[‘Heteronormativity: you’re doing it wrong’, and some more elaborate thoughts on the performance of La Cappella Mediterranea’s Teatro dei Sensi, featuring Mariana Flores and Giuseppina Bridelli, Venice 2015 (in the Sala Superiore of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – so it’s not quite a church, but it is a confraternity building and this hall has an altar (and Tintoretto works because Venice isn’t kidding around))]
No, I’m not over this concert anytime soon. And I’ve been trying to pinpoint why.
Of course there is the first, more superficial, aspect of two women embodying a set of affects that are, in the majority, coded as romantic. As someone queer and female, I respond to that. It is a respite from the heteronormative default mode surrounding me most of the time. In the discussion over the Paris 2016 “Mitridate” Anniversary rewatch, we touched upon being starved for such un-sensationalized imagery, and the fact that its absence only becomes apparent when one stumbles upon something like this. It’s a glimpse of sudden recognition that once more reminds us how much representation matters.
But seeing a text that allows for a visual queer reading (or even positions it, on a visual level, as queer maintext) is nothing that would make me revisit a concert two or three or four times and then write about it for half a workday. The queer-friendly visuals are but a starting point to the whole set-up of the concert: it is called Teatro dei Sensi (Theatre of the Senses) and it reminds me of the 18th century trope of the emotional laboratory (think “Così fan tutte”): an experimentation space of wide-spanning affects, something that was once a favorite salon performance in the late 18th, early 19th century: someone demonstrating a fluid succession of affects, often merely in facial expressions and gestures.
This Cavalli concert is not so different from that Affect Laboratory: Cavalli is still close to the early 17th century experimentation with expression, between vocal embellishment and the semantic grain of the word, all centered around the question of how to convey meaning not just as abstract knowledge, but also as an affective state.
The approach taken in this Teatro dei Sensi is “committed”, from the get-go, from the first, already ostentatious, approach to the stage Mariana Flores makes through the crowd.
[That straight thing: You’re still doing it wrong. — (no complaints on my side, though)]
Cavalli is a logical 17th century choice for this program. His specifically Venetian works deal with a plethora of sexual plots and subplots, destabilizing and questioning the machinations of desire, gender and hegemony, of order, time and the idea of morale.
I find this take by La Cappella Mediterranea to be true to that Baroque impulse of testing out limitations: an emotional serpentinata, if you will.
In the various selections (from about a dozen of Cavalli’s operas, I think? I have tried to count, but I keep getting distracted), a connecting thread is the search for stages of affects, testing out extremes, distilling emotional states into their essences, while seamlessly moving from one to another. Both singers are taking on a variety of different parts: of different genders, different social positions, different relations to power.
The liner notes say that a narrative arc was intended (which is not unlike the recent ‘Stages of a Relationship’ evening Stutzmann offered in Sablé, together with Baráth). – I would still need to try and parse that tale; I find the evening does not need one: the constant change of role and setting heightens the overall effect, turning it into a Theatre of Senses in the meaning of the first early modern “theatres”, which were anatomical theatres: spaces designed to observe and, by virtue of that, understand the machinery of the body that was dissected (in a Cartesian duality, but that is a discussion for another day). Cavalli, palpable in this rendering of different, shorter scenes, dissects the theatre of emotions.
If you look at the set-up – against that sacred space of the altar and those Tintorettos (yes, I know the production also toured, but it is very apparent in this filmed take) – it is a designated space to observe: a theatre.
The protagonists on this stage work laid bare in comparison to the lush surroundings: there is no stage set, there are no props. In addition, both singers look alike in a sense that they are two conventionally attractive cis females (long locks included), who adhere to the concert conventions of long dresses and jewelry (on the homepage of the Cappella Mediterranea, both Flores and Bridelli are billed as sopranos, which would eliminate another differentiating factor – it’s fairly 17th century, though there is a marked timbre difference in the middle and lower range here).
Within this set-up, all the differentiation, all the narrative work the singers have to do, happens via their attitude, both vocal and physical (and as stated above: these are intertwined much more than they are separate). The story-telling is entirely dependent on how the (slender-cast) band and the singers paint their words, how they sculpt their phrases.
And this is the point where this evening wins me over musically. Already in their recent Geneva “Giasone” (also featuring Flores, as Alinda) – which is, I have to confess, the first outing where I really paid attention to them as a band with a signature sound – I was taken with the Cappella Mediterranea for the attention to sound texture, for creatively raveling in the materiality, in the physicality, of sound: a Teatro dei Sensi, indeed.
Both Flores and Bridelli follow that line. Flores is established as an Early Music singer, she is stylistically at home in early Baroque patterns of approach. Bridelli – though I have only heard her in Early Music so far and I cannot for the life of me imagine her Carmen – also is billed with belcanto and romantic repertory, but her command of line is very much informed by Early Music, and, more specifically, by early Baroque with its emphasis on languid word-painting and using both the physical and symbolical levels of a text.
So, yes, there are exquisite, long-spun piano notes by both singers here, in the very clear blue-skies-to-the-horizon-no-cloud-in-sight style of the early 17th century: slender, bright and light. But on that basis of a well-placed, balanced tone with a single focal point, listen to how they both throw themselves into the consonants to shape physical phrases. In this style, this does not work via increased volume, or via color shading over a sound substance. It works via listening to the words foremost, allowing for the little shifts against tempo, and having the words balance the weight of a phrase: the affect may be taken from the abstract word (the arbitrary sign), but they are never forgetting the word as a physical sound that conveys texture, shape and mood.
