Through Geschwitz’s Lorgnette: “Prussian” Diligence and the Coloratura Divide

[Joyce DiDonato. – Photo Credit: Nicholas Heavican for Virgin Classics; ZEIT 12/11, S. 66]

In this week’s ZEIT, I stumbled upon an interesting take on DiDonato’s “Diva/Divo” album, written by now-and-then ZEIT classical music reviewer Christine Lemke-Matwey, whose review on Kasarova’s Carmen in Zurich remains the most lucid I’ve read.

Apart from attesting DiDonato the age of 32 and calling Marijana Mijanovic a coloratura mezzo (!?), this article is as smart as always and an interesting examination of prejudice towards the bel canto and belcanto repertory as seen from a post-enlightenment perspective.


Lemke begins to talk about DiDonato by talking about perfectly executed coloratura. She continues with DiDonato’s Rosina performance on a broken leg, attesting her “Prussian” discipline and diligence.  The entire review is titled “Ardor by Measure”, implying already that diligence and intelligence and “Prussian” control do lack the free-flowing blessing of the “Genie” that real art needs to be enobled by since the days of Beethoven: real ardor knows  no measure, otherwise it isn’t ardor. Lemke advises DiDonato to stick with Handel, Mozart and early 19th century belcanto (I couldn’t agree more, but that’s because I love that music) and criticizes her later repertory choices on “Diva/Divo”, particularly the Berlioz and the Strauss, attesting her a lack of emotional depth and sense of nostalgia.

My favorite piece on the recording is – just like Lemke’s – the Rossini (“Contro un cor”). To my ears, DiDonato is most at home in it, but because I don’t find her voice that suited – at least not yet – to Berlioz, not because I hear a “lack of emotional depth”.

If you think that thought to its end, you end up – interestingly enough! – at the same 19th century prejudice that listens to coloratura as technique, control and stunning effect, but denies it emotion. Coloratura is, ultimately, a machine, while the feeling soul can only be found in singing “from the heart” (and not from the throat). It’s 2011 and we still find that old stereotype ghosting about. It would be amusing if it wouldn’t be so aggravating. How do we define “emotional depth”? And why have we lost the ability to see it in anything that doesn’t go the “direct” route?

Lemke – who has published a brief article on trouser roles in the 1990s sporting a somewhat conservative stance on binary gender politics – describes the concept of “Diva/Divo” as something “sprung from 1980s feminist musicology work groups”, which is belittling the ongoing debate not just within New Musicology, but within Cultural Studies at large. With DiDonato’s interpretation, the border of male and female would remain untouched, the “mixed” qualities that Lemke attests to Sesto, Bellini’s Romeo and Vitellia (why Vitellia? Because hunger for power always needs to be masculine? – Paging Agrippina for a counter statement. And please bring the leopard coat!) unexamined. Interestingly, at this point, where the review touches the subject of constructing gender, Lemke reverts to calling DiDonato “the American”, calling attention to the palpable differences in European gender perception. One would wish for another paragraph on the topic of “mixed” roles, but probably there was no place for that left.

Ultimately, Lemke praises DiDonato’s singing and the diction (not the accompanying orchestra, btw), but to me, the far more intriguing thing is the underlying belcanto/coloratura debate and the too brief foray into musical gender constructions. Bottom line: Mijanovic needs to make a new album and the ZEIT needs to send it to Lemke for reviewing, perhaps we’ll get a little closer to those gender constructions then.

5 thoughts on “Through Geschwitz’s Lorgnette: “Prussian” Diligence and the Coloratura Divide”

  1. Such a pity. So many strong, brilliantly talented women from uncultured countries (where in this list are Genaux and Garanca? Lemieux and Ernman? Larmore and Hallenberg? We are going to need a *lot* of leopard coats, ostrich plumes, cuirasses, and white shirts); so many women freely moving between categories although they haven’t concerned themselves properly with old Europe’s rigorous discourses and so lack true depths of feeling. How difficult it must be to see them know their own minds. How galling to watch them succeed. One must warn them against this.


    1. What Lemke is getting at – from how I understood the text – is that American gender politics are more rigorous than European ones, which I’d agree on, based on my own experiences.
      The argument of “soulfulness” in judging singing performances while being skeptical of passaggi is a result of 18th century politics, but the mezzos and contralto you mentioned do of course challenge this perception (although I don’t believe Lemke would find their success “galling”. To me, she is simply rooted in a different set of perception patterns, which might be a generational question).


  2. Nice text, Anik! Lemke usually is a brilliant author I know we both agree on that. Maybe she – or the editorial team of Die Zeit – is a bit slipshod regarding the proper age and vocal fach of singers she likes. I suspect she did not want to write more than a CD-review and *as a CD-review* „Lodern nach Maß“ -imho- is simply excellent.


  3. I agree, Lemke is an excellent music journalist – she isn’t a gender theory specialist, so it would be unfair to expect that of her.

    It’s interesting, however, to see how such general debates as “gender” or “embodying emotion” are threaded through the text (and it’s not the job of a CD review to address those). Lemke didn’t invent the convention of coloratura being perceived as less emotional, this is a divide we’ve all been raised in and ultimately, it’s a matter of personal aesthetics.

    Mine are just different, which is why I stumbled over these two points. Perhaps it is simply a sign that 30 years of baroque rediscovery are changing music perception once again. It might be a generational gap, that would be interesting to examine.


  4. That’s exactly why – to my mind – the review of this CD (with the title ‘Diva/Divo’ …) is fun to read, even for persons being not interested in a JDD production but just want to see what’s on the market.
    I assume the gender debate might undeniably be affected by generational differences and ’embodying emotion’ – or not – indeed is a matter of personal taste.


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