Sunday, 18 August 2013

En travestie - the curious tradition of the breeches role

Minnie Nast as Sophie and Eva von der Ostern as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (1910/11)
Minnie Nast as Sophie and Eva von der Ostern as Octavian
in Der Rosenkavalier (1910/11)
Women playing men's roles on stage, so-called breeches parts, is on the face of it rather a curious tradition. Men playing women's roles are generally comic, but women playing young men is a more complex issue. In opera the tradition can be explained in terms of the way women stood in for and then replaced castratos. In Italian baroque opera the hero always had a high voice and this created tradition of women, usually contraltos, who specialised in playing male roles. Handel, when in London with a limited supply of castratos, often had recourse to using women for his leading men. French baroque opera, with its use of high tenors rather than castratos, seems not to have developed the same tradition and breeches parts are rare.

But as the tradition developed into the 19th and 20th centuries, it raises erotic and gender issues, how did the audience really view these women and how should we?


In the 18th century, the tradition also developed of using a woman to represent an adolescent youth, the prime example of this being Cherubino in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. But though Mozart did write male roles for women when he came to adapt Idomeneo for Vienna, he planned to use a tenor to replace the castrato in the more heroic role of Idamante. (The tradition of having Idamante sung by a woman is in fact a very modern one.)

As the 18th century drew to a close, the use of castratos in opera dwindled. In Italy this led to the period of the musico, the mezzo-soprano who sang the leading male role in the opera. Several of Rossini’s breeches parts fall into this category, for example the title role in Tancredi (1813) and Arsace in Semiramide (1823). Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830) was written for Giuditta Grisi .The role of Aurelio in Donizetti's L'Assedio di Calais (1836) was written as a breeches role, because Donizetti was forced to. But from his correspondence it is clear that in his plans to revise the opera for Paris he wished the role to be tenor and in fact said that he thought of it as a tenor role..

The role of Isolier in Rossini's Le Comte d'Ory (premiered in Paris in 1828) was written for a woman, and this role continues the tradition of having a young man (played by a woman) in erotic contact with another woman. Which brings us to the other aspect of this genre, the erotic aspect of seeing a woman on stage clad in close fitting breeches!

This is something that the British are used to on stage. Ever since the Restoration in the 17th century when the return of Charles II to the throne brought the use of actresses to the stage (rather than boys playing women), women have taken male roles. Though Charles brought the idea of having female actresses on stage from France, the French classical tradition does not seem to have developed such a strong flavour of travesty. Maybe because the English were used to seeing boys dressed as girls, they were very happy to see their favourite actresses dressed as men. It has been estimated that of the 375 plays produced in London between 1660 and 1700, nearly a quarter contained one or more roles for actresses dressed as men. This continued through the 18th and into the 19th centuries. William IV's mistress (before he became King), Dorothea Jordan (1761 - 1816) specialised in playing boys and men even though, as Hazlitt commented, 'her person was large soft and generous like her soul'. And given the number of pregnancies she had, she must have been visible pregnant on stage rather a lot. This tradition continued in lighter theatre and the use of a principal boy in pantomime has its origins here.

There does seem to have been a similar continental tradition, at least in France. Sarah Bernhardt created the role of Napoleon II of France in Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon, played Lorenzino de' Medici in Musset's Lorenzaccio, Pelléas in Maeterlinck's Pelléas and Mélisande and perhaps most famously played the title role in Hamlet.

Whilst the lighter, burlesque/music hall traditions clearly had an erotic element, was this true of more serious actresses, and did this apply to opera too? There was clearly a frisson to be had from seeing two women making love on stage, albeit in a very discreet form.

Mid to late 19th century opera in Italy and France tended to confine the use of women to playing young pages, with little in the way of erotic frisson. Such roles as Ascanio in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini (1838), Siébel in Gounod’s Faust (1859) and Oscar in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (1859). The role of Nicklausse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann (1881) is something of a special case because Nicklausse is the incarnation of Hoffmann's muse, but it still meant you got to see the soprano in tights.

When Johann Strauss wrote the role of Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus (1874) he even gave the character an entrance aria which mimicked the sudden changes of register that adolescent boys are prone to. Orlofsky is also a bit sexy, but in a discreet way.

This seems to change towards the end of the 19th century. That lover of the female form, Massenet wrote the role of the Prince in Cendrillon (1899) for a woman and the title role in Cherubin (1905) was a reincarnation of that archetype of breeches part, Cherubino. And in these two roles were are definitely back to the erotic frisson. In each case the travesty role is the leading man and gets the leading lady at the end. And whereas with earlier roles, you can give the composer the benefit of the doubt, with Massenet you can be pretty sure, he got a kick out of it and intended us to.

This all comes to a climax in the operas of Richard Strauss. Der Rosenkavalier, premiered in 1911, has the role of Octavian which is clearly an homage to Cherubino and Strauss's beloved Mozart. We have the erotic frisson of not just a flirtation, but Octavian's involvement with two different women. And, being as the libretto is by Hoffmanstal, there is the extra delight of having Octavian dress as a woman in the last act. The composer in Ariadne auf Naxos (second version 1916) is less erotically fixated, its all about the music. But she/he still has a flirtation with Zerbinetta. Strauss and Hoffmanstal's final bit of cross dressing has something of an ironic homage to the Vienna of the 18th century. In Arabella were are in the Vienna of the 19th century and Zdenka is brought up as a boy to save her parents money. This role makes plain what is implicit in the previous roles, here Zdenko is a girl and she falls in love, but with a man.

This brings me to my final question, about our treatment of such operas today. I have seen Handel performances where the travesty role is played as a woman, e.g. Micah in Samson, but always done with an entire lack of erotic intent. This is true of the recent production of Lucrezia Borgia at ENO where Orsini was played as a woman but being as she/he is a page there is little in the way of erotic frisson. The same is true of the pages in Verdi, in Rigoletto and in Un ballo in Maschera, both of whom I have seen in female incarnations.

But what about the sexy travesty roles, why don't we play those as women. Would Der Rosenkavalier work with Octavian as a woman, what about Ariadne auf Naxos? Given the way that some directors push the boundaries of the possible, surely it would be interesting to see what happens. But this doesn't happen,  so what does it say about our attitudes to seeing women en travestie on stage. That we were are perfectly happy with two women simulating sexual attraction providing one of them is pretending to be a man?

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