Through Geschwitz’s Lorgnette: “Orlando furioso” at Bremer Theater

ns-viv-alcina[Reminiscing Viehbrock: Nadja Stefanoff as Alcina in Vivaldi’s “Orlando furioso”, Bremen 2013. – Photo Credit: Jörg Landsberg]

While Händel’s operas get tackled more and more often by conventional repertory theater companies, a Vivaldi in such a setting is still a bit of a novelty. Naturally, I was thrilled to hear that Bremen planned to put on “Orlando furioso”.

After seeing the performance (which made me think throughout “someone has watched their Stuttgart Alcina thoroughly!”), I have to admit that it made me think – not just on a musical and scenical level (good and solid on both counts), but on doing Baroque opera within non-specialized opera companies, what that means for casting, and how casting ultimately navigates my expectations as a viewer.

Conventional opera companies, as Germany has a fabulous great many, are supported by tax money (and facing crazy cuts in recent years, but that is a harsh topic for another time) and cover the classic repertory: late 18th to mid-20th century, mostly. Other than in most other countries, German theaters play repertory (x productions per year in intermingled repetition, no break phases) instead of stagione (one production at a time, a row of performances, then a break while the next production gets rehearsed), which is a marvelous thing, since it makes works a lot more available, even if it means a lot more stress for the people involved.

So what happens when such a company – medium-sized in case of Bremen – tackles Early Music opera repertory? Other than big festivals and large Europeans houses, there is usually no budget to buy a specialized period ensemble, so the normal opera orchestra (modern instruments, usual repertory 18th to 20th century) has to tackle it, the only exception being the continuo group (cembalo, Baroque bass/viola da gamba, theorbo and or chitarrone) and perhaps a few selected guest soloists, since the conventional opera ensembles usually don’t have Early Music specialists on their payroll – which mainly means no countertenors and, in case of Vivaldi, no contralto.

When I first read the cast listing, I assumed that at least the Orlando would be a hired guest, not a company regular. It was a man’s name, so I assumed they had hired a countertenor. I confess to being snobbishly miffed at that since I love my Orlandos with contralto depth and enough power to truly rattle the hinges on “Nel profondo”.

Imagine my surprise when, in between the company’s yearbook and the evening’s program – I realized that with the exception of Bradamante (double-cast; the other one was also part of the regular company), the entire production had been cast out of the regular company soloists. So Martin Kronthaler in the title role was not a guest countertenor but a baritone (with some Early Music training). Now I know there *is* an official baritone version for the “Orlando furioso” by Vivaldi himself, unearthed last year in Beaune, but this wasn’t it.

If you recall the lavish Paris production from 2011, there was Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Orlando, contralto) next to Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero, soprano/mezzo), Krstina Hammarström (Bradamante, mezzo) Romina Basso (Medoro, mezzo), Veronica Cangemi (Angelica, soprano), Jennifer Larmore (Alcina, mezzo), and Christian Senn (baritone).

In the Bremen production, we were three mezzos and a contralto (and a good hour of music – the work had been cut to under three hours) short. I kid you not.

Next to Martin Kronthaler (Orlando, baritone), there were Hyojong Kim (Ruggiero, classical lyric tenor), Cristina Piccardi (Bradamante, soprano (!)), Christoph Heinrich (Medoro, bass-baritone), Alexandra Scherrmann (Angelica, soprano), Patrick Zielke (Astolfo, bass – some fine acting here, one to watch out for) and, as the lone mezzo, Bremen audience favorite Nadja Stefanoff (Alcina, mezzo), whom I caught three years ago as swoon-worthy James Dean Octavian.

So actually the only roles unchanged were Alcina, Angelica and Astolfo, while the rest was removed from the familiar mezzo/contralto realm an octave lower: tenor, baritone, bass-baritone, bass. It does make a great difference. I never realized how attuned I am to having a lot of Baroque heroic parts translated to me by mezzo voices and faced with the fine Bremen performance, I felt like an utter Early Music festival snob.

The singers were fine. Not just “oh, for someone without a degree in Early Music, this is quite admirable”, but for the most part, truly fine. The fissures were most audible when it came to fast coloratura and long runs, both things bigger, “conventional” opera voices are generally not educated towards. It took me a while to get into it – especially as man after man walked out, opened his mouth and sang… low – but in between the singing and a solid psychological reading (staging: Ana-Sophie Mahler) in a weathered hotel lobby setting, the evening was convincing.

