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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.


Last week, while everybody else was celebrating presidential birthdays (presumably this is what you did with last Monday's federal holiday), those of us who run and attend rehearsals were here in our studio bright and early to attend a design presentation from our director and designer, and then the first 'sing-thru' of Rinaldo. We kind of can't believe it, having only closed Tosca a week before (!).


Because we build it from scratch each year, the Newmark show is very special to us. There's something indescribably cozy about the process, because it is almost entirely an 'in house' production -- there are normally very few guest artists or designers. And it's true again this year: the whole cast is made up of current or former Resident Artists. There's a lot more work involved, because, of course, we're building it from scratch, but it's also immensely satisfying, a very different kind of satisfying than the other shows we produce. Plus, the Newmark is a beautiful space and we always have a lot of fun over there.


the set of RInaldo

Part of the set of Rinaldo, built for us by local scene shop Stage Right. Yes, that is a sink.


The work involved in creating Rinaldo began more than a year ago, when the designer and director first sat down with our staff to chat about what we envisioned the production would look like. And, in true Handelian fashion, the version of the opera we will present to you is very different than any other you might hear if you listened to a recording or saw a production elsewhere. As the composer himself would have done (and frequently did), we are crafting our production to meet the needs of our particular singers.


Rinaldo first premiered in 1711; in the years following its premiere, it underwent a series of changes to fit whichever company was producing it at the time. Then it underwent a more comprehensive revision in 1731, when a large number of the roles were transposed for alternate voice types. The breakdown of changes looks something like this:


Goffredo, father of Almirena and leader of the first Crusade: 1711: contralto; 1731: tenor

Rinaldo, awesome soldier: 1711: alto castrato; now sung by a mezzo or a countertenor

Eustazio, Goffredo's brother: 1711: alto castrato; eliminated entirely in the 1731 version (and often eliminated in modern performances)

A herald: 1711: tenor; 1731: bass

Argante, Saracen king of Jerusalem: 1711: bass; 1731: contralto (now typically performed by a baritone or bass)

Armida, sorceress queen of Damascus: 1711: soprano; 1731: contralto (now usually a soprano)

A Christan magician: 1711: alto castrato; 1731: bass


Additionally, though they are redeemed in the original, Argante and Armida ride away in a dragon-drawn chariot in the 1731, unrepentant. (And … kind of awesome?)


Having essentially two sources of original material for the opera allows for a great deal of fluidity in casting and in organizing the work. In our case, we are presenting what can be seen as a modified version of the 1711 production, which draws heavily from several of the 1731 revisions. Our Goffredo is drawn entirely from the 1731 version, which allows our tenor, Matt Grills, to sing the role. We've altered one aria originally meant to be Eustazio's to be sung by Goffredo instead, falling in line with what Handel did in 1731, which was a merging of the two roles. There may be at least one other transposition, which we haven't decided upon yet. We have inserted bits and pieces from the 1731 recits. We've changed the order of a few of the numbers in Act 3. Rather than feeling like this is some way sacrilegious to the work, we feel that it's exactly what Handel would have done: change the work to suit the voices.


It is, incidentally, very tiring for the librarian! All those changes had to be done by hand. But the work has been, much to my surprise, immensely satisfying.



On that first day of rehearsal, I came in an hour early to let our harpsichord tuner in and to tweak the electric keyboard we're using in place of an orchestra for rehearsal. Typically the rehearsals are accompanied by piano, but in the case of Rinaldo that isn't possible, because we are performing the work at Baroque pitch.



Modern orchestras typically tune to A=440. This means that they tune to the note A (the A above middle C), which they set at 440 hertz. This standardization has, of course, happened over time and is not universal; I have read that the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, tunes their orchestra to A446. (Just recently I was working with Chamber Music Northwest on their lovely recorder concert, and in the midst of rehearsals the musicians decided they wanted to tune to A442, because at A440 the recorders were coming off a little sharp.)


For Baroque performance, the standard is now to play at A415 -- so for Rinaldo, we set our A at 415 hertz, which happens to be just about a half step lower than A440.


Because there was no standardization of pitch until the mid-1800s (and even then there was a lot of fluctuation), the pitch at which orchestras played in the Baroque era varied wildly from location to location. Pitch was literally all over the map -- typically high in northern Germany and low in southern Germany; low in Rome but high in Venice; generally much lower in France and higher in Italy. For string players and singers, these wild fluctuations in pitch presented few problems; singers could adjust by ear and string players needed only to adjust their strings. But for wind players it was much different. If you played the recorder, you could probably play with the musicians from your village (where your instrument was crafted) but not from the next village over, whose agreed-upon pitch might be wildly different. You could play with the local band but not with the church's organ. (Eventually, instrument makers alleviated this problem slightly by building segmented instruments, whose pieces could be adjusted to make the instrument longer or shorter and therefore lower or higher in pitch -- the way we still fine tune our instruments today.)


Over time, instrument makers and orchestral ensembles settled on A415 as their standardized pitch; this is mostly because, at a half-step lower than 'normal' concert pitch, it's easy to alter a harpsichord or organ to bump down just a bit. (Some harpsichords are made to 'transpose' by building the instrument with a shifting keyboard, so that the hammers strike the note a half-step lower if you wish to play at A415). Of course, our studio pianos are tuned to A440, and taking a piano down to Baroque pitch is not nearly as easy as taking a harpsichord down. For that reason, we're using a synthesizer in rehearsal, which not only can be transposed to a particular frequency, but also can be fine-tuned on a note-by-note basis in case you want to play in something other than equal temperament. Which we do. But that's a story for another blog post!


If you are interested in exploring the history of standardized pitch further, here is an excellent and extremely in-depth article, including the history of pitch in many different areas of Europe.


Next week: more than you ever wanted to know about 'the well-tempered clavier,' and MORE.