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Handel’s Heroes…

…and Handel’s Ladies: some questions of gender

by Roger Brunyate

Portrait of Handel by Thomas Hudson  
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Portrait by Thomas Hudson
Thirty-three of Handel’s forty-two operas are named after their leading male character: generally the robust, no-nonsense names of heroes from history or legend such as Rodrigo, Rinaldo, Radamisto, or Riccardo Primo, to list only the R’s. But here’s the secret (though a secret now so well-known that it’s hardly a secret at all): Handel’s heroes are not your regular guys. In Italian opera seria of the eighteenth century, it was virtually de rigueur that the leading male role should be sung by a castrato — a singer who has received a surgical operation in childhood to preserve the purity of the treble voice, coupled with the lung-power of a grown man. Secondary male roles might be sung either by another castrato, or by a female singer en travesti. Baritones and basses were reserved for older men and villains. And the tenor, who was to become the operatic hero of the nineteenth century, was largely confined to the most minor roles in the eighteenth.

  Carlo Broschi, the castrato Farinelli
The castrato Farinelli
Carlo Broschi (1705–82)
Nowadays, of course, the true castrato voice is no longer available, so various alternatives have to be adopted if the operas of this period are to be seen on our stages. In the early years of the Handel revival, castrato roles were typically transposed down an octave and sung by regular male singers; the celebrated production of Giulio Cesare at the New York City Opera in 1966 which brought Beverly Sills such fame as Cleopatra featured the bass Norman Treigle as Caesar. Another approach was to do what Handel himself did with many of the secondary male roles, and cast such parts with mezzo-sopranos or contraltos; Marilyn Horne found particular success in this repertoire. I myself directed (though did not cast) a professional production of Giulio Cesare in the eighties which included no less than seven mezzo-sopranos in a cast of eight — sometimes these things can go too far! In recent years, a number of countertenors have arisen who may approach the power of the castrato singers of the past; at the time of writing, David Daniels and Bejun Mehta are filling the Met with their heroic sound in Handel’s Rodelinda (though Mehta's cover is a mezzo-soprano, Peabody alumna Theodora Hanslowe).

The program of Handel excerpts which the Peabody Opera Workshop will perform in the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall on April 4, 2005, will show virtually the full range of Handel’s male character types, and the full range of modern solutions for dealing with them. The title-role of Radamisto (1720), written for a castrato, will be sung by a countertenor, Peter Thoresen; the secondary role of Tiridate, one of Handel’s great gallery of operatic villains, was written for a baritone and will be sung by one. The castrato title-role of Orlando (1733) will be sung by a bass, an octave lower, whereas the other major male role, that of Medoro, was written for a female mezzo-soprano and will be sung by one; this solution works well in our excerpt, since Orlando sings mainly alone, while Medoro must join in a trio with two sopranos, interweaving at pitch. Our excerpt from Giulio Cesare avoids the problem of the title character, since the only male figures in it are the evil Achilla (baritone, of course), and the adolescent boy Sesto, a kind of hero-in-waiting. Handel originally wrote this role for a soprano in male dress, but later adapted it for a tenor, and it is thus that we shall perform it. The fourth excerpt in our program comes from Handel’s penultimate opera Imeneo (1740); unusually, while one of the two leading male roles, Tirinto, was indeed written for a castrato (a mezzo in our program), the other was given to a baritone and later adapted for tenor, which is how we shall perform it. One explanation for this casting is that Imeneo, which is shorter and less complex than the typical opera seria, may have fallen into a different genre; an earlier composer who set the same libretto called it a serenata.

Eighteenth-century caricature of castrati performing Handel
Castrati in a Handel Opera
Anonymous eighteenth-century caricature
It need not be imagined, however, that there was anything necessarily unmanly or effeminate about the great castrati. While there are contemporary caricatures mocking the disproportionate development of some of these artists (long limbs and huge chests as compared to normally-sized heads), it is clear that they were the rock stars of their day, earning huge salaries, and appealing to audiences of both sexes. There is the story of a London woman at an opera performance by the great Carlo Broschi (known as ‘Farinelli’) who cried out “One God, one Farinelli!” It was also persistently rumored that the castrati were more skilled in sexual gratification than normal men. What is not in dispute is the artistry of the greatest of these singers, to judge only from florid music written for them, which they could apparently handle with ease, and the range of affect they were asked to portray, from heroically stentorian to deeply moving. In a way, this should not be surprising, since the castrati, uniquely among male singers, would have had the advantage of a continuous training from their earliest years, their musicianship formed through singing in church choirs, and their vocal development uninterrupted by the changes of puberty. In the best of these artists, one might find not just heroes, but unusually sensitive heroes.

  Sesto and Cornelia
Sesto and Cornelia
Trudeliese Schmidt and Kathleen Kuhlmann in a modern production of Giulio Cesare in Kassel.
And what of Handel’s ladies? There are no problems of casting there; all are soprano voices (with a few mezzo-soprano roles for the older characters) which are much the same today as they were three centuries ago. The most striking thing, however, is that many of these women are every bit as heroic as their male counterparts. The sexist convention by which the man represents duty and action, and the woman nurture and emotion, is much less the case with Handel’s operas than a cursory survey of their plots would suggest. For one thing, the singers of the male roles, whether castrati or women dressed as men, were clearly capable of singing with heartbreaking feeling; this may be a major reason for the preference for higher voices in these roles. For another, Handel’s women are no shrinking violets waiting for their man to come home. One has only to think of his Cleopatra, seductive at one moment, militant the next, and, whether in triumph or despair, always larger than life yet always alive. Unfortunately, our excerpt from Giulio Cesare does not include any of her scenes, but the much more conventional female character which it does show, Pompey's widow Cornelia, long-suffering though still strong, is a perfect foil to her more active nature. And in her teenage son Sesto, who is forced to put on a hero's costume, as it were, before he is really ready for it, we hear a very interesting critique of the heroic convention, especially if the role is sung by a soprano.

