[The only setting – except for a soap opera – in which a perfectly reasonable line of dialogue is “Your husband is my sister”: a Vivaldi opera, of course.
It is also the only setting in which the thus informed heroine reacts by saying “Oh. What scheme is this – I am your sister’s lover?!” She then waits until the tenor (whom she is supposedly in love with) runs off, to finally dedicate an aria of her own to her
bi-curiosity overall doubts of whom she is attracted to, starting with, “I’m a little butterfly ambling back and forth between two flames: both seem beautiful.” – Vivaldi’s “Arsilda, regina di Ponto” (what is in the water in Ponto that has women in trousers flock to its queens, really?) as recorded by Federico Maria Sardelli with Modo Antiquo, 2007.]
Yes, yes, I know. “Arsilda” is just a convoluted drag dramedy with a heteronormative ending. Or is it? Squint at it queerly, and it is so much more fun. And you don’t even have to squint very hard.
First of all, this opera was written for, yes, a tenor, and there’s a bass, too, but look at the rest: Two mezzos/contraltos (in skirts)! Two sopranos (one in pants, one on skirts)! Plus one trouser castrato part, which we will immediately stake a (mezzo)soprano claim to.
What happened before the opera even starts: The widowed queen Antipatra (I am not making this up, I swear) is placed under the rule of a male regent (The Bass) because apparently women cannot rule in Cilicia (at which point I would change my name to Antipatra, too). They have to compromise until Antipatra’s son Tamese comes of age.
This Tamese has a twin sister, Lisea, who in turn falls in love with a visiting prince from a neighboring kingdom, Barzane. Also, Barzane and Tamese have a beautiful bromance and go on missions together, until they both fall in love with the same woman – Arsilda, queen of Ponto, who clearly is some sort of descendant of that Other Queen Of Pontus because she attracts female singers in trousers like a pro.
So Barzane (who was actually involved with Lisea, but nevermind) and Tamese have an epic fallout over Arsilda, especially when Arsilda chooses Tamese as her future husband. Barzane swears vengeance and bloody murder like any entitled class-and-gender privilege sporting Dick jr., who believes he should get the girl simply because he exists. (No, the curtain still hasn’t opened at this point) Tamese then travels home to, I assume, pick up his dowry, but gets shipwrecked and is believed dead. Oops.
This also leaves old queen Antipatra with a problem because now there is a glaring hole in the royal lineage. So why of course the most logical solution is to have Lisea dress up as her twin brother and make her take over the kingdom.
(Now the curtain opens.)
We start this opera with Lisea in drag making her engagement to Arsilda public. As far as queer opera starts go, this gets 9 out of 10 rainbow unicorns. Make that 10/10 when we cut to the private chambers where Arsilda is trying to seduce Lisea-in-drag, who in turn is running out of excuses to postpone the wedding date, or any related action.
As far as I’m concerned, the opera could end again right here. I’d watch three hours of just that, but there is plot to be plowed through: There’s rumor of some sinister enemy having arrived in the kingdom to steal the Princess Bride (Barzane, of course, who still cannot take no for an answer). Lisea is less worried about that, and more worried about her love life. She complains to her best friend Mirinda, who in turn is ace and does not really get why hormones are turning everyone around her into idiots.
Now for a plot twist! Tamese has survived! He thinks Lisea has usurped the throne in a power move. To sound out the situation, why of course the most logical solution is to return to court and get a job there disguised as a gardener (paging Finta Giardiniera).
Arsilda vents in the gardens about being sexually frustrated (cue an arioso that is not even remotely subtle). Even the gardener looks good to her at this point (paging Lady Chatterley), and doesn’t he look a lot like Lisea/Tamese…? Barzane saves us from things taking a turn for the heteronormative by barging in with a hare-brained abduction scheme, but ends up disarmed and imprisoned, while Arsilda tries to figure out if the gardener would be into some roleplaying.
Lisea, who is actually doing a good job ruling the country, is delighted by the news of having Barzane locked up in the dungeons and goes off – in drag – to tear into her ex about having broken “his” sister’s heart.
