White Shirt Monday: She’s Not Your Sister, Luke.

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[I’m not sure whether we could make Elettra stand in for the Wookie, but other than that, everything is settled for the interstellar happy ending on Planet Idomeneo, where, for once, Luke Skywalker will end up with Leia. – Monica Bacelli (Luke Idamante), Steve Davislim (Han Idomeneo) and Camilla Tilling (Leia Ilia) in Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, which I never thought about as a space opera until today. Staged by Luc Bondy for La Scala, Milan 2005.]

idomeneo1_2a[Definitely not your sister, Luke. – Monica Bacelli (Idiamante) and Camilla Tilling (Ilia), Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005.]

This past week, I slipped and fell into an Idomeneo-shaped hole to end up in late seria Wonderland for a while. I had just about forgotten how much I love this opera (and not just for the chance of mezzos making out with sopranos, although that is part of the appeal).

“Idomeneo” and I have a history. I first stumbled upon it when I was at the edge of thirteen, an awkward baby dyke with no vocabulary to describe what set me apart, but even so, something made me click instantly with this opera – sweet young love that could be seen as gay if you squinted just right (not that I even knew back then that I *wanted* to squint ‘that way’), a regal older soprano who commands the stage, and a happy ending despite all the drama. What’s not to love?

I hold fond memories of 13-year-old Anik in the musicology department of the local library, checking out Attila Csampai essays on “Idomeneo” and then spending the seaside spring vacation holed up with research literature (much of which probably went right over my head), drawing awkward costume sketches (in which Idamante still looked like a young man – I was a little slow on the uptake), and feeling a little less lost in the world I was growing into.

The love for this opera has stuck with me. In retrospect I see how much it has to offer to queer-identifying youth, not just with the sweet, youthful love story that prevails against all odds, and the coming-of-age figure of the older, seductive woman to be both intimidated by and attracted to (the famous Marie-Theres’ pattern most opera dykes will be familiar with). More than that, I know see the struggle of someone not yet hardened by circumstance within a paternalist system; the craving for recognition within family structure that is denied until the very end. And, in tandem with that, the rejection of that first, overwhelming, and endearingly innocent love  – the one we all probably remember with a smile and a tear intermingled – as something wrong: Ethnicity and politics easily stand in as a code for queer desire as Idamante tries to reconcile social expectations, wants to fit in and does not quite fit, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing he is acting.
It is the sensation of being singled out, of unfair persecution – the Gods, on a whim, decided that he should be sacrificed because his father said so. And it is the immediate expectation of being rejected by the woman (in this instance, possibly “girl” would be a better fit) “he” loves, and beating himself up about loving her, about the Gods whom he blames for feeling this way, even while he does not want to let go of being in love. He feels punished “for a crime I did not commit” and yet he remains so hung up on Ilia, and just a word – one word – of rejection is all he asks, if only she will speak that to him at least. And he does not dare to imagine anything else. – Sound vaguely familiar?
The opera all but starts with Idamante confessing his love to Ilia, and at just a glance from her, he leaps into a desperate defense of his feelings, something he struggles with well into Act Three, where Ilia, faced with Idamante going off on a suicide mission because he cannot find a place for himself in this world, admits that she loves him back. And the mere idea of this being a chance – of Ilia loving Idamante in return, of a place for this desire, and an answer to it – must have been what turned “Idomeneo” into such a hopeful opera for me.

The 2005 reading by Luc Bondy illustrates this perfectly – it is a production that does not deny itself that sliver of hope, against fate and Gods, and against rejected desire. It is a very humanist production. Bondy, much like Chérau, is a director of small, perfectly staged details in interpersonal relation, creating a seamless scope that fits the singers’ abilities as much as it fits the drive of the story. They simply don’t need anything else to uphold a convincing narrative.

