Orestes ‘pasticcio’ at Corinth

“Oreste» is not only a tragedy by Euripides; it is also an opera by Handel. Written in 1734, it will be performed for the first time in Greece on Friday and Sunday at the archaeological site of ancient Corinth, in a co-production between the Prefecture of Corinth and ERT. Directed by Maria Gyparakaki, the opera starts at 9 p.m. on both days, with free admission. The role of Orestes – written for a castrato – will be personified by the mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nezi (the Greek National Opera’s Xerxes), while the orchestra will be conducted from the clavichord by Giorgos Petrou, better known as a pianist. Young and enthusiastic, the two musicians shared with us their love for the baroque. How did you settle upon «Oreste»? Petrou: We were interested in an opera with an ancient Greek theme, written by an important composer. «Oreste» has been performed very few times and has never been recorded. As such, there are no reference points, making it even more of a challenge. It belongs to the musical category that the Italians call pasticcio. These are scores that have been composed from musical pieces taken from other, earlier works. In this particular case, all the music comes from works by Handel, and so there is a uniformity. Of course, the pre-existing material was adapted appropriately for the needs of the new opera, while all the recitatives were written from scratch. «Orestes» was the first opera that Handel wrote during his first period at the Covent Garden Theater, and was written for some of the most important singers of the era: the contralto castrato Giovanni Carestini (Orestes) and the soprano Anna Maria Strada del Po (Hermione). We shall play the work in full, aside from the dance pieces, which were in any case added later and don’t contribute to the plot. What are the basic plot differences with Euripides? Petrou: Giangualberto Barlocci’s libretto comes from an opera that had been staged in Rome in 1723 and was based on «Iphigenia in Tauris.» Handel, who most likely had seen this production, made great changes to the text in order to condense the action. In Barlocci’s libretto there is a character not foreseen by Euripides: Philoctetes, an officer in Thoas’ army. He was invented to serve the need for symmetry in serious Italian opera, creating a second couple next to that of Orestes and Hermione. Naturally, the romance between Philoctetes and Iphigenia is never consummated, since she is a priestess. But, it provides an emotional spur to justify Philoctetes’ turn against the tyrant Thoas. The overthrow of Thoas and liberation of Tauris provide the opportunity for the opera to come to a close in an optimistic way. How did you get involved with baroque? Nezi: I’ve always adored baroque music. I loved Bach’s music and I worked on oratory quite a bit as a student. I got to know Handel on a deeper level through «Xerxes,» which I sang at the Greek National Opera. My love was rekindled and I’ve worked passionately on baroque since then. I like it very much and feel that it expresses me. I would like to be able to sing all the roles that Handel composed for my type of voice. I believe that if people get to know this music they will definitely fall for it. It’s just that most people don’t know it. Petrou: I don’t think that the turn toward baroque relates only to me personally, but that it’s a sign of the times. Today we know much more about that period and ways of interpreting its works. Look at the discography, both in terms of quantity and quality: the number of readings of Bach’s works now done from the clavichord and not the piano, and how much more informed they are of this style. If you study a work of Bach’s at the piano, then this makes you want to listen to how the same work sounds on a clavichord, i.e. the instrument for which it was written. You automatically seek another sound out in the rest of the orchestra too. Today, with the wealth of information available, I can’t imagine any pianists working on this repertoire not looking toward the clavichord and toward another sound. This music comes across much better if you use instruments and techniques from the era that the works were written. Greece doesn’t have a baroque tradition. How do you study it? Have you sought out help from specialists? Nazi: We study mainly by ourselves, reading, listening to modern recordings, going to concerts. Petrou: I believe that baroque music, as it’s played today, is based mainly on the musicians’ practical experience. There is no continuing tradition. There is information, available to all, on the works, the techniques, the style, etc. Each interpreter uses these in order to develop his or own theory on how they believe these can be applied in practice. Tell us about the makeup of the orchestra that you will be using. Petrou: In total, along with the clavichord, which I shall be playing, there will be 17 instruments. The main pieces will be interpreted on the clavichord, theorbo (Efi Minakouli) and cello (Aris Tsakalis), with Dimitris Semsis as leader. We will therefore have instruments with «period sounds,» as well as modern instruments, such as strings, on which we will try to achieve a different sound through the playing technique. We know you in the role of the pianist. With «Oreste» not only are you playing the clavichord, but you are conducting. New interests? Petrou: Handel’s operas rely heavily on the virtuoso skills of the clavichordist, as in those days performances were conducted by the composer himself – an excellent clavichordist – from this instrument. And when Handel wasn’t playing, he only entrusted equally skilled musicians who would be able to respond to the increased need for improvisation, which is characteristic of the baroque technique. This was a decisive factor in my decision to take on the double role of clavichordist and lead musician. I will not be conducting an orchestra in the conventional sense, more coordinating along the lines of chamber music. You have played many male roles, from Octavian in Richard Strauss’s «Der Rosenkavalier» to Xerxes, and now Orestes. Is there something special about them? Nezi: I like these roles very much as they touch upon my dynamic side. I am also interested in their virtuoso aspect and see that each year I become more self-confident in this. I am more aware of which fioriture match my voice. As for baroque, it mainly involves roles that have overwhelmingly been written for castrati, i.e. eunuch singers with rare skills in breathing, virtuosity, etc. The only voices that can resemble these today are those of the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor. So far, the mezzo-sopranos have a better virtuoso ease and vocal range than the countertenors, but they are improving by the day! There is a countertenor in this production, Nikos Spanos, who is interpreting Philoctetes.