Getting A Grip on Agrippina: how ETO's new score was made

Wednesday 24 July 2013

In her previous blog post, ETO Intern Hannah Leddy spoke to Jim O’Toole, who is managing ETO’s orchestra this Autumn. Here, she interviews score maker Peter Jones (above), who has prepared the new edition of Agrippina for ETO’s Autumn 2013 season of Baroque Opera from Venice:

You are putting together the new edition of Agrippina for ETO’s Autumn ’13 season. What does this entail?

Well, I start by going back to the original material. As a Handel specialist I am very lucky that a man called Friedrich Chrysander in the 19th century edited and printed all of Handel’s work. He financed it himself and did an amazing job but he did make some questionable decisions. New material has come to light since he did this which is important to consider.

Chrysander’s score is a good place to start but then I go to places like The British Library, where all of Handel’s autographs [scores in his own handwriting] for his operas are kept and The Foundling Museum, which has an extensive collection of Handel’s early editions.

A page from an autograph edition of Handel’s oratorio Jeptha, illustrative of the composer’s style of writing – and how difficult it can be to read!

Professor Winton Dean also published two volumes of studies on Handel’s operas and this information is invaluable. So, it is from looking at all of these sources that I am able to produce a full draft of the score from which everything else flows.

What often happens after I have produced a draft of a score is that the director has to cut it. This is almost inevitable as Handel’s operas can be around 4 hours long! 18th century people might have been happy to sit through this but a modern audience is unlikely to want to sit through an opera that long.

After I have sent a draft to the client I work with them to replace the Italian text with the new translation and take out sections of the opera that the director wants to cut. In the case of Agrippina I also worked with Jonathan Peter Kenny (conducting ETO’s production) to rewrite sections of the music to make sure that all the key-changes work.

After finishing this full score I produce a rehearsal score. This is where I reduce the instrumental score into a piano part so that the singers can learn their part. It is also so that whoever is taking the rehearsal has something to play from.

The next stage is to extract all the orchestral parts from the full score. That isn’t as straightforward as you might think. The orchestra has limited rehearsal time so I need to make sure that the parts are as clear and as accurate as possible.

An important consideration when making parts for musicians is making sure they have sensible page turns. This is about making sure the musicians have enough time to turn the page between finishing one phrase and starting the next.

The most difficult parts to get right are the wind and double bass parts. Wind players find it harder than string players to quickly remove one hand from their instrument and turn a page and there is usually only one double bassist who is positioned far away from the music stand. You have to give these people enough time to turn the page over.

I have done about 14 Handel operas in my time and I always do an Italian version of the score first. I like to find the original scores and word books because often the words in the printed editions aren’t right. I want my edition of the opera to be as close as practically possible to what Handel intended.

Why did a new edition have to be made?

There is a new series of editions of Handel operas published by Bärenreiter. In my opinion these scores are as good as you can get. The difference between these scholarly scores and the edition of Agrippina I have produced for ETO is that my score is a practical score for practical musicians.

ETO can’t justify spending the money on a large score, only to have to make lots of cuts to it. The edition I have made is designed for ETO to make things as easy as possible for the musicians and to make everything work for the company.

James Conway has produced a new libretto for Agrippina, specifically for ETO’s production this Autumn. How did his libretto influence your work on the score? Did it change the way you decided to orchestrate the score at all?

James contacted me last year and asked me about doing a score of Agrippina for ETO. I decided to complete a full edition of the opera with the original Italian text before I got the new libretto from James. When I got the new libretto all I just had to substitute the words. I find that it is best to have something that you can edit and work on rather than start completely from scratch.

In regards to orchestration; it is Handel’s orchestration full stop! Jonathan and I worked together to adjust the score where necessary because stresses in English are different to stresses in Italian. This wasn’t a major job though because James’ translation is so good and close to the original. We had to change some of the notation to incorporate extra syllables in the recitatives but there was no need to adjust the music like this in the arias at all. James’ translation is very funny, like the original, and he has written the libretto in a quasi 18th century style.

Above – a scene from Friedrich Chrysander’s edition of Agrippina.

Below – the same scene in Peter Jones’ new score for ETO

Was there anything particularly challenging with Agrippina compared to previous work you have done?

It wasn’t particularly challenging. The main challenge is that a huge section of music from the opera is missing at the end. The scene at the end where Juno brings the happy ending to the opera is cut and following this scene is a sequence of ballets. In the Chrysander edition no music is printed; it just says that the opera is followed by dancing.

To make my edition complete I decided to use the overture from another opera by Handel called Rodrigo because Handel almost certainly used the dances from Agrippina in that. I suspect that James isn’t going to do the dances at the end of the opera however I felt that my edition needed to be complete.

The most challenging opera I have put together is probably Il pastor fido (‘The Faithful Shepherd’) for the RCM. Handel did three versions of this opera. When he revived it he had a dance troupe at the time. He took a short chamber opera, extended it and stuck a one-act opera-ballet in front of it. The Chrysander version is the only printed version of this opera and is a mishmash of all three versions. I had to look at Handel’s autographs to discover more about his original ideas. Another major difficulty with this opera was that Handel changed one of his characters from an alto to a tenor and so changed a lot of the music. I had to make quite difficult decisions about which music went into my edition of the score.

ETO’s Baroque Opera in Venice season will be performed by a period instrument orchestra. Did you consider this when putting together the score? How did it affect how you produced the score?

I usually do these things for period instrument groups, the only exception being an opera I worked on for ENO but even then the conductor was a period instrument specialist. Handel wrote very few articulations and dynamics on his scores and it is important that the players feel able to put in their own interpretations. With a period instrument orchestra I know that I don’t have to put in any additional instructions because they will be able to make an informed decision about how it should be played.

Read Hannah’s previous interview with ETO orchestra manager Jim O’Toole here

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