Next, Lisea-in-drag runs into Arsilda and the fake gardener. Lisea-in-drag and Tamese-in-a-flower-apron try to sound each other out. Arsilda, looking on, admits that she is in love with both of them, and that she needs a cold shower. When Tamese leaves, she tries again to seduce Lisea (the words “vieni a maritali inviti” are actually spelled out), but Lisea runs off to instead go on a hunt dedicated to Diana, Goddess of Amazons and Lesbians (which must be code for ‘actually, she said yes or at least wanted to’). That hunt is topped off by a little nighttime garden party that does not much to alleviate anyone’s frustrations.
To the side, Lisea-in-drag tells Barzane that if he were to return to Lisea (who has been declared dead), the charges against him would be dropped, and sends him off on a cryptic date in a crypt. Meanwhile, Arsilda has returned to ogling the gardener, who finally tells her that he is Tamese, and that the person she keeps trying to seduce is his twin sister. Which leads to the phrase, “Your husband is my sister!”
Despite Tamese’s reveal, Arsilda is confused and does not really know with which version of Tamese she is in love any longer: Classic Tamese, Countryside Tamese, or Genderbent Tamese (this could be a Barbie catalogue page).
The Bass, who possibly is also ace, has overheard everything and figures out that Lisea-in-drag is acting as king, and he is scandalized (not that anyone cares, we are here for the queer romancing).
Lisea – now in skirts for the first time in the opera – has a kinky tomb date with Barzane. She makes him promise to let go of Arsilda (probably because she has by now fallen for Arsilda herself). Barzane goes off to ask the king (=Lisea) for Lisea’s hand in marriage and Lisea has the classic Rosalind/Ganymed problem of not being able to be two people at once. How to be king, and also be Lisea? (clue, honey: you *are* the king. Change that law on gendered succession. Also, establish gender-neutral marriage laws and make a new pitch to Arsilda.)
Meanwhile, Mirinda is nursing an ace crush on Tamese aka the Gardener and says she’s happy like that, she doesn’t need all the sex trouble. Tamese is bewildered, but also charmed.
Apropos sex trouble: The Bass is cornering Lisea on ruling the kingdom in drag. His accusations are, in this order “How could you dare marry Arsilda? How could you dare reign the kingdom?” To which Lisea could reply that she hasn’t done too badly on either count and tell him to shut it, but this is 1716 and so the actual Tamese steps up to take over. In his inauguration speech, he thanks Lisea for having maintained the throne, and for not having slept with Arsilda (no, really. He actually says that). He ends up marrying Arsilda, and Lisea – which surely is a political ploy – marries Barzane, though, hey, perhaps Ponto could use a queen with experience in ruling and trouser-wearing at this point, and who knows if Arsilda had a sister? Aspasia Jr., perhaps?
What actually brought me here:
I had “Arsilda” running at work without paying much attention to the story, but then one aria – Fingi d’aver un cor, at 26’30 in the clip above – caught my attention. It’s a smooth, seductive number for Lisea with a jazzy pizzicato orchestration. The aria supposedly deals with heartbreak over Barzane, but mentions all the contradicting passions she experiences, including dealing with Arsilda. (right before that aria, we also have the following morsel of dialogue:
Lisea: On the outside, I’m Tamese in regalia, on the inside, I’m Lisea, overwhelmed with feelings.
Mirinda: Yes, you already told me that, until now, you ignored the fact that Hymen could tie the knot between two women.
You go, Mirinda. Four for you, Mirinda! And really, both Arsilda and Lisea are so ambivalent in their sentiments that queer isn’t much of a stretch. It wasn’t even an effort to look at this in a rainbow light.)
The score manuscript and a modern edition are on IMSLP, a first print of the libretto is up at the Digital Libretto Collection and a cleaned-up pdf version is available, too (caveat: all Italian only).
(I should make this a regular feature and call it ‘Narrative Meddling with Martha’ or some such thing.)