Baroque Opera
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The conventions of Baroque opera

The conventions of Baroque opera can be unfamiliar to modern audiences. So here is a brief guide to some common features of the form:

High-voiced heroes

The heroic roles in Baroque opera were generally sung by castrati, men who had been castrated as pre-pubescent boys in order to preserve their high voices. The voices of castrati were spectacular—there’s a widely reported (but probably apocryphal) story of one castrato, Farinelli, who outduelled a trumpet.

Castrati were the rock stars of their day, adored by both men and women and paid huge sums to sing. Senesino received £1500 for one opera season in London—twice what the composer Handel was earning. It’s impossible to come up with a precise figure, but this is roughly $1 million in today’s money.

Gender-bending

Since castrati had voices in the alto or soprano range, when one wasn’t available for a male role a woman was usually given the part. Margherita Durastanti sang the role of King Radamisto in Handel’s opera Radamisto, for example.

Castrato Carlo Scalzi
The castrato Carlo Scalzi, 1737
The interchangeability of men’s and women’s voices meant that young castrati could be given female roles (particularly in areas of Italy where women were banned from the stage). A castrato sang the female role of Euridice in the first performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

It also means that disguise plots abounded in which men wear women’s clothes or women wear men’s clothes to conceal their identities. In Handel’s opera Alcina, the female knight Bradmante disguises herself as the male knight “Ricciardo” to rescue her beloved from the sorceress Alcina; in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea the male character Ottone (sung by a castrato) dons women’s clothes in order to sneak into Poppea’s garden to murder her.

Da capo arias

The vocal music in Baroque operas can be divided broadly into two types. Recitative is speech-like singing which advances the plot through dialogue; arias are moments “out of time” in which characters express their emotions through song. The “out of time” convention explains why it isn't absurd that a character who has just been told that a crisis is at hand and immediate action is needed should then step forward to deliver a lengthy aria describing their feelings.

Da capo arias consist of three sections: an A section which establishes a certain tempo and mood, a B section which offers a constrasting tempo and mood, and then a return to the top (“da capo”) to repeat the A section.

However, the arias don't simply repeat. Singers are supposed to use the return to the A section to display their art at its fullest by ornamenting the melody; something similar to what jazz musicians do when they take a solo. Also, on the repeat the words and mood of the A section are now informed by those of the B section.

In Alcina’s aria “Ah, mio cor!” she first expresses sadness that her lover is abandoning her. In the B section, she angrily reminds herself that she’s a powerful queen and sorceress. But then she returns to the sadness of the beginning of the aria; now she realizes that even all her power, earthly and supernatural, can’t bring back the love she is losing.

Tragedies with happy endings

Opera began as an entertainment put on at court celebrations, and so the mythological stories on which they were based were often changed so they would end happily. It was only with the advent of Romanticism in the 1800s that tragedies became common in opera houses.

This is why the last five minutes of a Baroque opera can be a mad scramble to insure that all the plots and sub-plots are resolved in a positive way. The usurping tyrant who has been threatening death to all the other characters for the entire opera will, in the last five minutes, find himself deposed, forgiven by the rightful ruler, and married to his long-suffering true love.

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