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Tips for Handel-ing a Baroque Opera!

Mar 14, 2011 1:17:00 PM
By BLO Staff

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!

Topics: Agrippina, General Opera

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