A single musically and thematically integrated (well, reasonably coherent and connected anyway) musical work, being given a professional one-off performance (involving about 50 people, both instrumentalists and vocalists) to a paying audience (capacity a couple of hundred or so). How far through rehearsals and preparation would you expect them to be a lunchtime a week before the performance date?
Your answer will depend a lot on your experience and expectations of professional classical musicians. As it happens though, how about just about to start sight-reading the parts in almost all cases?
I spent Saturday afternoon and evening rehearsing Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with Fred Platt and the next iteration of the Hashtag Opera Orchestra. We spent something like 6 hours playing, which sounds a lot until I reveal that
(a) the opera will probably take, at my estimate, 3 hours to perform (excluding interval)
(b) we only have two other rehearsals, and this was the only one without the singers to be considered as well.
I was hitting the ground running in one sense – I’d had the part for 48 hours, played through it all once, bowed it provisionally, read through the full score as downloadable from Petrucci and listened to the whole thing on Spotify. But I am leading and I was more pleasantly surprised than anything else when some of the other violinists mentioned having listened to large chunks of the opera before turning up. I certainly know, having helped hand them out in the rehearsal, that hardly any of the parts were distributed in advance!
But in another sense we did hit the ground running anyway. It’s a fairly compact orchestra (we’re using a slightly reduced orchestration that takes the brass parts down to five, plus double woodwind, a handful of dramatic-effect percussion and, in our instance, a lean 11-piece string section), and a tight-knit work in general – there are only 7 non-chorus roles, for instance, and despite set pieces such as a hunt scene and some crowd and military bustle in the finale this is mostly a drama of individuals talking to each other, even if they are of the social level of the actual and prospective royal family and they spend a lot of time discussing their own or each other’s deaths. There is a certain amount of blast and bombast but it illustrates internal, rather than external, desperate struggle – more an operatic version of something like Othello, where all the military conflict takes place offstage and we only see interpersonal drama played out, or even perhaps Ibsen, than the Hollywood blockbuster approach of much later 19th-century drama.
Nowhere for anyone to hide in terms of sheer volume then, and something very similar in the compositional style. Writing around 1830, Donizetti is certainly not shying away from some of the rapid shifts of key or use of aggressive dissonance characteristic of Romantic composition as it was well established in instrumental music by this point; but I hear a substantial reference back to, if not perhaps the Classical style itself, certainly the transitional work of, say, earlier Schubert. Which involves thin textures, a lot of silence in individual parts or the whole ensemble, a lot of organic flexibility of speed (even when the soloists aren’t producing their frequent vocal cadenzas) and quite a lot of subtlety of expression – a general frequent need for ‘lightness’, however that plays out (and without wishing to underplay the hammered dominant seventh chords in semiquavers that mark particularly sobering moments!). It’s a style that requires close ensemble, sympathetic listening (balance is crucial, and often complex) and the right performance manner – one not necessarily a lot of musicians’ ‘default setting’ outside the early music specialism.
All of which makes it incredibly impressive to me that not only did we play through the vast majority of the orchestral parts yesterday, but my perspective from the leader’s chair was of general command of the technical aspects of the music (usually quite enough for a sight-read of so much material; I admit I need to get to grips with some fast, high passages for precision) and also of real ensemble gel and stylistic capture. It sounded like the real deal, and we still have half the rehearsals (roughly) to go.
So if you don’t have plans for Saturday (19th), I do urge you to take a trip (and a jumper) down to Clapham Common and hear the finished article. Based on the form so far, we should reach the finishing line in style (if perhaps slightly out of breath and hard-worked!).