Sunday 28 December 2014

Gender roles in baroque opera

Harry Nicoll as Eryka in Cavalli's L'Ormindo at the Globe Theatre © Stephen Cummiskey
Harry Nicoll as Eryka in
Cavalli's L'Ormindo at the Globe Theatre
© Stephen Cummiskey
Have you noticed that we are developing our own little modern group of quirks and conventions when it comes to the casting in baroque operas and oratorios, particularly those of Handel. Performances of Handel's Theodora at the Barbican in February 2014 (see my review) starred Sarah Connolly as Irene and Tim Mead as Didymus. Now whilst both sang beautifully, think what might have happened if we'd swapped them over. Tim Mead as Irene and Sarah Connolly as Didymus. Connolly would make a very fine Didymus (she has sung plenty of other Handel heroes), and there is no reason why Irene could not be played by a man, the part is a simple confidant. After all, Micah in Handel's Samson is often played as woman on-stage. But you just know that people would have commented, certain roles seem to be always sung by certain voices.

Its not even as if we are sticking to Handel's own casting. Whilst Didymus was written for a castrato, the title role in Solomon was written for a woman and he is often performed by a man. And in Giulio Cesare, the original Tolomeo was a woman whilst the original Giulio Cesare was a man, exactly the reverse of the sort of casting we became used to after the famous ENO production of the opera with Janet Baker in the title role and James Bowman as Tolomeo.

Valerie Masterson and Janet Baker as Cleopatra and Caesar in Handel's Julius Caesar at ENO
Valerie Masterson and Janet Baker as Cleopatra and Caesar
in Handel's Julius Caesar at ENO
We seem to have become curiously hidebound over casting and whilst some roles are admirably gender blind, others are not. A new generation of counter tenors who can sing in the mezzo-soprano range gives people more scope surely. After all, during the baroque period in Italy it was routine for castrati to sing women's roles. Adolph Hasse's serenata Anthony and Cleopatra debuted in Naples with Anthony played by a woman and Cleopatra played by a man. And on CD Review recently on BBC Radio 3, a reviewer commented on the fact that a man was singing the solo part in a baroque cantata about Lucretia. Now, I think the main point was that understandably nowadays it is a bit tricky for a man (fully functioning rather than castrated) singing about the rape of a woman from a woman's point of view. But there was still a general subtext, that men singing women's roles even if the singer is a falsettist, is odd.

Eddie Wade, Helen Sherman and ensemble in L'Assedio di Calais English Touring Opera,  photography Richard Hubert Smith
Helen Sherman as Aurelio with cast of ETO's
L'Assedio di Calais photography Richard Hubert Smith
As I discussed in my article in the February 2014 issue of Classical Music, we now have a whole generation (or two) of female singers who are interested in exploring realism in portraying men on stage. We expect our travesty roles, when it comes to women playing men, to be naturalistic and conform to the realism on stage. But even now, there are exceptions. The recent production of Mozart's Idomeneo at Covent Garden (see my review) featured the counter-tenor Franco Fagioli as Idamante, partly because director Martin Kusej insisted the role be sung by man.

But if we look at the reverse, then in opera men only ever play women for comedy. Mark Rylance made a big stride in this direction when he played a number of Shakespeare heroines, such as Cleopatra, at the globe. James Conway's production of Monteverdi's L'Coronation of Poppea (at the Royal College of Music and English Touring Opera) was perhaps notable for the sympathy with which it treated the role of Arnalta, even though sung by a man. This was no comic book portrayal. But this was very much the exception, and few singers or directors seem interested in taking up the challenge. 

Bette Bourne and Bloolips
Bette Bourne and Bloolips
A standard trope in Venetian baroque opera is the older woman who is still sexually interested, and to play up the perceived comedy these roles were taken by men. A number of recent productions have had Arnalta played by a woman, which side-steps the problem entirely, rather than considering how a man might play the role in a more serious way. The role of the old nurse Eryka in Kasper Holten's production of Cavalli's L'Ormindo at the Globe (see my review) was taken very successfully by Harry Nicoll, though his portrayal was far closer to Bette Bourne in Bloolips than anything realistic.

And if we move from simply gender swapping to more complex issues, then these are hardly ever  explored, and baroque opera certain raises plenty.  What about an opera where both the hero and heroine were portrayed as women. Plot is not of primary importance in opera seria, what counted to the original audience was the particular emotional situation. So if a production is true to the emotional spirit, it is surely fair game. And if you have a cast made up of predominantly high voices, then surely it is tempting to move things around a little and explore some of the complex emotions that the casting raises.

A few years ago someone mounted a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni in the night-club Heaven with all the gender roles reversed except the Don (played by Duncan Rock). So that he became a gay man chasing men, and it made a lot of sense. It was true to the emotional core of the opera, though of course the idea of transposing the vocal lines by an octave might not appeal. Opera Up Close's production of Madama Butterfly at the Kings Head, is one of the few I know to have really explored this territory as they made the heroine a Thai Lady-boy. The concept did not quite work because few of the sopranos singing the title role were convincing as a lady-boy. You felt that they should have been more radical and created a new version with a young man (perhaps a counter-tenor) playing the title role.

Perhaps that might be a bit too much for some people, but we do have to give more consideration to voice types and casting and not simply have a knee jerk reaction - Didymus = hero = man. Irene = passive = woman.

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