Radamisto and Zenobia, by Luigi Sabatelli  
Radamisto and Zenobia
Painting by Luigi Sabatelli
Although Handel appears to have developed the feminine side of his heroes more as he reached artistic maturity, his women are strong from the very beginning. In Radamisto (1720), the earliest work on our program, there are two such women, Zenobia and Polissena. They are sisters-in-law, since Polissena, who is married to the Armenian king Tiridate, is the sister of the Thracian prince Radamisto, who is married to Zenobia. When Tiridate grows tired of his own wife and forms a passion for Zenobia, a plot is set into motion which contains enough kidnappings, sieges, and secret escapes for an Errol Flynn movie. But the emphasis is not on the action (which in any case takes place mostly offstage), but on the changed emotional circustances which each event creates for the characters. By the start of our excerpt, which comes from the last act, Tiridate has captured Radamisto and condemned him to death. Polissena begs mercy for her brother, still using her persuasive powers as a loving wife, but warning her husband that her love may soon change to anger. Tiridate rejects her and tells Zenobia that she alone can save her husband, by coming to his bed. She refuses, and in a scene with pre-echoes of the ending of Aïda, elects to die with him instead. Eventually the situation is reversed by the revolt of Tiridate's own troops, which leads (quite unusually for Handel) to a quartet in which the two women join Radamisto in presuading Tiridate to yield, not merely on grounds of honor or even of pragmatism, but also in the name of love.

  Illustration by Gustave Doré of a scene form Orlando Furioso
Scene from Orlando furioso
Illustration by Gustave Doré
Orlando (1733) was the first of three operas which Handel based on Lodovico Ariosto’s great verse epic Orlando furioso, published in 1516. Nominally concerning the actions of a group of knights (known as Paladins) in Charlemagne’s court around the year 800, Ariosto’s poem freely mixes elements of chivalry, romance, and the supernatural. Handel responded to this with an unusually free musical treatment, creating a genre which comes closer to the pastoral than the normal opera seria. The classic conflict between love and duty drives the hero Orlando to madness; hopelessly in love with the heroine Angelica, he can no longer perform the deeds of valor for which he is famous. For much of the opera, his music abandons the standard form of the da capo aria in favor of accompanied recitative and snatches of arioso; the great man has become unmanned. It must be admitted that Angelica herself a much more conventional heroine in the opera than in the original legend, where she is portrayed as a pagan sorceress sent to seduce the Christian knights from their true path. But the opera contrasts her with a very different soprano character, the shepherdess Dorinda, who has given shelter to the Moorish knight Medoro when he was wounded, and fallen in love with him. But the person who heals Medoro’s wounds is not Dorinda but Angelica, using her magic powers. In doing so, the two fall irresistably in love with one another. Much of the action of the first-act excerpt which we shall be performing is devoted to the lovers’ attempts to keep this from Dorinda to avoid hurting her, culminating, when this is no longer possible, in a lovely trio of consolation, which shows both Handel and his heroic characters at their most sensitive.

A production of Imeneo in Karlsruhe  
A scene from Imeneo
Contemporary production in Karlsruhe, Germany
Imeneo (1740), Handel’s next-to-last opera before he abandoned the genre in favor of oratorio, shows the conflict between love and duty in an unsually simple way, internalized rather than being driven by external events. Possibly planned as an offering for the wedding of Princess Mary, the opera appeas to examine the nature of marriage and the reasons for marrying. Rosmene, the heroine, loves Tirinto and is engaged to him. But she and several of her companions have been abducted by pirates, from whose clutches she is rescued by Imeneo, who slays the pirates single-handedly and returns the maidens to Athens with the request that he may marry Rosmene. All this takes place before the opera begins. The entire action of the piece centers on Rosmene's decision, initially between gratitude to Imeneo and love for Tirinto, later switching to a conflict between a new-found love for her rescuer and her duty to keep her word to her fiancé. Eventually, in what might almost be a parody of Orlando, she feigns madness and comes to in Imeneo’s arms. The end of the opera, though, is not the conventional love duet, but an especially poignant duet of consolation in which she bids farewell to her former fiancé and bids him be happy for her.

Juliana Gondek as Zenobia in Gottingen
“Productions in different styles, from echt-barock…”
Juliana Gondek as Zenobia in Radamisto at the Göttingen Handel Festival
The revival of interest in Handel opera over the past four decades has given rise to productions in many different styles, from echt-barock to ripped-from-the-headlines updates. But the intent in the best of them is the same: to celebrate Handel opera as no mere museum piece, but as penetrating human drama as relevant to our day as to his. While it is true that his reliance on a special voice-type not found today has made certain compromises inevitable, the sensitivity of which such singers were capable, coupled with the fact that even his most heroic plots are worked out much more in the individual heart than on the world stage, gives them a psychological subtlety and freedom from gender sterotyping that speaks very much to our own time.

Set design by James Robinson for Giulio Cesare in Houston
“…to ripped-from-the-headlines updates”
Set model by James Robinson for Giulio Cesare in Houston

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