Monday 21 July 2008

Sex matters

Glyndebourne's new Hansel and Gretel has debuted, with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Witch, sung at tenor pitch. Now I have no problems with the witch being sung by a man, a counter-tenor friend of mine has performed it at soprano pitch albeit with just piano accompaniment; he created a rather scary, slightly androgynous figure, miles away from the pantomime dame. But I have severe problems with the issue of transposing it down an octave. The effect on the vocal line is to render something rather scary as an out and out caricature. You can observe similar effects when castrato roles are translated down in baroque opera, the results become cruder, more highly coloured owing to the way the lower voices cope with the faster notes.

But somehow it seems to be acceptable in some operas, notably lighter ones, to move roles about. If you think I'm being a bit prissy about this, then it helps to consider what people's reactions would be if instead of Humperdinck we considered Richard Strauss. What would the critical reaction be if we were to be presented with Octavian sung by a tenor or the Composer (in Arabella). Critics would be up in arms of course because the transposition would ruin the balance between voices (think of the presentation of the Rose scene or the final trio with Octavian an octave lower). That such considerations do no fly from critical pens when the Witch is done by a tenor is perhaps an indication that, despite some superbly thoughtful productions in this country (David Pountney, Richard Jones), we don't quite take Humperdinck's opera as seriously as Richard Strauss's.

Surely the issue is that if an opera is worth doing, then its worth doing properly according to the composer's intentions.

The same arguments apply to the other Strauss's Die Fledermaus, where Orlofsky can be sung by a tenor. This makes the role into something rather different, more roue than excitable youngster. It also makes nonsense of the vocal line for Orlofsky's couplets where many commentators argue that the distinctive vocal leap is meant to represent Orlofsky's voice breaking as he is a teenager.

But of course certain types of lighter opera and operetta have always been prone to directors knowing better and presenting them with substantial re-writes. Granted Humperdinck's opera is not really a light opera, but it is based on a fairy tale and involves children; though he uses Wagnerian techniques, Humperdinck does so in an open an accessible way.

Strangely, its not always light opera that comes in for these alterations, lesser known ones can as well. Witness Massenet's Cendrillon where the only studio recording is still one which uses a tenor for the Prince rather than a mezzo-soprano/Falcon soprano as Massenet specifies. Whereas the change in sex of the Witch is to add extra comedy to the work, the Massenet and Johan Strauss changes are done for different reasons notably the rather modern obsession with having young men sung by men on the operatic stage, particularly when they are in love.

The ultimate change in this style can be found at the very opposite end of the operatic canon, in Monteverdi where Nerone is not infrequently sung by a tenor.

So what should we do about this? Complain! I know that it goes against the grain. But if you've paid a small fortune for tickets you are, I think, entitled to a degree of come back.

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