Through Geschwitz’s Lorgnette: Bartoli Reloaded
[Photo Credit: all images in this post are screencaps off Bartoli's new website (the one above being slightly altered) - Decca stills by Uli Weber, torso montages by unknown Decca graphic artists]
Last week, in this place, we talked about Cecilia Bartoli being at ease with her femininity.
One website relaunch and a few imaginary headlines on the equally imaginary MNN (Mezzo Network News, as titled by Purity) later, let’s talk about Bartoli being at ease with her masculinity.
Really, really at tease ease.
Someone please summon Caravaggio, stat. I have a portrait to order!
While Bartoli has long since left the femme corner vocally (people having tried to keep her there notwithstanding), the marketing of “Sacrificium” is surprising, since it has Bartoli also visually playing with gender associations, which is someplace where none of her previous photo campaigns or disc covers (with the exception of the tongue-in-cheek priest-with-a-cleavage in the “Opera proibita” booklet) have dared to go.
Now they do, and boldly so.
Bartoli has sung plenty of castrato repertory before, but has never used the gender aspect for marketing, possibly because Decca, management and public opinion had her located safely in the femme corner that supports a flamenco past and pasta cooking, but no escapades in toying with masculine imagery.
Even as opera dykes, we’re all too often stumbling into the same drawers that a conventional understanding gender prescribes when it comes to looks. None of us is surprised (drooling, yes, but not surprised) when Connolly cuts a very handsome figure in a military frock at the Last Night of the Proms, when Alice Coote rocks a suit while singing a concert performance of Nerone or when Anne Sofie von Otter poses in shirt and tie on a CD cover.
These three singers regularly perform trouser roles on the opera stages and are also known for a reasonably sober style offstage – can you imagine any of the three with fiery Bartoli hair?
(Of course, even the Bartoli website relaunch doesn’t skip the warm colors and the curls completely: cream and chocolate and gauze and wraps, oh my!)
Androgyny, even though most of us should know better, comes at a price: the cultural convention that we have inherited from the 18th century onward dictates that a surplus of masculinity on a female body has to come with waiving attributes of femininity – a convention that was established after the castrati rose to fame, btw, and that, in my opinion (more on that cultural pattern in my dissertation someday soon), is heavily connected to the demise of the castrati.
Today’s image of androgyny is based on a separation of gender characteristics: someone we call androgynous is an either/or, a someone whose features or style can be read both as feminine or as masculine, but not as bearing exclusive qualities of both genders (if we ascribe to the Western idea of there being only two, and those two being biologically predetermined) at the same time.
What we are not accustomed to, but what the castrati in between their male privileges and female onstage corsages were living, is a a definition of androgyny that doubles masculine and feminine markers on a single body, making statements of both instead of making statements for none.
And that is where Bartoli, whose looks are generally perceived and styled as exclusively feminine, is exactly the right mezzo to tackle the gender confusion and the breathless blurring of borders that defines the castrati.
A damn smart move, Ms. Bartoli.
Apart from Cherubino and an abstract trouser role in “Il Trionfo del tempo e del disinganno” , I don’t recall her singing men on the opera stage (please correct me if I’m wrong. Feel free to post photos, too!). People who like conventional gender patterns probably wouldn’t take too kindly to someone whom they had perceived as safely stashed “in the girl corner” trying out more aspects of being and challenging their notions of who can wear trousers on stage (and offstage).
The photo gallery for “Sacrificium” is a way of trying to maneuver through this tricky territory without challenging people too much – Bartoli is still photographed with eyeliner cat eyes that would do Rudolph Valentino proud, with gentle lip gloss and an inviting, nonthreatening expression, smiling and with her head cocked to the side: something that her singing challenges in a much more outward fashion.
Still, the repertory of “allowed” usurpation of traditionally male attire is thoroughly explored:
…the Carlos Gardel Fedora (best served with boots).
…the (fake) short hairdo. Extra points for the Bogey trenchcoat.
… the Marlene D. tailcoats & top hat, complete with cufflinks (actually, the most androgynous part of this last image is the left hand with the cuff. Seriously.).
Given these sidetracks down the road of classical women-wearing-men’s-clothes iconography, it has to be asked why the following “Photoshopping 101″ file has made it to the cover of “Sacrificium”.
Seriously, why is this the cover photo… ?
…and not THIS?
…too darn hot?
I’m not sure who at Decca is responsible for remembering the genius equation of “utterly feminine + utterly masculine = hot (con)fusion”, but it works. At least for me.
Granted, onlookers who are less at home in genderqueer philosophy or baroque opera (wait, that was redundant, wasn’t it?) may squirm where the opera dyke rejoices, but even squirming would be proof of having recognized the sudden disappearance of separating borders that seemed unsurmountable just moments before.
And that bout of breathless fascination is exactly what castrato art is about, and what Bartoli manages to recreate here (differing gender concepts of the 17th and early 18th century notwithstanding).
A gutsy move? Certainly. Mainstream audiences (and not only those) like their gender cemented, not challenged. But Bartoli wouldn’t be Bartoli if she couldn’t charm people into it anyway.
And if you’re up for some more “Bartoli jawline + marble abs = holeeeee mamma”, check the video trailer on the new website. My brain went into very happy meltdown during it:
And while you’re over there, join the virtual community, check the photo gallery and listen to samples from “Sacrificium”. Bartoli, whether with abs or with (other) curves, will always make a gray autumn day so much brighter.
A review of the singing (and you bet there’s plenty of aural genderbending going on, as well – or rather, a question of why we tend to allow certain soundscapes only to certain gender ranges) to follow in early October, when I have my own pre-ordered limited edition copy at hand to delve into details.
And a final nod to the new website: it’s a very nice detail that when you sign up for the “Cecilia Community”, you’re asked to specify your gender as either male or female, but you can just as well sign up when you leave the box unchecked and stick with “please choose” instead. Sometimes – and this is exactly what Bartoli is demonstrating with “Sacrificium” and what will probably garner some squeamish comments in the reviews – there is no choosing either/or.
Sometimes, there’s no dichotomy to sort yourself into.
Sometimes, it’s simply both, and above and beyond.