Saturday, 3 February 2018

From oboe to podium: Leo Duarte on Handel pasticcios, playing the oboe & period singing style

Leo Duarte, photographed during performances of Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria with Opera Settecento
Leo Duarte, photographed during performances of Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria with Opera Settecento
Leo Duarte will be conducting Opera Settecento when the company performs Handel's Amadigi di Gaula at the London Handel Festival on 24 March. Even if you have never seen Opera Settecento performing, there is a good possibility that you have seen Leo in action as he also plays the oboe in a number of period ensembles. Leo is involved not only in conducting and performing in period ensembles, but is involved in creating the editions that they use too. I recently met up with Leo to talk Handel pasticcios and Amadigi di Gaula, the joy of scholarly editions, playing the oboe, conducting Fidelio, period singing style and much more.


Leo Duarte with Opera Settecento and Thomas Foster - Handel: Catone in Utica
Leo Duarte with Opera Settecento and Thomas Foster
Handel: Catone in Utica
Opera Settecento specialises in performing rarely performed repertoire. In the company's early days Leo played the oboe in the orchestra, and was responsible for making the editions which the group used. He had little thought of conducting the company and fell into it almost by chance when the original conductor Thomas Foster had to drop out suddenly. That said, Leo studied conducting as an elective whilst he was at the Royal Academy of Music and had been interested in the subject since his teen years, when he would watch great conductors on DVD. And, of course, as an oboist he had worked with lots of conductors.

A manuscript volume of an opera whose last use
might have been when it was on Handel's music desk


Leo still produces the editions for the company and regards it as one of the joys of the job, going to the British Library and getting out a manuscript volume of an opera whose last use might have been when it was on Handel's music desk. [you can read more in Ruth Hansford's article on the British Library website]. His work on new editions involves not just typing the music into Sibelius, but checking the available librettos and doing detective work. He loves it and admits to being 'a bit geeky' about sources and finds the whole process interesting.
Opera Settecento has being performing a series of Handel pasticcios (operas in which Handel used existing composers' arias set to a new plot), and the challenges here have included tracking down the original of an aria which Handel re-used because Handel did not see the need to copy-out the pre-existing solo horn part.

Opera Settecento performed Handel's pasticcio L'Elpidia at the Halle Festival last year, and they will be performing Handel's opera Amadigi di Gaula at this year's London Handel Festival, but they have plans to perform further Handel pasticcios.

To bring it off you have to have four contrasting voices


Leo Duarte, Maria Ostroukhova, Erica Eloff - Opera Settecento - Pergolesi: Adriano in Siria
Leo Duarte, Maria Ostroukhova, Erica Eloff - Opera Settecento
Pergolesi: Adriano in Siria
Amadigi di Gaula is Handel's fifth opera for London and despite some fine music it gets few outings. Leo suggests this might be because the cast is restricted to four, and all are high voices (not tenors or basses). But he thinks the score is fantastic, though he is aware that to bring it off you have to have four contrasting voices, which Opera Settecento is lucky enough to have - Maria Ostroukhova, Erica Eloff, Michal Czerniawski and Ilona Revolskaya. Michal Czerniawski will be playing the title role, whilst Maria Ostroukhova will be singing the travesty role of Dardano, and Ilona Revolskaya is Oriana.  Erica Eloff sings the leading soprano role of Melissa; Eloff has sung in a number of Opera Settecento performances, and Leo finds her performances thrilling but also tricky to accompany as she never does anything twice, exactly as would have been done in the Baroque period..

This leads us to a more general discussion about ornamentation in Baroque music. Whilst singers like Erica Eloff do follow Baroque practice and sing different ornaments each time, many singers nowadays tend to use pre-agreed ornamentation which is understandable given busy time schedules, but Leo assured me that some treatises from the period say you can have the ornaments written out.

Handel wrote his pasticcios to keep the opera company busy between new operas and revivals. For many, the music was sent over by Owen Swiney who acted as the company's agent in Italy. Handel's first three pasticcios are all full of an exciting mix of fine arias by different composers, (Leo describes them as 'chocolate boxes') though his later ones tend to concentrate on one composer. But given the great length of some of the operas from which the pasticcios were selected, Leo feels that having Handel make editorial decisions about what to cut is very helpful to modern performers. Leo was involved, playing the oboe, in Ensemble Serse's brave performances of some of Hasse's operas, given uncut and lasting sometimes an extreme length of time.

And having heard samples of a composer's work in one of Handel's pasticcios, Leo finds himself intrigued and wanting to hear more. He thinks that modern audiences have more of an appetite for the unsung composers, and feels that the Early Music movement has done good service in continuing to reveal forgotten scores.

He cannot imagine not making the sound directly, finding it a physical pleasure


Leo Duarte
Leo Duarte
Though he enjoys his conducting, Leo is primarily an oboist. He cannot imagine not making the sound directly, finding it a physical pleasure. But he is aware that wind players can have a short shelf life, as the body ages muscles cease to respond as they should and Leo can see his balance between oboe playing and conducting eventually tipping towards the latter.

