discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

The shadow of the cortigiana

I love a night at the opera. Opera houses reveal the particular quality of a city despite or because of their similarities (gold, staircases, red velvet, gold, over-priced sparkling wine, jewellery on display, gold). Palermo’s opera house is vertiginous, with the boxes, which dominate, rising sheer from the floor in tier upon tier. Up in the gods, and that means very, very high up – it’s not called Teatro Massimo for nothing – the audience were as interested in each other as in the performance. The acoustic was disorienting: one could only hear the clapping of the people immediately around one, but the singing – especially the excellent Julianna Di Giacomo – came across loud and clear.

I do not love opera, however. The Teatro Massimo’s Otello, in a somewhat self-conscious yet old-fashioned production, didn’t change my mind. Admittedly, the tale of a military hero turned wife-killer is not the ideal entertainment when one is writing a book about the stifling of women’s creativity. Desdemona is not actually stifled in Verdi’s version: she’s strangled. The shadow of the courtesan (or cortigiana…) looms large and proves deadly. One of the most painful moments in the opera comes when Otello appears, momentarily, to realise that he is wrong about his wife’s infidelity. Having publicly humiliated her, thrown her to the ground, he reaches out to Desdemona. She hopes, we hope, for a reprieve but it is a feint. With vicious sarcasm, Othello brands his wife a whore (‘Che? non sei forse una vil cortigiana?’) and justifies himself as her killer. (Shakespeare has: ‘I cry you mercy, then:/I took you for that cunning whore of Venice/That married with Othello.’)

There’s more of course – the moment when Desdemona forces out her last words, when we all think she is dead. She must, she will, she does, perform perfect, compliant femininity, to the extent that she claims to have killed herself, so as to cover for Otello. And don’t get me started on the kiss motif, the way in which violence to women becomes eroticised. (Which reminds me of a stupendous example of academic pettiness. Suzanne Cusick, the wonderful biographer of Francesca Caccini, had to put up with a colleague playing the kiss motif over and over again while she was trying to prepare her university’s first ever course on women and music.)

Yes, it’s all there in Shakespeare, but somehow the potential ambiguities in theatre are ironed out in opera, and we are left with a simple plot, lavish spectacle, and luscious music. (What’s not to like, I hear someone say….)

I do realise that if one removes beautifully sung violence, or erotically charged death, from opera then there’s not much left. And, for the record, Nero and Poppea’s ‘Pur ti miro’ at the end of L’Incoronazione di Poppea is stunning. So good, that I happily forget that they are both psychopaths, and that their expressions of ‘love’ are utterly implausible.

And maybe that’s the point: Poppea is not structured to be naturalistic. Opera and theatre performances in the seventeenth century, and beyond, had women playing men (breeches roles), boys playing women (on the English stage), and in the case of Poppea, a castrato playing Nero. This kind of thing at least makes one think about the gender categories we use to label, and to hurt, people.

But, as I said above, I don’t like opera. My night at the opera was, however, wonderful: walking out of the gloriously over the top Teatro Massimo, strolling through the alleyways of Palermo, grabbing something really good to eat, and all within five minutes walk of home. It would be nice to go again.

And just to show how mellow I am about it all, here’s a picture of Desdemona and her loving husband. She’s not dead yet.

desdemona not dead


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