In this concert, both singers and band manage that at a non-stop high level of intensity. It is the unplugged redux distill of what opera is all about: a heightened sensual experience. And in this 17th century style (more mid-century than later), it is not explaining words via music (as illustrative), but using words as music.
Then there’s the acting – unusual for a concert, but quite logical for an approach that calls itself Teatro dei Sensi – that is at all points connected to the phrasing and the texts, so it does never come across as too much, which in itself is quite a feat in a concert situation: a space that tends to pretend that there is no acting involved, and that the sung role affect can be neatly detached from the singer’s body.
Well, of course it cannot.
And in lieu of pretending it could, or adding just a little here and there and sticking mainly to the social persona of the singer-in-concert, this event goes after the affect of the role at all times instead, including appearances and exits and even moments before a singer steps onto the scene again. The bodies of the singers are, at all times, tied into the music, on occasion even into moments of silence. It results in a very intense performance (the contrast is apparent in the in-between applause where the intensity falls away, around minute 57) and I am very grateful (and also somewhat in awe) of the vulnerability, honesty and commitment, particularly on the singers’ part, then went into this.
This will be a reference point for me to judge future acting performances because it obliterates lines that some artists do not even dare cross while cushioned safely within a fictional setting of costumes, props and lights: you act from the text, from the phrase, with the body (or bodies) sharing the space and the situation with you. End of story. Gender does not matter. Your gender is the gender of the role in that moment, if gender is relevant at all. And you’re singing it. As little as voicing an affect can be separated from embodying it, as much can, on the contrary, a role be separated from the social biography of the singer.
Flores is married to her Argentinean compatriot Alarcón,* the conductor and band leader, and neither her career nor her image nor the world at large have ended because she embodied romantic attraction in a variety of roles opposite another female singer here. It is called acting for a reason.
(*though let me add, to not contribute to bi or pan erasure, that being married to a man does not necessarily mean a woman is straight)
Enough discourse? Fine. Let’s use that lorgnette to look at a few more screenshots.
There are ðecided possibilities here.
Explain to me, in straight terms, this background stance and look.
On second thought: don’t explain anything at all. I’ll just be sitting here wiping off my glasses, drinking champagne and being superbly happy.
My second favorite thing about this concert truly are the deadpan expressions of the band: “Just me, strumming my lute. Oh, the singers over there? Just another concert, we do this every day.” *strum strum*.
Another aspect I have thought about is whether this concert is pandering to the male gaze in putting two women together. You have the questioning screenshot below: a scene that even required a more elaborate body positioning with one character sleeping, another pining after them (I don’t even remember who was which gender there, and really, does it matter? This is Cavalli!), embodied by two young, conventionally attractive women in front of a crowd that heavily features many older men (the concert was organized by the Venetian Center for Baroque Music, which is linked to privileged white male patronage foremost).
The camera apparently couldn’t get a clean shot (it tried, and then used a mostly disregarded side angle for some of this scene or cut Bridelli out of the frame), so the intimate scene here – someone sleeping, another approaching them with care – is framed from this angle by the very embodiment of a heteronormative, patriarchal gaze. But does it pander to it?
My conclusion is: no (apart from the initial set-up, perhaps).
Because the focus is, in all interaction that can be construed as romantic here, always with the stage partner, not winking at the audience as an invited third to complete the picture (thus inferring a lack in the performed situation).
Because the situations and their affects are taken in earnest and govern the performance at all times.
Because at no point, the miniature narratives are told from a distance (they are subjects, not objects, of the narrative – a historically highly contested position for female artists).
Because the entire embodiment stems from the affect directed by the text and the music (in this order, which still matters for Cavalli), not by the gendered bodies of the singers. As a result none of this is ever played as ‘two women’ in the way so much of pageboy repertory interaction is, it is played as two roles who happen to be embodied by female singers.
This is so rare, and it shouldn’t be – and it’s a concert, not even a staged opera! – and it makes me disproportionally happy.
Linked to the question of the gaze is another observation: even while phenotypically similar, the performances by Bridelli and Flores make factors like gender, class and positions of power/powerlessness quickly and easily apparent in their performances. Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian (but that exquisite work with words done here really merits picking up the language, just for this), you will get who is wooing whom here, both by how phrases are sung, and by how the embodiment does not try to eliminate physical gesture.
And my absolute favorite thing about this is that they keep switching these roles back and forth, depending on vocal ranges, each one at times portraying male, at other female roles, at times courting, at times confident, at times more hesitant or introvert roles (I am trying to avoid the ‘active/passive’ descriptors here).
Guh. I love this. And it is so amazingly well done I could teach a gender theory class about it.
Then, next to these switches of gendered embodiment, at other points, gendered frontiers seemed to dissolve completely. What remains is just two sources of embodiment reacting off each other, instigated by music.
And that is incredibly cathartic to watch (or rather, ‘to experience’ – I do not want to imply a subjugating gaze here, that was not my experience at all).
(Yes, you’ve made it all the way down here. Have a final screencap in celebration of this work of beauty. /Geschwitz out.)
And since there are a few more screencaps I simply couldn’t part with (they expand when prompted – in case you have further research questions, or simply wish to revel in beautifully executed affects), here you go:
(also, wait for my finishing up my slow-savor-screencapping rewatch, I still have about a third of this to go)