The orchestra, conducted by guest Olof Bomonn, was a particularly pleasant surprise. They played a fantastically crunchy, transparent, dynamic and flexible Vivaldi and you wouldn’t have guessed that their next opening is going to be “La Traviata”. Really impressive.

Still, I missed my contralto. And my mezzos. And – both snobbish and shallow – I missed women in trousers running after other women. Bradamante *was* wearing trousers (tight Glencheck riding pants and heels), but it just wasn’t the same watching her chase after a tenor (never mind that pink pajama set her wore. We shall not speak of it). Not even a countertenor or male soprano!

And I felt like a hypocrite, with all my: “It’s about the voice, not the body!” – because while a lot of it is about the mezzo voice and its qualities that I have lerned to read and hear as gender-transcending, I am also someone raised within a clear biologially based gender dichotomy who cannot unsee the sex. I don’t notice it when I see women playing men’s parts since that feeds into my individual disposition of desire, but I did, that night at the theater, strangely notice it in the absence of women’s bodies, and high voices.

The latent queerness that still breathes a different concept of body (even if much of it is anachronistic projection from us latter-borns) that draws me strongly towards Baroque opera was nearly nullified here, and despite it being – as said above – a well-sung  and well-acted evening, it didn’t connect to me as e.g. the 2011 Paris production did, even though the staging there was arguably less concise there.

The Bremen production is probably the straightest setting of any “Orlando” episode I have ever seen. And on one hand, I understand that it is the only way – and in this case, with a very successful result – to do Baroque opera within a conventional company frame: cast from within the payroll, transcribe parts if necessary, focus on singing and acting well. And I do want this repertory to grow roots within companies and audiences that usually stick to Verdi, Wagner and Mozart. But on the other hand, I wonder whether the massive shift of sonal sphere does take too much away from the essence of “Orlando furioso” and of the oscillating Baroque queerness that the mezzo voice embodies so well – especially in a work about the borders of the mind and the relation to madness.

And I am left wondering: is this only a fake argument of a disgruntled opera dyke who felt robbed of her shallow engagement with female bodies interacting in a romantic setting on stage? Shouldn’t I get over my own hypocrisy and focus on good singing, acting and storytelling? Or is there indeed a spirit of both sound and body (and the lack of sexually defined bodies) that is particular to Baroque opera and that ends up extinguished under the framework of modern day casting and hearing conventions?

On a final note, though, the evening wasn’t all straight. Leave it to Alcina (the wonderful Nadja Stefanoff, whose voice clearly is no Early Music vehicle, but is just as clearly is an enganging singer-actress with a hefty middle register) to queer the evening up a little with hitting on Angelica throughout the first act while she helps her win Medoro back. And it makes sense, really: Alcina has been through a slew of knights, animals and inanimate objects (okay, those two after the fact . we know the story), so it didn’t feel like a stretch to think she’d bewitched a princess or knightress along the way, as well.

Actually, I always wondered what would have happened if instead of Ruggiero, Bradamante in her chain armour would have appeared first on Alcina’s enchanted island. After all, a mezzo is a mezzo and the body shouldn’t matter? – But that’s perhaps a story for the books of Fiordespina…

15 thoughts on “Through Geschwitz’s Lorgnette: “Orlando furioso” at Bremer Theater”

  1. I’m with you on this butt it’s the sound that I Think suffers, not having seen many baroque productions on stage. Cork did a great little Gluck Orfeo, but can you possibly Hear ‘che faro’ as a baritone aria? I’ve trouble not thinking of Kathleen ferrier, and it’s the musical association. The queer happening is a kindly coincidental bonus, to me. Another one I have seen (without naming houses) is hiring any countertenor you can possibly get… Again a musical let down

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    1. yup, the “any countertenor” fashion is not doing the music or the audience any favors – nor would be “any mezzo”, but isn’t there always a decent mezzo? 😉
      I can’t get around Che farò for baritone, not even in newer interpretations, and I’m not even pavloved to Ferrier on that one (although she is a marvelous choice in that regard).

