Sunday, October 28, 2012

Handel's'Gender-Bender Opera

opera is a peculiar genre, full of sexist stereotypes, but almost forced to create a fair number of strong women for the variety of voices. beginning as a form long after shakespeare and the keep-the-women-off-the-stage rules [at least in england], it incorporated women amply from the start.  indeed, where classical and early renaissance theatre had boy actors to play women, opera has often incorporated 'pants roles'--women singing young men.  [they also had the horrific habit of keeping some boy singers' voices high by castrating them;  today's equivalent of the castrati are the increasingly popular counter-tenors--tenors who have trained their singing voices to reach pitches equivelant to to those of female contraltos].  interesting, these voices are rarely used to convey women, and in early opera especially, counter-tenors often play virile, win-the-gal heroes.

last week i saw a handel comedy, 'partenope,' that seemed to me to have even more than the usual share of gender-bending, and it made for some interesting vocal and theatrical effects.  partenope [a soprano] is the queen of naples, in love with arsace, visiting prince of corinth.  she is also enjoying the attentions of her loyal ally prince armindo of rhodes. both men are sung by countertenors. they are joined in their passion by king emilio of cumae [tenor], with whom she also flirts, but ultimately rejects. he decides then to become worthy of her love by invading and conquering her country.  why he thinks the way to a queen's heart is to decimate her country, i'm not quite sure, but he does and storms out at the end of act 1, vowing to conquer her heart and country in one grand gesture.  add to the mix another fellow, a foreigner who swears allegiance to the queen and buckles the swash with the best of them. the hitch is, he's not a 'he' at all, but rather arcase's abandoned love, rosmira, determined to be revenged on him.  her voice is a deep contralto that at times can still be beautifully lyrical.  in the production i saw at boston baroque last week, she was sung by kirsten solleck, who was the most effectively androgynous looking pants-role singer i've even seen.  so we had at times, the rare and lovely sound of a contralto and 2 countertenors singing together.

then, in the 2nd act, flirty-cutey partenope decides to lead her own troops into battle, actually fighting with her men.  so in a sense, we have for a while two 'men' who are really women. by the end, she is sobered a bit by the war, in spite of her triumph, but definitely back to girly-girl.  oh well, can't have everything.

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