Recently I reviewed three operas for Seen And Heard International. Two of them – one by Piccinni, the other by Vivaldi – date to the eighteenth century but are astonishingly modern in their questioning of gender stereotypes. This is all the more striking, at a time when the gender pay gap at the BBC and a divisive memo by a Google employee about gender and diversity initiatives are making the headlines.
The two operas formed part of the engaged and engaging programming of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, one of Italy’s oldest opera festivals. Located in Puglia and now in its forty-third edition, this year it adopted the theme ‘Love and Mars’ – not the more usual ‘Venus and Mars’ because one of the programme’s fils rouges was the querying of gender roles. That querying was not an anachronistic re-interpreting of the relevant operas by their directors, but faithful to their texts and music.
The first of the two operas is Le Donne Vendicate (The Women’s Revenge) by Niccoló Piccinni (1728-1800), with a libretto derived from the Enlightenment playwright, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793). See review here.
The second is Orlando Furioso by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), with a libretto by Grazio Braccioli (1682-1752) based on the eponymous work by the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). See review here.
Both works are steeped in the experimentation and questioning of the Enlightenment (and, in Ariosto’s case, in that current of Renaissance humanism which sided with women in the Querelle des Femmes but lost out during the Counter Reformation), but periods of significant cultural ferment have, historically, alternated with others of retrenchment, resulting in historical discontinuities.
Both operas were born of a spirit of respect for the worth of all human beings, which by definition is irrespective of gender, social class, race or religion. The Goldoni behind Le Donne Vendicate is representative of – whilst also being influential on – that aspect of his era. In his oeuvre, morality rests not in time-honoured hierarchies, mores and tenets, but in a psychologically profounder sense of what is just, good and wise. Meanwhile, the hero of Braccioli’s Orlando is Astolfo, whose blend of mildness and courage enable the overcoming of all manner of obstacles. Maybe we should be rediscovering early operas more frequently, for the shock of the old to inform the new.
The third opera reviewed at the Festival della Valle d’Itria for Seen And Heard International is Margherita d’Anjou by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) with libretto by Felice Romani (1788-1865). See review here.
Photo of Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate, courtesy of Festival della Valle d’Itria.
Photos of the town of Martina Franca (home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria) by the author. All rights reserved.
Images of reviews of Le Donne Vendicate, Orlando Furioso and Margherita d’Anjou from Seen And Heard International website.