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  2. Wonderful question. Is Alcina, personification of polymorphous perversity, defeated by Bradamante because Alcina cannot empower desire without difference? “Che grattugia a grattugia poco acquista.” An unusual tragic flaw, but very Handelian.
    A very thoughtful thought-giving post, thanks. What could be wrong with a cast including Troyanos, Hamari, Wunderlich, Fischer-Dieskau, Schreier? But I can’t listen to that Cesare. It sacrifices what is in the music and in the period, openly declared then:
    “My warbler Celestial sweet Darling of fame
    Is a Shadow of something, a Sex without Name.”
    as the lady sings about Senesino.

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    1. Lament on the Departure of Senesino? Isn’t that part of the Calliope songbook? (beautful repertory, too).
      And yes, alas, *that* Cesare. It’s not Troyanos, but I just don’t get FiDi in Handel… and I can’t listen past the tempi anymore. Same with Karl Richter doing Bach, I am forever ruined by the marvels of historically informed performance.

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  3. Agreed – it would seem like transposing a high part to suit a low voice would inevitably distort the intended experience. The established convention of baroque bodies playing more than one sex on stage, which I think you could argue was also part of the aesthetic pleasure of the original experience, is another point towards contralto casting.

    Apart from any arguments around authenticity, When you have a sea of repertoire that caters to the mainstream heteronormative arrangement, and a tiny window of repertoire that was actually designed for a differently gendered aesthetic, it seems perfectly legit to me to be disappointed at the erasure of its “latent queerness”. I am always wearing my rainbow-tinted glasses to watch everything – when I discovered that genderqueer performance was actually present in classical music at all I was thrilled! Enjoying cannon art that relates to my experience of the world is not a super common thing. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy non-queer things, but the existence of the thrill when it happens won’t be denied.

    I have so many feels about the importance of queers enjoying queer things queerly, nurturing them, and how when there is a dearth of queer things, appropriating non-queer things for queer pleasure should be encouraged shamelessly. I have an equal amount of feels about the pressure arts organizations are under to make varied and new experiences with limited resources, and the importance of broadening audiences while staying relevant. It’s a dilly of a pickle.

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    1. Agreed. Thank you for weighing in, Edward. Sometimes I am moving in such non-queer circles that I don’t think enough about how important queer-appropriating content is.

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      1. Everything I touch explodes into rainbows, so it’s good for me to understand what the general experience is outside of the queer bubble too. 🙂

        Also, I’ve been helping my wife with a queer choral project she’s putting together, so I might be totally obsessed with this subject and the questions surrounding visibility, queer music history and the gay gaze (or ear, rather) right now. Your post really struck a chord.

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      2. Repeating myself, to take advantage of a handy verbal quibble: much Baroque art and music seems intrinsically queer-appropriate, rather than queer-appropriated. The synchronicity of Baroque revival with rejection of gender category imperatives was anything but coincidental.

        Defensive heteronormativity attempts to reimpose its limits by making remarks like the interviewer’s below. “Und für die ’s doch nur das Banale gibt.” It’s interesting that Bradamante keeps being mentioned in this discussion, because she is a prototypically inflexible character–“die nur im Gleichschritt der Moral geliebt.”

        Australia does better:

        Countertenor Peretta Anggerek has sung both the fairy queen and Medea. Perhaps he could do Bradamante as Judith Anderson?

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        1. …but is the Lila Lied just another signifier of otherness to those who precisely “neugierig erst durch ferne Wunder wandern, und für die’s doch nur das Normale gibt?”

          Bradamante ist an interesting case – I am not sure I see her as prototypically inflexible, neither historically, nor today. Her being mentioned in current discssions surely has to do – I wager – with her donning a masculine persona and outfit and going off on knight adventures historically forbidden to members of her sex. That she needs to balance it out through absolute chastity and heterosexuality to still be able to be framed as the mythical mother of the house of Este is a balance price I can accept, especially looking at the misogynist purity concepts of the era (sadly, not all that much different today – re: ‘slutshaming’).
          Of course she’s not Marfisa, but Marfisa is painted outside Christianity until the very end of her narrative. And looking at Bradamante’s actions both when she interacts with Ullania and with Fiordespina, it’s not all THAT straight and narrow. She consciously employs both male and female gender conventions to trump Ullania (battle and beauty respectively) and it looks like she enjoys it, and it’s not like she is running away from Fiordespina, either. Of course there’s the “two women together can’t do anything, wink-wink” pattern of early 16th ctry thought at hand, but I would argue that Bradamante still has and uses a lot more genderflexibility than later heroines. (even the Handel Bradamante is still not freaking out when Morgana hits on her – it seems the Bradamante/Fiordespina episode still seems to prevail as a trope some 200 years later)

