discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “opera”

Free Ruggiero

Two things are really valuable when we approach the unknown or the unfamiliar in the arts.

One is for people who know about a bit about the unfamiliar experience to share their knowledge: give us some background, help us understand why we don’t know about it, point out what we might enjoy, what we might find challenging, and, maybe, share their informed enthusiasm for this new, strange experience that awaits us.

The other is for the performance itself to be wonderful – for all those involved in it to have imagined, worked tirelessly on, and then delivered something vital and engaging and transformatory.

If you have the latter, you can live without the former. (It doesn’t work the other way round – a humbling realisation for someone like me who only writes about music…)

Sometimes, if you are very lucky you get both, as I did when I saw the Brighton Early Music Festival’s production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero on a windy, rainy night in November on the south coast of England. Here’s an image from the closing minutes – channelling ‘Votes for Women’ from Mary Poppins – or is that just me?


ruggiero ensemble

You really did have to be there but trust me, it worked, the audience loved it, and (cultural historian hat on) it was yet another delightful nod to the gender politics which surrounded Caccini’s work back in 1625, and which were explored intelligently and creatively in the programme notes by Laurie Stras.

Caccini’s opera is rarely performed. (Ok, it’s not strictly an opera, but that’s how it gets into the music history books – as the ‘first opera’ written by a woman – and I’ll take any media hook that’s going if it helps to get her work performed.) When writing about La Liberazione in my book, I believed that it was unlikely I would ever see a live performance. How wrong I was – and how lucky I was that the first performance I saw was the one in Brighton.

Witty, exhilarating, beautiful, thought-provoking…but don’t take my word for it, the reviews were glorious, and rightly so.

As I walked back to my airbnb room that night, I truly was lightheaded with excitement. In one evening of entertainment, that performance had done more to make the music of women a normal, natural, glorious part of our shared culture than anything else I’d come across in the years I have been engaged in exploring women’s work in the classical tradition. I could even dream that La Liberazione di Ruggiero might become part of the repertoire.

So, it was with great anticipation that I headed to Paris this last weekend to see a second performance of La Liberazione in the Palace of Versailles. I was particularly excited because I thought that to see the work in such a splendid setting – La Liberazione was originally written for princely patrons, first performed at a Medici palace in the hills above Florence – would reveal yet another side to Caccini.

The first disappointment was that it was a concert performance. Now, I know I should be grateful that the programmers at Versailles decided to put even one work composed by a woman into their entire season, but part of the thrill of Caccini’s work is that it is multi-media entertainment. In the original 1625 production, one character arrived on stage on a dolphin; magical transformations, of sets and costumes, occured before the audience’s very eyes; and there were dancing horses. Dancing horses.

Even if you strip out the visuals, however, there’s still a spicy threesome at the heart of the drama. Put simply, a wicked (but oh so attractive) sorceress, Alcina, seduces a knight, Ruggiero, to her island and entraps him there in order to take her pleasure. Worse still, he, and a host of other previous victims, seem thoroughly to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, however, a ‘good’ witch, Melissa (bigendered, because s/he can appear as either male or female), triumphs over Alcina, and liberates Ruggiero and his fellows. Having seen the Brighton production, I can report the subplot – concerning some enchanted plants, and which, having read about it, I had previously dismissed as a bit of a bore – was, in performance, just as compelling.

So, maybe any concert performance was going to fall a bit flat. I take my hat off to Michaela Riener who did her damnedest to make Alcina the sexy threat to world peace that Caccini makes her (no time here to go into the political message of this work, but rest assured, it’s there and, yes, Brighton brought it out). But Riener didn’t stand a chance, with the overwhelming physical presence of the conductor – do we really need an old-style ‘look at me, I’m the boss’ conductor in music from this era? –  literally standing between her and her lover Ruggiero – who looked a little lost – and her arch-enemy, Melissa, sung here by a woman rather than a counter-tenor (because….? Who knows?)

A far cry from November in Brighton. Here Ruggiero attempts (not very successfully) to resist Alcina, watched from behind the bath-house by Melissa. You can almost hear the latter tutting his/her disapproval.

ruggiero alcina and melissa

Other factors conspired to take the edge off my enjoyment. The seating arrangements in the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles left a lot to be desired. I paid 50 euros for a seat in the back row. This was my view.

salon d'hercule

The acoustic wasn’t great either. A couple of the singers were pretty disappointing, although the fact that the room was very, very chilly might not have helped. There was no libretto available (as far as I could tell) – certainly no-one around me had one, and I’m not sure how anyone could have worked out who was who, let alone what was happening, without it.

There was, however, a paragraph in the season guide which left me gasping, although it shouldn’t have done, since I’ve been living with these sexist cliches for years. Apparently Caccini’s arias are very melodious, and one perceives the subtilty of the feminine hand/writer in them. I searched the rest of the season’s offerings, and couldn’t find anything similar written about the male composers who fill up the programme. (I’m not blaming the performers for this. Having tracked down their website, the phrase is missing. It’s the Royal Opera of Versailles that’s the culprit.)

Overall, I was left with the impression that the evening was more about sitting in a big room in the palace of Versailles than about the music. Having said all that, my companion for the evening (a nineteenth-century opera fan, for whom this was a first Ruggiero), enjoyed the performance far more than I did. He was pleasantly surprised by the variety in the music – I’d warned him about the dominance of recitative – and was delighted in all sorts of ways by Alcina.

