Tension, Suspension, Text: A Conversation with Rinaldo Alessandrini

Music director of Concerto Italiano Rinaldo Alessandrini is in Toronto this month, conducting Handel’s Semele at the Canadian Opera Company.

A version of this interview appears in a much prettier print layout in Corriere Canadese’s Tandem next week.

This Semele is on modern instruments. How big is the transition from playing it on a period ensemble?

It’s totally different. It’s important not to expect from the so-called modern orchestra what you would get from a period orchestra. Period instruments allow certain types of articulation… you can explain the effect but the way of getting there is different because the instruments are so different. It’s important to know what the final effect should be and how to achieve it. When you start working with a modern orchestra, you have to give a lot of condensed information about the meaning of staccato, the special use of the bow, the difference between sustaining the sound without vibrato or with vibrato… You have to give a sort of summary of sound possibilities related to the musical situation. That is absolutely interesting because in the process the conductor is discovering different ways to approach the same problem. And the orchestra is hopefully discovering different ways to approach the music.

You start by saying, Handel is not Verdi. So let’s see where the borderlines of this music are; let’s see what this music is offering in terms of sound, use of the sound, and then what this means in terms of the bow, left hand, articulation, vibrato, use of the dynamics and so on. I would say that it’s like learning a new language.

Did you have to reduce the orchestra?

No. It’s a big orchestra; we have 18 violinists. That makes things a little bit more tricky but it’s OK. It’s a very good orchestra with very intelligent musicians. What I like about this orchestra is that the quality is increasing every night, it’s fantastic. This means that the orchestra is able to assimilate and to give better results every night.

I read somewhere that in spite of the many pastoral and magical moments, Handel didn’t use any flutes or recorders in Semele, and bassoons very rarely…

In terms of wind instruments, there are only oboes and horns; and horns for just a couple of numbers. No, most of the music is strings only.

Yet the music sounds very diverse.

We should keep in mind is that it is not an opera – it’s an oratorio. And it is evident that the main focus is on virtuosity of the vocal line, especially with Semele and Jupiter. In terms of orchestration, Semele is quite simple; in terms of the concept, it’s a very interesting work where in addition to the chorus numbers, which Handel didn’t use in his operas, there are a lot of accompagnatos, and some of them very complicated.

Now would be a good moment to explain the difference between the recitativo accompagnato and recitativo secco.

Secco is mainly a style of composition, but for the singer it’s a style of singing. During a secco, singers are accompanied only with the basso continuo, so mainly the harpsichord and the cello. And for accompagnato, the orchestra is playing together. Secco recits are very simple and they are based only on a kind of spoken rhythm. They are not in tempo. The concept behind secco is that singers are mainly speaking through singing, and the rhythm is the rhythm of speech. In the accompagnatos, the vocal line is similar to the secco recits but they should be sung in tempo because the vocal line is part of the rhythm of the orchestra. However, the accompagnato is still different from the aria: most of the time, there is no melodic development, the style is always almost speech, only in tempo. The orchestra is very useful in the accompagnatos because it is in fact amplifying some concept or some image, or underlying some very special theatrical and dramatic moments that need stronger emphasis.

The COC Semele is in modern pitch?

Yes. The talk about the pitch is not at all simple, though. 440Hz is an historical pitch too; this kind of very high pitch’s been used inVenice, for example. All Vivaldi operas should be performed in 440, and before Vivaldi, the pitch was even higher. In Monteverdi’s time the pitch was 520. And inFranceit was 392. The right pitch for the right period takes some deliberation.

Today we mainly use three pitches, 440, 415 and 392. 440 for Italian music, 415 mainly for German music and for Handel, and 392 for French music.

What would you say makes Semele special and different from Handel’s other work?

I’d say the most important is the development of the solo vocal line. The role of Semele is really demanding – it’s fair to say, difficult. In fact it’s a role that can be approached only with a soprano that has no problems. I don’t want to say that this role is easy for Jane [Archibald] but she is the right person in the right place. You must have the coloratura for this role; moreover, you must have a kind of easy and mechanical coloratura for it.

Did you decide all the embellishments?

I worked with the singers. Normally I can have my ideas, but ornamentation is a very delicate question for singers. It’s usually presumed that when they sing ornamentation added to the original line, they do this to show off their voices. This means that, of course, you can recompose. But you cannot be sure that what you recompose will fit a particular singer.  So I spend time at the piano showing different possibilities, five, six, ornamenting some passages and letting singers decide, OK, I like this, I feel engaged with this kind of writing or not. Same with cadenzas, starting with some simple structures and adding more and more until the singer says, OK, this is perfect for me.

