Torrejon’s setting of Calderón’s (1659) libretto, La púrpura de la rosa (1701). [Hidalgo’s earlier setting is lost, though some of his music survives in Torrejon’s work.] Some of our English singers were fluent Spanish-speakers, and with a student cast we had plenty of time for painstaking language and text work, coached by university lecturer Dr Anthony Trippett. For my own study, and to assist the singers, I made a line-by-line English translation. This translation was not a thing of beauty; it was very dry, often clunky, but it did serve its purpose of helping us all understand Calderón’s words. Of course, this is only the first step towards understanding the libretto’s deeper meaning, and those more profound discussions continued throughout the production, and over the years afterwards. I translated the entire libretto, and then made cautious and carefully considered cuts to reduce the running time to manageable proportions, whilst preserving plot, musical forms and poetic structures.


Meanwhile, the head of the university’s Spanish department, Prof Nick Round dedicated many hours of his free time to making a singable English translation. We did not use this in performance, but Nick’s work sparked off a lively debate about the purposes and priorities of translation. Of course, there can never be a perfect translation: every translator has to make difficult, sometimes heart-breaking choices between dry accuracy and poetic beauty; between sound and meaning; between metre and fidelity to the original; between familiar idioms in the local language and exotic, even alienating, literal renditions; between the author’s and translator’s different poetical aesthics. Any singable translation faces the formidable challenges of doing all this and matching words to music. [See Andrew Porter’s fascinating introduction to his singing translation of Wagner’s Ring here].


To help the English-speaking audience follow Calderón’s complex plot, in which interwoven myths are told and retold in unexpected manner, whilst goddesses, heroes and idiots interact as main action and comic sub-plots collide, we introduced onto the stage an additional character, the poet himself. Our Pedro gave linking commentaries in English between scenes, and even during the most confusing scene (in which the clown, Rústico, is transformed into a bewildering sequence of different animals). I created Pedro’s texts in verse, matching Calderón’s metre and assonance (rhythming of vowels) with the surrounding Spanish poetry. But of course, I was not translating, merely summarising; and there was no demand to fit my content into a given number of lines. Apart from the self-inflicted technical challenge of imitating romance verse, my priority was clarity: the purpose of these speeches was to ensure that the audience would understand the story.

Yet another translation project ran in parallel: Tony Trippett worked on polished renditions of Calderón’s many refrain texts, repeated mottos that recur frequently during the drama: “A woman can be constant, without being cruel”; “Long live Love, death to Neglect”; and of course, “Jealousy, even of the air, kills”, the title of the opera, a refrain which is sung many times during the final Act. Posters with these texts in English and Spanish were posted around the public areas of the performance venues, to give audience members a chance to reflect on some of Calderón’s most thought-provoking pronouncements. Since then Tony and I have worked on several other Spanish Early Music projects, including the first Spanish Oratorio (1704) and Passion (1706), and we continue to discuss the aesthetics and practicalities of opera translation.


This season’s production in Russia is staged by the Moscow State Opera & Ballet Theatre, Natalya Sats. This is a theatre for families and young people, the original home of Peter and the Wolf, where Georgy Isaakian presents an enormous repertory ranging from popular classics (Nutcracker, Carmen) to award-winning productions of serious and challenging works (Love of Three Oranges, Rappresentatione di Anima e Corpo). Where else in the world could one perform baroque opera to an audience packed with teenagers and twenty-somethings?

In this context, it was a given that Celos would be sung in Russian. This reflects the early baroque priority that every word should be understood by the audience, but the technical task for translators is enormous. Calderón’s Spanish libretto uses mostly short simple words, which are often highly compressed by multiple elisions, packing lots of meaning into very few syllables. The Russian language tends towards longer words, with many more syllables required to express the same thought. And whilst Calderón’s words are often simple, he loads those ‘easy’ words with multiple layers of hidden meaning and added significance. He also repeats key words throughout the drama, making subtle cross-connections between different scenes and characters – connections which should be preserved in translation. As dialogue between characters gathers pace, he often splits a single line of verse between two or three speakers, with quick-fire question and answer.

Floreta           ¿Qué haces?

Clarín                        Huyo.

Floreta                           Oye, espera.

Coro                                    Guarda la fiera.

Floreta           ¿Qué haré?

Coro                        Guarda la fiera.

Floreta                             ¡Lindo consuelo!


Floreta           What are you doing?

Clarín                       Running away.

Floreta                               Hey, wait!

Coro                                             Watch out for the beast!

Floreta          What shall I do?

Coro                         Watch out for the beast.

Floreta                                Nice idea!


So the first challenge is to fit so much meaning into just a few syllables, line-by-line.

Hidalgo’s Spanish baroque musical style is based on the lively rhythms of popular songs and dances, accompanied by strumming guitars, harps and percussion. There is a lot of triple metre, rocking to and fro between hemiola and tripla, and many, many syncopations. The basic pattern accents the second beat of the bar. This requires the translator to match Calderón’s metric patterns of Good and Bad syllables very closely indeed, on almost every syllable of every line.