Ilia and Idamante here are achingly endearing, captured as blushing young lovers with all the exuberance and idealistic stance that affection brings. Camilla Tilling is wonderful, with just enough spunk to avoid the princess clichés. I dare you not to go “awww” at the storyline in this staging.idomeneo1_3

[Monica Bacelli (Idamante) and Camilla Tilling (Ilia), “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005 ]

Before we continue on to Idamante, a word on Emma Bell’s Elettra – who sings beautifully in places where other dramatic sopranos often use the fury as a lever for a less cultivated tone. Which is not to say that she doesn’t sell the ire: she does, and she packs quite a punch, too. All three arias are a delight (my selection of Idomeneos is usually determined by a) is Idamante sung by a mezzo? and b) is Elettra’s third aria included?), also something noteworthy – usually, either the dramatic ones or the gentle middle one fall a little flat. Bell is dressed like a timeless Antigone, pleats and bracelets, and wonderfully walks the line between the scorned fury two sizes too tall for Idamante, and the unhappy young woman who is a bit less gracious than Idamante about not finding a place for her desires (something that always makes her very sympathetic to me).

The real star of the show, though – if we had to pick one –  is Daniel Harding’s conducting. Damn, he is good.

And then, of course, there is Monica Bacelli as Idamante.

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[I can pull off navy trenchcoats and  cargo pants and there is my haircut: of course I get fanmail from lesbians from the late 1990s. – Monica Bacelli as Idamante, “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005]

Bacelli is a stage veteran as well as an Early Music scene veteran, yet her portryal – both in singing and in acting – comes across fresh, charming and convincing. I mostly heard her with concert repertory before, but after this one, I really need to go digging further. I partcularly commend her taking on a trouser role the way she does, which – as Italian-socialized woman in an Italian setting – is not the easiest access route.

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[Lights! and Le Mozart Hot! – Monica Bacelli (Idamante), “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005]

It does change the perception – and it makes the role more readily readable as queer – that Bacelli isn’t a youngish mezzo hero. The energy – her convinving protrayal of gentle, youthful masculinity notwithstanding – she brings to the part leaves us with an Idamante who could not just pass as a somewhat older, lesbian Luke Skywalker in the finale, but there is also a slight trace of Julie Andrews refinement ca. “Victor/Victoria”. And of Emma Thompson (or Emma Thompson’s would-be younger queer sister), ca. 1998. Also, this Idamante could pull shifts for Janet Fraiser (in case that one were out of office saving her girlfriend half across the galaxy), and I’d also say that she could pass as a Democrat Presidential Hopeful, ca. 2006-present.

idomeneo1_5[The First Lady fanfic basically writes itself! – Camilla Tilling (Ilia), Monica Bacelli (Idamante), “Idomeneo”, Milan 2005]

I wish I could have seen this produciton at age 13, but perhaps the fact that I could not, and that I had to piece together vague ideas and the sensation of someting just out of reach, is what has left me with such a fondness for the opera. And I maintain that “Non ho colpa” is the perfect angsty lesbian courtship aria. Caroling and all.

Don’t take my word for any of this, though: The production is availabe in full, with subtitles in Italian and English, on YouTube, thanks to Agapò Te Musikò 2. Highly recommended!

18 thoughts on “White Shirt Monday: She’s Not Your Sister, Luke.”

  1. oh thank you Anik, i saw a radio broadcast of this (which i missed) last week and realized i didn’t know this opera at all, so this is a great intro! esp. in the back of mind i really wanted to hear Bacelli much more after limited exposure in the form of only her duet in “vorrei baciarti” and “Son nata a lagrimar” on tube..

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    1. YES, that “Vorrei baciarti”! nN fact, I should dig that up right now, because while this is turning into a Bacelli situation over here, there is a neverending Mingardo situation, too (I think you can empathize).
      I also meant to say thanks for Antonacci as dreadlocks Nerone the other day (but your converation seemed kind of private so I did not want to butt in) – that took an hour out of my working day, too. I regret nothing! 😉

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      1. no no, absolutely nothing private about dreadloxs !!! please butt in anytime, i was simply too delight.. it has occupied my entire weekend.. and am in progress to hopefully get a copy that tv broadcast too! since writing my comment earlier that duet “vorrei baciarti” has been in my head the whole afternoon now..

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        1. you’ve got the entire broadcast? Oooh…
          and YES to a live version.
          (I didn’t know they recorded Son nata a lagrimar, and with Alessandrini to boot!)