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  4. i admire that you came out of the theater still with rational thoughts.. would have totally knocked me out of my mental balance.. having endured a 3-CT agrippina and twice CT orfeo, i here to confess shallowness as well. Now that i think about it, one of the things that attracts me to early music is its gender ambiguity/fluidity and the dominance of deep female voices. If the audience wants their tenors and basses singing “proper” male dominant roles, there’s plenty in Verdi. Even in the case when they don’t transpose the music, and take Agrippina as an example, i’d be perfectly fine if they cast CT for everyone except Ottone. Or say in Alcina or Orlando furioso, if Bradamante is sung by a CT and Rugierro and Orlando by mezzo/contralto, that’d be a fun evening! So gender rigidity (or pretentious fluidity: we give you some women pretending to be men because we’re not that rigid, but the hero must be a male…) is what really bugs me.

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    1. coincidentally, a good friend in the next office came back from Japan and gave me a small piece of gift chocolate wrapped in pink. I didn’t think much of it until i saw the bulgarian postdoc next door with his choco wrapped in blue!!! while i screamed murder, to the poor friend who claimed no such gender-bias assumption, the spanish postdoc came running in showing his, this time in pink! suddenly the world is restored, all is happy there’s no systematic gender bias built-in to our japanese friend’s system 😀 She was very confused about the whole commotion; i wonder if people like us are more aware of these things?

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      1. I think queer-identifying people raised in a largely heteronormative environemnt are more aware of these things – anyone else could be, as well, but a queer-identified person has no choice but question the dual gender/desire system because their own being keeps driving home the point that it is a made system that is excluding and discriminating.

        I’m glad the Spanish post-doc ended up with pink chocolate, too… I’d have been right along with you in fuming about gender stereotyping!

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    2. very interesting points, thank you for sharing!
      The “woman-as-man: yes, because it is an upgrade” but “man-as-woman (outside the buffo repertory of tenor wet nurses or witches): no, because it is a denigration” is a prime example of culturally installed misogyny.
      I would personally miss a female mezzo Bradamante if the role were cast with a male singer, but I would wholeheartedly support the concept.
      From what I observe, there seems to be a reluctance on both the audience’s and the singers’ side to touch that installed barrier of patriarchal thought… I only know if festival productions who try to break through that barrier. There is e.g. a DVD of the early 17th ctry “Sant’Alessio”, with Jaroussky as the Saint, where – in true Roman fashion – all roles are cast with male singers, which neatly bypasses gender/voice/body stereotypes (just like all-female main cast of the famed Stuttgart Alcina did) at large.
      Interestingly (and disappointingly) enough, in a recent interview with the ZEIT Jaroussky distanced himself form singing female parts, saying he “wouldn’t go there”.
      While I understand that as both an out queer man and a male soprano singer he must face a lot of prejudice that wants to put him in a an effeminate corner, I was still a little irked by the reproduction of the pattern of thought that playing women, other than playing men, would somehow be less okay for a male singer or would diminish a singer’s (no matter whether male or female) masculinity.
      Hm, I feel this is going to be another blog entry…

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      1. i have this brief vivica genaux bbc proms interview in mind where she discussed singing male roles and said she would love to see a CT singing cleopatre and she knew of a few male singers who’d be keen on the idea.. i immediately thought of Jaroussky when heard that.. pity to hear of die ZEIT’s interview.. i wonder if something was lost in the translation? or sometimes things get quoted out of context as it was part of a longer line of thought?

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        1. Unfortunatley I don’t know in which language the interview was conducted – French or English, perhaps? But I didn’t like the line of questioning of the interviewer, nor the title she gave the piece, “the countertenor is a new kind of man” because it denotes AGAIN a position as “the other”. There’s also the subheader with the question “Is he (PJ) overcoming masculinity with his new program?”
          I’ll translate the interesting bits in a post on the issue, hopefully tomorrow (need to get a headstart on a presentation first and I’m out of pink chocolates at the moment…).

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