Leo got into oboe playing at school, the music teacher was looking for someone to learn the oboe and he was the only person brave or stupid enough to put their hand up. But he has never looked back since. He also plays the recorder, and still loves playing that instrument too. On some occasions he doubles on both (he did this for English Touring Opera's recent performances of Handel's Giulio Cesare, see my review). During Handel's era, wind players were generalists and could double on oboe, recorders and flutes. Ever since he was a teenager Leo has loved playing different instruments, and for him doubling on oboe and recorder makes an opera more fun.

When I ask him what opera he would love to conduct out of choice, he suggests he would like to do some Telemann as we hardly hear his operas at all, though as a wind player Leo has played a lot of Telemann's sonatas. But Leo also admits to loving the early Handel operas, partly for the way Handel was rather showing off in them. Another name that he adds to the mix is that of Alessandro Scarlatti, whose operas are certainly not done often.

Later this year, Leo will be touring with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing the oboe in Beethoven and he comments that he would love to conduct Fidelio, and even to conduct Tchaikovsky. He finds the idea of performing later music in period style fascinating. He comments that the Baroque light shed on Romantic music, as Baroque players came to the later pieces, has been a very useful stepping stone to exploring period performance of 19th century Romantic music.

Period style, period singing


This leads us to a fascinating discussion on period singers and period singing style, a subject which it turns out is of great interest to both of us. Leo admits that the issue of period style singing is something of a bug-bear with him, whilst ensembles explore period instrumental style extensively singing tends to be done with modern technique. This partly because what we know of early singing styles suggests that singers sounded radically different to modern singers, and might not be to modern tastes. Leo comments that the first forays of instrumentalists into period performances were primitive at times and it has taken performers so much hard work to get to the fluency of performance which we have now.

But very little work has been put in on the parallel issues of period vocal style, though he knows that some singers are interested. Performing style is very much governed by fashion, there is so much source material which we might now find distasteful, and Leo feels that it is up to performers to explore and to try and change things.

But such explorations would take time (and of course money). Yet, Leo feels that with the increasing fluency of period performance, the Early Music world has lost something of the sense of exploration which came in the early days. So, Leo would like to explore ideas of Baroque vocal performance more, and perhaps gesture also, putting things into practice which are currently only in treatises. He feels that, just as instrumentalists had to change their techniques in the early days of period performance, so singers would have to change their techniques to explore Baroque vocal practice, a change which must in some ways be terrifying.

Leo Duarte and the cast of Opera Settecento's performance of Hasse's Demetrio in 2016 - Augusta Hebbert, Rupert Charlesworth, Michael Taylor, Leo Duarte, Erica Eloff, Ray Chenez, Chiara Hendrick
Leo Duarte and the cast of Opera Settecento's performance of Hasse's Demetrio in 2016
Augusta Hebbert, Rupert Charlesworth, Michael Taylor, Leo Duarte, Erica Eloff, Ray Chenez, Chiara Hendrick
We continue talking about the sort of sound-world that the early singers would have created; it has been suggested that Sting's vocal technique on his John Dowland disc is a lot more akin to the one John Dowland would have sung with than any modern conservatoire singers. Leo suggests that perhaps Baroque opera would have sounded rather more like modern day musical theatre, and he raises the possibility of taking musical theatre singers and asking them to sing Handel!

Such ideas are very much a long term project for Leo, for the moment he will be returning to his oboe, and to the latest Handel pasticcio edition being prepared for Opera Settecento.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Finely balanced casting: Handel's Orlando from La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square - Opera review
  • Hamlet reinvented: Ambroise Thomas' opera from Opera2Day in The Hague - Opera review
  • Music for the Queen of Heaven - the Marian Consort in 21st and 20th century music - CD review
  • Debut treehouse - intimate, innovative and engaging - concert review
  • Classical music with a popular twist: I chat to Lithuanian composer Gediminas Gelgotas - interview
  • Seeing the genre develop: Lully & Quinault's second tragédie en musique, Alceste  - CD review
  • Celebrating Estonian style - the distinctively stylish Estonian Voices - concert review
  • 1768: A Retropective - Chiara Skerath, Katy Bircher, Ian Page, The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • The Schuman's at Home - Julius Drake and Sophie Bevan at Temple Music - concert review
  • Eavesdropping on David Pountney rehearsing Verdi's La forza del destino at Welsh National Opera - feature article
  • Chants d'amour - Louise Alder and James Baillieu in Mozart, Bizet, Strauss, Mendelssohn, Faure, Liszt at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • The Phantom of the Opera - still going strong after 30 years - music theatre review
  • Hortus Musicus: Jerusalem - Early music and traditional melodies from this Estonian group - CD review
  • Home

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