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    1. I almost used that image as the cover! But then I tried for some decorum (and I couldn’t resist the Star Wars analogy). At least for another to lines.
      The production is really sweet in how the lovers are treating each other, not really much making out, but a lot of gentle teasing and simmering desire, very well staged.

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  2. It took me a while because I had to break my viewing into manageable doses. I am ondering your take on Idamante, which will probably take me some time. The Star Wars angle actually makes it a bit more palatable to me. I think its the centrality of the father/son thing that makes this opera seem alien and difficult to relate to for me. This has always been one of my ‘hard to take’ operas. Yes, the music is luscious, the score is stupendous, but I am going to put my ignorance on full display here and say the libretto is – well – rather saccharine. I agree with Alice Coote that opera is not supposed to be believable, but believability aside, I can’t find a way to make the psychology here work for me. It must be my own prejudices are rearing their pointy little heads here, but Idamante’s filial groveling has always made me cringe. It makes his love for Ilia seem anaemic in comparison to his love for Papa. I think The Guardian review made the argument that Idomeneo was Mozart’s fantasy that god would intervene in his own tormented relationship with his domineering dad, and compel him to bow out and leave Mozart free to grow up. Could that be why the romantic angle seemed to be merely the runner up? I wonder if Bacelli should have avoided playing the part quite so flatly straight. Could it be that even Mozart felt some dissatisfaction with this opera? He seems to me to have revisited a similar constellation of roles in La Clemza di Tito. I thought it possible that Vitellia was a more emphatic Elettra who was (unlike Elettra) permitted to satisfy her ambitions. Servillia was given a more practical choice than poor Ilia, (submit to Tito or be true to Annio) and the pompous, rather dim-witted Idomeneo was given a hasty polishing over to become the high-minded Tito. Good thing a more mature Mozart added Sesto to the mix in LCDT! Is there a way, I wonder, to reduce some of Idamante’s ‘fawning to Father? If this had been a German or Austrian production, would even a teenage-seeming Idamante have been encouraged to play his part a little more wryly and drily? It did seem to me that here, psychological complexity was not given its proper due.
    EXCEPT with Elettra, whose lightning-and-thunder third act aria was completely befitting of her name. For me that was the highlight of the performance.

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  3. A lot of Id in Idamante, much fear of rejection, parental and romantic. Perfectly suited to adolescence, but how many 13-year-olds would catch on, let alone **research** it? The family vacation spent reading (“why don’t you take your nose out of that book and enjoy yourself?”) sounds familiar, but that reading was scifi, long before Star Wars, not Attila Csampai essays(!!!)
    The libretto is startling in its Freudian clarity. What (castrato) son wouldn’t grovel to a murderous father? With the potentially protective mother absent, represented by a vengeful fury (how delighted Freud would have been to find Elettra here), and the beloved emotionally distanced by implacable adult hostilities and her own reluctant denials? It’s monstrous, and so it even has a monster for him to fight.
    The fear of being rejected by family and beloved is all too practical for a teen discovering queerness. Here in the States, a lot of them end up on the streets. And that’s really monstrous. Better Neptune’s justice, Tito’s clemency, the suspended sentence (“Più docile io sono, e dico di sì”) that Mozart achieves so often. “Menschlicher als dein Vater” offers a sense of masculinity as humane, while men of blood (“La vittima io sveno”) are brought low, in the extreme case to Hell.
    Escape from rigid justice is more effective, the farther he can get–or be taken–from rigid gender categories. The trousered mezzo is a sign of grace, even an angel, if only a cherub.

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  4. fitzfulke, I apologise for my mistakes. It was my impression that in this opera Idamante was a much beloved son, that he was a young adult of marriageable age, and that he was neither queer nor castrated. It is perhaps to my detriment that I cannot follow the logic in your argument, and I am still unable to see the reason for Idamante’s groveling throughout.
    Nor was I aware that Freudian psychology and terminology were still being taken seriously.