Is there enough written evidence to tell us what singers of the time did with their embellishments, if they wrote them out in advance of performance, if they improvised…?

We have some documents about ornamentation. The ornamentation was used for creating a moment of musical tension. But it is probably false to say that the singing was more improvised. At that time, singers went through a long and hard training and in the course of their schooling they would work on a lot of passages and different formulas. The skill was to try to transform the passage, to adapt it to the harmony of the piece. They would be using a small portion of the melodic line, creating a progression, whatever, and trying to give the impression that they were improvising, while in fact they were not. They were very intelligent, they sang exactly what was best for their voices and tried to adapt some very well known and much worked on passage to the music for which they were hired. This was the most prized skill. I mean, it’s stupid to take a risk with improvising. It’s a very strange concept. I think that nobody really improvises, not even Keith Jarrett. A real improvisation, when you start from nothing, is a very strange concept. And I would say that in baroque music, improvisation is almost non-existent. The baroque music — in different ways in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries — is based on the possibility of a managed rhetorical code. You must know this code, must know the elements that belong to this code, and your skill is to produce certain effects based on your mastery of this code. It’s very important to learn all the rules. Like an orator who seems to be improvising, but in fact not. He rehearses beforehand, he puts together the elements and constructs an elaborate speech, and at the time of delivery he gives the impression that he is improvising. It’s a question of simulation, rather than improvising. When you’re improvising, you are putting yourself in a risky situation; it can be good if you feel inspired, but if you don’t, it can be a disaster. So it’s very false to say, Oh, back in baroque, the music of freedom, inspiration… absolutely not true. Exactly the opposite.

Where do you stand on cuts? Whoever does a baroque opera today has to cut something.

In this case it’s been the choice of the stage director. It’s a revival and not a new production, so technically, it’s very difficult to re-discuss previous decisions about the production. Concluding the opera with the final F Minor chorus is a very precise choice; the director was very interested in giving this kind of aesthetic information that is absolutely different from Handel’s idea. I would say it’s a very romantic attitude.

It ends on a sad note.

Yes. Semele at the end is deus ex machina but this being a revival, it’s impossible to re-discuss because it would mean a total change in the concept of the staging.

But cutting is normal. All operas, not only baroque, up until the late nineteenth century, were conceived for particular singers. When you change the cast, you cannot pretend that any old singer is able to sing whatever you composed for the original singer. So for example, change of key was absolutely normal practise… When you cut, you probably do that because a singer is not feeling at ease in a particular aria. The aria was probably conceived for a special technical ability; if another singer doesn’t have that exact technical gift, he’s not to blame. You cut the aria.

Today it’s a little bit difficult; today you try to save the original set of arias. But still. When you look at Monteverdi’s Poppea in Cavalli’s manuscript for example, it’s totally changed, with some roles re-composed. He had different singers and different ranges. The role of Ottone is completely different and completely composed by Cavalli.

First of all, Monteverdi tended not to give male roles to female voices. Even the Nerone was probably originally for tenor.

Oh. I thought you were going to say “Alto” and was getting ready to rejoice.

No, but Ottone is considered an alto; in fact it’s a very strange range, which probably tells us that its original singer for whom Cavalli wrote had a unique voice.

So works of art are living, breathing, changing things.

Baroque operas are. I am not a specialist for bel canto, but we know for example that in Rossini operas there are a lot of different versions of arias, ensemble pieces eccetera. Changing cast, changing theatre, changing pitch in parts of opera… all that brings its own effects. Today when we perform Semele, it’s in a way a celebration of Handel. We go to hear what is supposed to be Semele… In Handel’s time, there were a lot of arias that he composed at the very beginning of his career (especially in his Italian period when he was working presumably with some very good singers) that he had to simplify for other performances because the new singers weren’t up to the task.

Let’s talk about your discography. I’ll begin by asking you about the Vivaldi edition. Today, the labels are reluctant to record complete operas, but Naïve / Opus 111 are doing this huge Vivaldi series which includes a number of operas.

Concerto Italiano and I left a little bit the Vivaldi Edition for now because we’ve done a lot. We’ve done two operas, we’ve done Vespri per l’Assunzione, we’ll probably do a second recording of sacred music, possibly another Vespers disc. We are talking about this currently, but it will not happen in the very near future.