Now, a little voice tells me that I should be oh so grateful to anyone for putting on any music by women. But damn it, there are performances which transform their audiences’ lives and create a space for new music (for this IS new music), and there are performances which keep women composers safely in their ‘feminine’ box, specimens to be viewed from time to time, but never truly freed to take their rightful place in our musical culture. That’s why the hashtag for the Brighton performance #freeruggiero was just so, so right.










New music – an old idea

Tokaido Road – compelling, haunting musical theatre is created through mime, and song, and photography, the audience entering a visual and sound world that is both Japanese and European, yet also something more than the sum of its parts – something other.

within the circle of your transience – inspired by a phrase from Siegfried Sassoon, a piano trio creates a sound world that is fraught with tension and yet, confusingly but hauntingly, peaceful at the same time.

I heard both these works at their world premières this past week. Tokaido Road is the work of Nicola Lefanu, an established composer; within the circle of your transience is the work of Josephine Stephenson, who is just starting out. Yes, both composers are women, but that’s not what has stayed with me.

I’m not sure I’d heard a ‘world première’ before, let alone two in a week, despite decades of concert going. Which, part from revealing my appalling conservatism, also illustrates how things have changed since the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Back then, performers were often composers (because of the need for new music to showcase their own talent), and, more generally, the vast majority of pieces played would be being heard by their audience for the first time. That’s a simplification, of course, but it does show up the difference between then and now – when it is notoriously hard to get new music programmed, let alone recorded and played on Classic FM.

The irony is that two of the composers I’m writing about, Fanny Hensel (earlier Mendelssohn) and Clara Wieck (later Schumann) were significant figures in this process whereby the music of earlier eras was reified. They helped to create the very canon that would exclude them. (There are other processes going on here, connected with German nationalism, or family loyalties, but the outcome was the same).  As I put it in my book, thinking about the reasons why Clara Schumann stopped composing at the death of her husband, Robert:

To stop composing would do no harm to Clara Schumann’s career in widowhood. Unlike the era in which she had made her name as a child virtuoso, performers were not now, in the 1850s and beyond, expected to play their own compositions. The same went for improvisation. The nature of concerts had changed…with each passing year, Schumann established herself more firmly as an interpreter of the new classical canon, and worked ever harder to make sure that her husband would become part of that canon.

The canon was, of course, male. This added yet another obstacle to the path of female composers over the following century and beyond.

Again and again, while writing this book, I am overwhelmed with admiration for the ways in which individuals overcame those obstacles. Yesterday, I was introduced to another composer – and familiar obstacles. I heard for the first time Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio from 1921 played by the Albany Trio at the Royal College of Music (see  Another time I’ll write about the reasons why going to the RCM was a surprisingly emotional experience for me, but, here, I want simply to celebrate the performance I heard. My heart belongs to the early-modern period, so for me to be blown away by a post-Romantic work was a tribute to the visceral intensity and technical brilliance of the playing which did passionate justice to a work both grand and moving.

This morning, I’ve been finding a bit more about Rebecca Clarke, and those obstacles. Yesterday, it was mentioned that, when the Trio won second prize in a competition, questions were asked. Was Rebecca Clarke a pseudonym? Perhaps s/he was actually Ernest Bloch? How could a woman have created such a formally rigorous yet powerful work? Have a look at for more stories, including the one about the proposing violin teacher and the violent father.

A friend suggested that writing this book is making me bitter. No, not bitter – just sad, and at times frustrated by the mind-forged manacles and the social mores that prevented (prevent?) women creating music. But that sadness and frustration is simply blown away by performances such as I have heard this week – whether of new work or of forgotten work – and all that remains is joyful appreciation of the composers and their music.


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

389 years and one day later…

The three best ways to travel – if one can – are by train, by bike, or (especially in cities) on foot. Going by plane is simply not travelling. It is annihilating distance and, for me at least, identity. And I’m writing this having experienced one of the slowest train journeys imaginable (the night train from Palermo to Roma) – having experienced some imaginative but definitely decline-able propositions from said night train’s conductor (the only one that tempted was accompanying him up to the deck as the boat, with train in its bowels, made its way across the Messina Strait, but I regretfully decided that maintaining my virtue and/or not punching the gentleman should be my priority) – and having experienced severe delays out of Roma Termini because of the sadly international phenomenon of a body on the line. And yet, all these, and the fast, cheap, trains from Rome to Florence and back again, were journeys.

Similarly, the February rains in Florence did not for one moment detract from the pleasures of wandering the city’s streets. I can, at least, justify this in terms of ‘research’. Only when one moves to older rhythms, walking rhythms, can one understand time, distance, and indeed power in the past. Walking up the hill to Villa Poggio Imperiale,

Poggio Imperiale

past the city walls, through the Porta Romana, up an immense tree-lined avenue, to a place away from, and just as important high above, the Pitti and the Uffizi made me realise just how interesting a choice of venue Poggio Imperiale was for Maria Magdalena d’Austria when she sought to display her power – as a regent, as a woman, as the ruler of Tuscany. She had the power to bring anyone who was anyone out of Florence, up to her palace, through her avenue of trees, into her domain, to see her entertainment, with music composed by her composer, Francesca Caccini.

view from Poggio Imperiale down into Florence

My visit occurred precisely 389 years and one day after La Liberazione di Ruggerio was performed on 3 February 1625. If it gets into the music history books, La Liberazione is described as the first opera to be written by a woman. As Suzanne Cusick, the superb biographer of Caccini points out, the work is not in fact an opera – although on the other hand it’s hard to say what it is. It certainly ended with an extraordinary balletto a cavallo (a dance on horseback, imagine dressage set to music), watched by the rich and powerful from the balconies and terraces of the Villa. I can’t help wondering if it rained that day as well…

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