Calderón and Hidalgo join forces to create exquisitely balanced pairs of lines:

Pocris por quien muera,

Aura por quien vivo.


Pocris, for whom I die/ Aura for whom I live. Here, a translator has not only to translate line by line and metrically, but also preserve the balance and contrast of the verse-pair.

But perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is Calderón’s refrain texts, the famous mottos. These recur, and must be translated consistently. But Hidalgo sets them polyphonically, with rhythmic variants in different voices. And sometimes he sets the same motto text to a completely different melody, even in a different metre. Tony Trippet’s polished English motto-translations were not singable – this was not his purpose. But for our Russian production, we had to render the mottos not only consistently, but line-by-line, metrically, and as elegantly as possible, whilst ensuring that the same text would work for all Hidalgo’s varied settings of it. It had already been decided that the opera would be presented under the adapted, short title Любовь Убивает (Love Kills). But the title is sung many times during Act III, as the final words of one of Calderón’s motto-refrains, so we also had to reconcile the original meaning with the chosen short title.

Both Calderón and Hidalgo employ varying registers (literary, and musical) for the noble and comic characters, who often interact in the same scene. Whilst seeking to imitate Calderón’s simplicity of language throughout, Katerina Antonenko-King also sought to match his shifts in register, with more elegant vocabulary or rougher words, according to the character of each role. At appropriate moments, Calderón even introduces poetic cliches and homespun phrases:

Aura me hiela y me abrasa,

Aura makes me freeze and burn.


¡Y luego dirán que no hay

a perro viejo tustuses!

And then they’ll say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! This approximate English translation demonstrates the point: a literal translation would be unfamiliar, hard to understand, and certainly wouldn’t create the laugh that Calderón is trying for.

Our absolute priority, in line with historical aesthetics, was that the audience should understand the words. This required us to choose the simplest possible words for the required meaning, just as Calderón himself did. Hidalgo’s music required us to preserve the original meaning line-by-line, and the original metre syllable by syllable. Calderón’s mottos required especial care. We made a deliberate choice to avoid antiquarian language, to adopt a modern idiom that would be understood by our young audience. Nevertheless, we respected Calderón’s careful variation in poetic register, from elevated speech for the gods to rough barking from the clown. Sometimes these multiple demands were simply irreconcilable: where necessary, we made small changes to the music, in order to set the best possible Russian text. In this too, we followed the historical aesthetic, that in this style, the music is the servant of the words.

Katerina and I worked together. She is responsible for the Russian, as well as for some literary insights into Calderón’s witty treatment of the ancient myths. My duty was to care for Calderón’s Spanish and Hidalgo’s music (in that order of priority). Our work is not perfect: no translation can be perfect. But we approached the task with a clear set of priorities, in order to give audiences the best possible understanding of the drama as it happens before their eyes, and the best possible experience of the rhythms of Spanish music, as they listen. No doubt some readers of Calderón in flowery literary translations will be disappointed by the simplicity of language required for effective communication on stage: they might even be disappointed by the original, for Calderón was a master of elegant simplicity:


Esta, hermosa Diana … es Aura

“This, beautiful Diana… is Aura.” So Calderón begins his complex drama by introducing the two protagonists, in Spanish that would not trouble a first-year student. Katerina rendered this as “Это,  царица Диана … та Аура” [Eto, czarina Diana… ta Aura] “This, queen Diana… that’s Aura]. Even with my limited Russian, I can understand this, and the opening word  Это matches the original Esta almost perfectly.


I look forward to observing how our young (and not so young) audiences react to the show. So far, Calderón’s earthy humour has raised genuine belly-laughs, and his tragic drama has inspired strong emotions: if we can acheive this, we have succeeded.


Of course, there is another kind of translation, which we have chosen not to attempt. A fine poet can create in his own language a parallel work, not a slavish translation, but a re-imagining of the original in another language, in another culture, in another aesthetic. Such a work can be a thing of great beauty, but it would not meet the requirements of this particular production. I consider that the role of opera translators is not to present their own gusto, but rather, like a fine actor, to take on the mantle of the original author and convey his, perhaps different, aesthetic. In the 18th century, there was a fashion to ‘improve’ Shakespeare with flowery, more ‘elegant’ language: I do not believe that we should translate 17th-century opera libretti in this way.


After all, the world’s most famous line of 17th-century verse encapsulates the existential dilemma almost entirely in monosyllables:


To be, or not to be – that is the Question


Who could ever improve on such elegant simplicity?  On the other hand, who would ever want to be faced with translating Hamlet into modern Russian, whilst preserving syllable by syllable every metrical twist of Shakeseare’s iambic pentameters??? Something is always lost in translation: the translator’s choice is what to attempt to preserve.