This opera story does not focus on what happens on stage, but rather what happens below, in the orchestra pit.
The Kentucky Opera production of Christoph Willibald Gluck”Orpheus“, an opera about love, loss and second chances set at the Brown Theater in downtown Louisville on Friday and Sunday, is a historically informed performance. And the 28 instrumentalists in the pit play period instruments .
But violinist Sarah Cranor explained that a historically informed performance is “more than equipment”.
“It’s a state of mind…a feeling of immersing ourselves in what it might have been like back then,” Cranor said.
It’s like reciting a poem in another language, she continues.
“You would want to learn the accent of that language, maybe the connotation of the words, obviously, the meaning of the poem, and then make it as faithful as possible so that a native speaker would understand it,” Cranor said.
The group is the orchestra for this Kentucky Opera production, which includes choreography and dance from the Louisville Ballet.
Recreate the sound of the past
If you look at the Sheet music “Orfeo”it will be different from romantic opera by Puccini. The pages seem more sparse because there are fewer markers telling the musicians how to phrase a certain passage. But the music is always complex and nuanced. Musicians will use their formative years to make choices about their interpretation.
Cranor holds a doctorate in historical performance, focusing on the Baroque violin, and a number of his colleagues have also spent much of their academic careers in this performance ‘mindset’.
They also use instruments, or recreations of instruments, that existed at the time these age-old compositions were created, such as the natural horna predecessor of the French horn.
James Hampson of Bourbon Baroque, who earned a doctorate in historical performance on the natural horn, said one of the instrument’s distinct qualities is that it has no valves.
“There’s nothing cutting off the airways, it’s literally just plumbing,” he said.
Hampson has no buttons to press. So he has to rely more on his own physique to get the sound he wants.
In the orchestra pit of the Brown Theater this weekend there will also be instruments that have largely gone out of fashion; the horn is an example.
“It comes from a family of woodwind instruments…and they’re shaped like a lowercase j,” Hampson said.
There will also be sackbuts – the precursor of the trombone. The bell is smaller and the shape of the mouthpiece creates a more airy sound – more Oboe, bassoon and harpsichord from the baroque era, to name a few.
Bourbon Baroque artistic director and violinist Alice Culin-Ellison said how these “physical tools” are used is just as important as having access to them.
“The articulation, the bowing, the phrasing, the idiomatic passages in a particular style, all lend themselves to the overall sound of the orchestra,” Culin-Ellison said in an email. “I think that’s the effect (and the effect!) we’re hoping to achieve – taking the listener to a distant time, to hear sounds that are unfamiliar to even the most seasoned classical music fan. ”
Instrumentation is just the beginning
The performers also hope to capture the original essence of the opera’s lyrics.
Driver Judith Yan studied a copy of the libretto – an opera text – published in the early 1800s.
“I read about [Ranieri de’] Calzabigi, and I knew he was very, very specific about what he wanted, how he wanted it,” she said of the librettist.
In this first copy, Yan discovered different punctuation or phrasing.
“It really changes your interpretation of how you’re going to sing that particular line,” she said.
Yan also read the correspondence between Gluck and Calzabigi, and said the extra free time she had due to the pandemic had given her an “unexpected luxury of being able to obsessively watch every note and every word.”
Not everyone in the music community fully agrees with a historically informed performance, or this idea of trying to trace the original intent of the composer and librettist. Critics said it could rob the talent agency of future generations of artists.
But Yan thinks this new “Orfeo” rendition in Louisville, which is actually an old one, feels more natural and current.
“I’ve heard of productions where it was with, you know, a bigger orchestra or bigger string sections or different playing techniques, and somehow, working on that, I felt like it was written yesterday,” she said.
Soprano Flora Hawk, who plays the late Eurydice, or Euridice in Italian, said the opera’s music was haunting and beautiful.
“You get lost in it,” Hawk said.
She noticed something else.
“As for the vocals, we do it in an original way, but the way we present it is more modern,” she said.
In this “Orfeo”, the two lovers are women, and the sets and costumes have a contemporary allure.
She thinks that’s how you keep those age-old operas fresh and relatable; much like productions of Shakespearian plays that stay true to the text, but place the works in modern realities.
“Okay, we can’t change the music, because the music is so beautiful and they didn’t write it to be changed, but we can change the way it’s presented,” Hawk said.