Monday, March 14, 2011

Tips for Handel-ing a Baroque Opera!

With all this talk of BLO’s current production Agrippina and references to Handel, the baroque period, counter tenors and the like, there have been various opera terms thrown about in conversation that may have you scratching your head. Well if this is the case, then we’ll answer all of your baroque questions and prepare you for Agrippina!

The Baroque period generally refers to the years between 1600 and Handel’s death in 1759, and is credited as the period in which opera became a musical form. It was in the baroque era that operas were no longer strictly for select groups of people – opera became a recognized art form supported by ticket sales. Many baroque operas are comedic in nature, and were influenced by the Commedia dell’arte (or Comedy of art) type of improvisational theatre that developed in the 16th century Italy. In the early 18th century, two distinct types of operas were developing: the Opera Seria and the Opera Buffa.

Agrippina is an example of an Opera Seria, and refers to the serious style of opera that was considered to be the opera of the court, monarchy and nobility. When early Baroque operas combined broad comedy with tragic elements it struck people the wrong way and sparked the first of many opera reforms (out of which came the Opera Seria) . The genre made famous the da capo aria, an aria consisting of  three sections: an A section which establishes a certain tempo and mood, a B section which offers a contrasting tempo and mood, and then a return to the top (“da capo”) to repeat the A section which the singer is expected to add ornamentation.

In contrast to the Opera Seria, the Opera Buffa, which was developed parallel to the former, first used as a description of Italian comic operas characterized by everyday settings, local dialects and simple vocal writing. They usually involved the use of comic scenes, characters and plotlines in a contemporary setting, and generally had 2 acts and dealt with comic situations. The Opera Buffa used the lower male voices to exclude the countertenors and castrati so commonly used in Opera Seria.

Many operas during the baroque period engaged in gender-bending since there were roles written for castrati but they weren’t always available. The interchangeability of men and women’s voices resulted in men being cast as women (especially in parts of Italy where women were banned from the stage), and women cast as men, and a fair amount of disguises were used.  Counter-tenors (such as the ones Aggripina) are male singers whose vocal ranges are equivalent to that of a contralto, mezzo-soprano or even a soprano; usually through use of falsetto or rarely their normal voices. A Castrato is a man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty.

Another characteristic of Baroque operas is that tragedies were typically given happy endings because operas were originally performed at celebrations – they made sure to resolve all of the plots and subplots in happy endings. As for Agrippina’s happy ending, you will have to attend BLO’s production to find out what type of ending Handel and Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani (who wrote the libretto) had in store for her!

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