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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Meet the cast: The instruments of Rinaldo

One of the things that constantly delights me during performances of Rinaldo is what I call the 'theorbo petting zoo.' I look down from the spot booth and there's John Lenti, our lutenist, standing at the rail of the pit, explaining his instrument to yet another group of interested patrons. John is one of the kindest and most affable musicians I've ever worked with, which is a blessing, because he and his instruments sure get a lot of attention!


All the instruments of Rinaldo are either period or period-style instruments. Though we didn't have space in our program to list them all, every instrument down in the pit has its own story. Many of the string instruments are as old as this opera. The others are meticulously crafted to exactly match instruments of the period. The harpsichords are both built as reproductions of particular instruments of their day (one harpsichord by Owen Daly, the other by Byron Will, both of them Oregonians! We are lucky to have Byron tuning both instruments before and during each performance). The tiny piccolo you see on stage in one number is not the same instrument you'd hear playing 'Stars and Stripes Forever' -- ours is much harder to play!


Though all of them are, frankly, amazing, I thought I'd explain a few of the more 'alien' instruments in today's post. These are the ones that look, sound, or play the least like their modern counterparts.



"Theorbo" is a catch-all term describing a particular class of long-necked lutes. REALLY long-necked -- if you've seen John in the pit, you know that the neck of the theorbo is tall enough to be flush with the lip of the stage when he's sitting down. Theorbos typically have 14 courses, which is not the same as 14 strings; a typical theorbo might have six double courses (that is, pairs of strings played together, tuned either in octaves or, more typically, in unison), plus 8 single-string bass courses. The 6 double courses can either be plucked or can be strummed like a guitar, while the bass notes are always plucked. It's these bass notes that run to the second pegbox, at the end of the longer neck of the instrument. (You hear these notes at the end of Almirena's recit just before Lascia ch'io pianga, in a moment that always makes me -- and Sharin! -- choke up.)


The theorbo in our pit is a key member of the continuo, here comprised of cello, theorbo, and harpsichord(s). The continuo players act as accompaniment for all the recits of the opera, and they frequently join the full orchestra in the arias. The music they play is not written out! John and Joanna, our continuo cellist, both play from continuo parts built specifically for them, which are combinations of the vocal score, the bass part, and the full score. In general, the bass line is written out, with the majority of the remaining music notated with figured bass -- numbers and accidentals under the staff that indicate which intervals above the bass that the notes should be played. But it's important to note that often in figured bass, the 'obvious' chords are not notated at all! Of course, they aren't obvious to everybody; this is one great reason why we are so happy to have PBO musicians join us. They are pros at this stuff.


Side note: I sat in, as I always do, on all the continuo rehearsals. Listening to our musicians chat with Gary, our conductor, about exactly what figures they're playing, what harmonies they're choosing, etc. was an exercise in feeling certain that I was the dumbest person in the room! :)



Only one number in Rinaldo -- Almirena's Augeletti -- features the recorder, also called the flauto dolce. These instruments are not totally unlike those that you may have played Hot Cross Buns on in your third grade music class, though they are of much finer quality, made of wood, and pitched lower. They are, however, built with similar fingerings as your elementary school instrument, and played much in the same way. In our pit, the recorder parts are played by our oboists, Gonzalo Ruiz and Stephen Bard.


Baroque trumpet

The trumpets you hear occasionally in Rinaldo -- in Argante's first aria, in the March which opens our third act, in the final battle scene, and, perhaps most notably, in Rinaldo's "Or la tromba" -- are a type of natural trumpet, most commonly referred to nowadays as baroque trumpets. (More on this distinction in a minute.)


The natural trumpet, unlike its modern-day descendant, is a valveless instrument. This means that any given trumpet can only play the notes of the harmonic series, and that everything they land on is done through means of their mouth. In other words, there are no buttons to press; they have to lip up or down to land on the right note. All the florid stuff you hear Kris play to match Caitlin's ornaments in 'Or la tromba?' That stuff is really, really hard.


If you get an opportunity to watch our trumpet players at work, you'll see that they "play" some holes on the bottom of their instruments, but these holes are not different notes; they are vents designed to alter the intonation of each pitch. The differentiation between 'natural' and 'baroque' trumpet comes primarily from this change, which allows modern natural trumpet players to slightly modify each pitch to better match the rest of the orchestra.



In short, generally speaking, all the instruments you hear being played in the pit of this show are much harder to play than their modern counterparts. (Modern counterparts which, of course, are already hard to play!). But they sound totally easy, because these people are amazing. The end.


Rinaldo has three more performances. If you haven't seen it already, you should come. It is so good. I, of course, am not biased at all.

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