Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Gender bending Baroque: Lawrence Zazzo and Vivica Genaux swap genders and roles in this brilliant Baroque opera recital

Baroque Gender Stories
Baroque Gender Stories
... Baroque Gender Stories Hasse, Galuppi, Lampugnani, Porpora, Handel, Vivaldi, Wagenseil, Traetta; Vivica Genaux, Lawrence Zazzo, Lautten Compagney Berlin, Wolfgan Katschner; Deutsche Harmonia Mundi Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 June 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Vivica Genaux and Lawrence Zazzo swap roles and genders in this examination of the role gender played in Baroque opera

When Monteverdi's L'Orfeo was premiered in 1607, the cast seems to have been entirely male with castratos taking the female roles. This reflected an uneasiness with women being on stage which also manifested itself in the Tudor and Jacobean theatre in England using boys for female roles. By the 18th century, women singing female roles was common in opera but there remained an element of gender fluidity. Women commonly played male roles, and in Italy it was relatively common for castratos to play female roles, though this does not seem to have happened in England.

Also, there was the idea of disguise, so that you have Amastre in Serse as a female character who spends much of the time disguised as a man (at the premiere of Handel's Serse, Amastre was played by a female singer who specialised in male roles). And the converse was also present, with operas dealing with the story Achilles disguised as a woman (such as Handel's Deidamia).


On this new disc from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux and counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo join the Lautten Compagney Berlin and Wolfgang Katschner for a programme of arias and duets by Hasse, Galuppi, Lampugnani, Porpora, Handel, Vivaldi, Wagenseil, and Traetta, in which each singer switches between genders, sometimes singing roles originally allocated to a different gender singer.

The album includes a rather complex interview article with Lawrence Zazzo and Vivica Genaux which seems to be trying rather hard, starting with a quote from the castrato Filipo Balatri, 'I remain confused about how to reply. To say I am male is almost a lie, to say I am female is true even less, and to say I am neuter makes me blush'. Of course, we can never recapture the complexities of the castrato voice, or the castrato stage persona, and what we have on this disc is simply two of the finest of the current crop of Baroque singers.

The way the singers play mix and match means that we get Lawrence Zazzo playing the female Amastre pretending to be a man, in Handel's Serse in the lovely cavatina 'Cagion son io', whilst Vivica Genaux sings Emira's vivid 'Rendimi l'idol mio' from Galuppi's Siroe, which is a female role originally sung by a castrato. In Galuppi's Siroe we have Zazzo and Genaux duetting, with him taking the female role and her the male, in what is a delightfully graceful and galant piece of music, and we return to Handel's Serse for Serse and Amstre's poignant duet, with Zazzo and Genaux again swapping genders.

Genaux takes the male role of Orlando in Vivaldi's Orlando furioso, but this time the role was created by a woman, Lucia Lancetti. We get the recitative and accompagnato preceding this striking and extremely taxing aria with its brilliant instrumental-like writing. And in Galuppi's Achille in Sciro she is playing Achilles pretending to be a woman, a role originally sung by a man. Again the music is rather galant, but this is a substantial aria with some stunning virtuosity too.

As well as Handel's Siroe, we get arias from the Siroe of Georg Christoph Wagenseil, the Viennese court composer whose well-made music would seem to deserve greater exposure. A third Siroe is from Tommaso Traetta, a composer whose style sometimes heralds the reforms of Gluck. Another lesser known name is Giovanni Battista Lampugnani whose Semiramide riconosciuta is contrasted with that of Nicola Porpora, who counted the great castrato Farinelli amongst his pupils. Lampugnani played harpsichord in the premiere of Mozart's Mitridate Re di Ponto and his music does sometimes recall that of Mozart. Lampugnani's Semiramide had cross dressing in it because, in Rome at the time, women were again banned from the stage.

Both Zazzo and Genaux have richly vibrant voices, and highly distinctive styles. Can you tell what is the gender of the character that they are singing? Frankly, I am not sure but there is certainly much to enjoy on the disc, both singers attack the brilliant histrionics of much of this music with vividness, technical brilliance and not a little style. There are also quieter moments, where beautiful details tell. The Lautten Compagney accompany with style, and we are treated to the sinfonia from Hasse's Siroe and the overture to Handel's version of the same libretto.

We can never quite re-capture the sense of those original performances, what the audience thought they were seeing when a woman sang as a man, or a castrato sang as a woman. Our sense of these travesty roles is coloured very much by later traditions such as pantomime, and the fact that the castrato voice is no more. Did it matter that castratos could, generally, no longer function as a man sexually and usually looked rather odd because of the way hormones disrupted their growth? Does it matter?

What we have here is a series of brilliant and intriguing performances, sit back and enjoy.

... Baroque Gender Stories
Music from Johan Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) Siroe (1733), Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785) Siroe (1754), Giovanna Battista Lampugnani (1708-1788) Semiramide riconosciuta (1762), Nicola Antonio Popora (1686-1768) Semiramide riconosciuta (1739), George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) Serse (1738), Handel Siroe (1728), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) Orlando furioso (1727), Galuppi Siroe (1754),  Handel Alcina (1735), Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777) Siroe (1748), Hasse Achille in Scirro (1759), Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779) Siroe (1767), Handel Deidamia (1741)
Vivica Genaux (mezzo-soprano)
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)
Lautten Compagney Berlin
Wolfgang Katschner
Recorded 1-9 Feburary 2019, Schlosstheater Rheinsberg, Germany
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 1CD [87:25]

Available from Amazon.

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