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  5. Thank you both for your insightful readings! (@inkbrain: I believe FF’s discussion of queer youth tie back to my history with the opera and discovering it as an outlet at age 13)

    Coming to the opera at a young age and not from an analyst perspective, much of my approach is not temered through by rationality, although I do see now what warranted my connection to it.
    Since I hppened upon it when I was so young that I did not want to rebela nd be free (the romanticist approach), but desperately wanted to fit in and gain approval within the existinc power hegemony, the strong father/son focus did not bother me.
    And by now, I admit to being kind of blind to it through occupational hazard: I don’t react to the paternal power relation because I have dealed with many (pre)enlightenment pieces that all base identity and heroisim within an absolutist system in the father metaphor, so it’s basically the regular menu: the first duty is the subjugation under the monarch/father, all romantic ties (as so often happens in seria to create the conflict) can come only second to this.
    For the late 18th century, the pattern switches more to daughters than to sons as emotional bonds and a family concept beyond the sovereign gain in importance (and emotionality already shifts towards concepts of the feminine instead of youth), but it is always father figures and absent mothers (and Freud – without Freud, no Lacan, without Laca, no Butler… even if he is usually a pain that needs to be framed! – would have enjoyed the hell out of Elektra, I am sure) and struggling to build identity WITHIN paternal power hegemonies – 19th century and the enlightened/romantic hero change that, of course.

    I am uncertain how to fit the fact that Idamante was written for castrato (and in the Vienna version recast with a tenor!) into it, since the castrato despite being on the decline in 1781 was still very much the standard heroic figure.
    Yes, coded as youthful, and yes, the whole castrato idea hinges enormously on an Early Modern concept of hegemonic power with the ruler at the center, but still it does not have the post-enlightenment (and ultimately Freudian) perspective of the castrated as unmanly, least of all in the allegoric context of opera. There are instances of “less manly” offstage, but there was never a question that the castrato was of course a man, with all rights attached to it save for the one of marriage (because that is linked to the patrinlinear genealogy as foundation of power relations, another thing that strongly plays into the creation of the absolutist father/sovereign figure that Mozart and Idamante had/have to deal with), so I don’t see Idamante as subjugated by his being written for a castrato (something that woul be underlined by his later arrangement for tenor), and more within the father/son rhethoric that works independent of the post-elightenment castrato trope.

    Coffee and opera discussion… the perfect Sunday morning over here. Thank you again for instigating this!

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  6. Even if we take the tenor replacement of the part as a move in favor of a more ‘mature’ male, it may be relevant to remember that Dal Prato was an adult of twenty one years old when he played Idamante. And you are SO right in asserting that castrati were not perceived in their day as effete versions of males. Indeed they were seen as heroic – just consider the extreme vocal athleticism expected of them.
    And again you are right in your second observation about the sheer weight exerted by patriarchal and paternalistic power over women and children alike and how it made its way into operatic plots. After all, paterfamilias implied rulership of the household, which of course in many cases included slaves. A good example of this is La Traviata, in which an independent woman is coerced into relinquishing her happiness by her lover’s father. And who benefits by this? A man who is not even on the scene – the future suitor of the sister of Alfredo. This is a sacrifice made by Violetta in order to spare the sensibilities of someone three times removed from her! And then Germont gets some of the most beautiful music for his part!
    Yes – the oppressive weight of fathers pervades so many plots, but I still find Idamante’s fawning repugnant. Returning to what was implied earlier as a justification for groveling, if groveling was the expected response to parental rejection, ought we not to see a great deal more of it in the queer adolescents who are rejected by their parents? Germont had to keep his machinations secret from Alfredo because he knew that far from grovelling, Alfredo’s reaction would have been defiance.

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    1. perhaps it was not the more mature male? Tenors were undergoing a huge change in sound significance by the end of the 18th century already, but it might still have been about the rhetorical positioning, no matter whether tenor or castrato.

      True, my view is mcuh informed by the fact that I do not have an as visceral reaction to Idamanten’t groveling (I do have it to Germont, though).
      Groveling, I think, was the expected response in the 18th century (so I would not apply it to today’s queer youth) and earlier, and I would not apply it to Alfredo, either, since he is already a romantic hero informed by another concept of subject that all but defines itself by challening paternal rule.

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