The project is mainly related to a library in Torino, so a regional bank, San Paolo, decided to donate the money. At the very beginning when the label was Opus 111 (not Naïve), the project was called Music in Piedmont, but since most of Vivaldi’s manuscripts are in this university library in Torino, the project was transformed into the Vivaldi Edition. But they are not planning to record any of the printed music, say L’estro armonico or Il cimento dell’armonia; they will not record the concertos from the Dresden library or other libraries. They are focusing only on the Torino manuscripts, and almost 90 percent of all Vivaldi’s music is in Torino.

You recorded some amazing CDs of madrigals. Gesualdo and Marenzio still rarely get performed and recorded.

Madrigals can be used for learning about music… It’s a highly composed speech, put it that way. First of all, madrigal gives you the opportunity to see how music and poetry can go together. Then the next step is to see how the melodic line can underline the meaning of the verse. And when you consider only the melodic line and forget the verse for a moment, you learn a lot about music. When you perform purely instrumental music, you can see how the madrigal influenced instrumental music. All the musical effects in pure instrumental music come from the madrigal—harmony, lines… in fact, the madrigal is probably the most important point for the Western music because via the madrigal the composers brought about a huge reformation of the Western music at the beginning of the seventeenth century. I am talking about making the music coincide with the feeling of the text. That was absolutely unusual in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth, the composers went, OK we have some good poetry, why can’t we try to put it together with music and create a joint effect between music and text. Sounds simple today, but at the time it was new. Opera took a lot from the madrigal.

And I think that madrigal music can be a little bit difficult because it’s in Italian and you cannot listen to this music if you don’t understand the words. A lot of poets were used for madrigals, but most often, the composer would choose among a limited pool of poems.

Because of the metrics, number of syllables and such?

No, because of the expressivity of those poems. The attitude was, OK let’s listen to this new version of “Ardo si ma non t’amo”. This was a well known poem and the pleasure was to listen to something well known dressed in different instruments. Or “Zefiro torna”, or whatever. Most frequently used poets were Tasso, Guarini, Petrarca. Marino. It’s a very special pleasure that is lost today, because the first urge is to listen to the music but the music is only part of the pleasure. For madrigals, the first step was not to listen to the music but to be familiar with the text. To be familiar with the image and the sensation of the text. And when finally you own the text and you feel it personally, then listen to it set to the music, it is fantastic. But if you just listen to the music, it can be fine, the music is beautiful, but you lose 70 percent of the pleasure.

I like madrigals. Were I ever to be asked, “What kind of music would you like to do for the rest of your life”, I would answer “Madrigals”. There is this kind of incredible tension in the madrigal, this incredible concentration of information, of music and text together. You start and your breath is suspended until the end. It’s so tense and compact and detailed at the same time. Madrigals were in fashion back in the nineties, I remember we’ve done a lot of madrigal concerts then. But today… I’m not sure.

At any rate, we have to finish our Monteverdi series of madrigals. We should record the three remaining books. We recorded 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8. Next year we’ll probably record the 1, 3 and 7. And in 2014 we have a huge project in Paris– we are going to do the three Monteverdi operas at the Palais Garnier, so Naïve is interested in presenting the complete madrigals at the same time. We’ve already done L’Orfeo and Ulisse at La Scala, as this is a co-production between La Scala & Opera Bastille.

For Ulisse in September last year, the house was sold out all six times. And I insisted on having the Italian cast, even though it’s been a lot of work to teach them all to speak the same language.

After that, the revival of Poppea in February 2015 at La Scala.

And what’s coming immediately after the Toronto Semele?

A concert with Concerto Italiano, and coming in the summer, concerts with modern orchestras. Mozart, Haydn. My next opera production is in 2013 in Oslo– I’ll be doing Orfeo by Gluck. I know the orchestra very well, it will be a pleasure to go back to Oslo.

Lydia Perović

Photo by Eric Larrayadieu

8 thoughts on “Tension, Suspension, Text: A Conversation with Rinaldo Alessandrini

  1. Fascinating! I didn’t know all that about the regional differences between historical pitches. And I’m definitely going to steal that explanation of differences between secco/accompagnato for the next time someone asks me for one!

      1. Noted! Gosh, the summer projects I have based on your recommendations are so much more fun than applying for academic funding. 🙂

  2. i am so behind, trying to catch up now..
    do you know why he insists on an all Italian cast for Monteverdi? is it for the same reason that he gave for understanding madrigals (that 70% is in the text so you need to fully understand it)?

      1. yep, was surprised to read that bit.. but the rest very interesting! just finally discovered him, orchestra, and collaboration w/ mingardo.. have been sending me on some serious binge..
        ps- there’s a full poppea up (probably from someone’s camera, but very good sound), first 7min of atto1 not to be missed, the rest of cast i fine w/ whoever can sing regardless of nationality..

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