Many disciplines, one opera

I recently wrote two articles which complement each other – imagine it as a diptych of sorts – on a contemporary opera, Kepler’s Trial:

  • the first is a review, for Seen And Heard International, of the work by composer Tim Watts (Cambridge and Royal College of Music)
  • the second focuses on the unusual inter-disciplinary effort behind the opera. The article, for Talking Humanities*, consists of an interview with Prof. Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge).

*curated by the School of Advanced Study, the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of the humanities

Why write two articles about it? Because the Kepler’s Trial project is and does so much of what I think contemporary opera is capable of being and doing. It delves into the past to engage with the present.

For the review of Kepler’s Trial on Seen And Heard International, click here.

For the article in Talking Humanities on the unusual process behind the opera, click here.

Image credits:

Statue by Jakob Wilhelm Fehrle dedicated to Katharina Kepler in Eltingen (Leonberg, Germany). Reproduced under GNU Free Documentation licence.

Portrait of Johannes Kepler. Reproduced under Public Domain licence.

Image from Seen and Heard International website.

Image from Talking Humanities website.

Astonishingly modern 18th-century opera

Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate

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.

S&HI Le Donne Vendicate 2The 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.

S&HI Orlando FuriosoBoth 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.

S&HI Margherita d'Anjou

Image credits:

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.




The Renaissance – understanding its legacy

Madonnas and Miracles – The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy, at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 4 June, is one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in years.  I recently wrote a review of it because it deserved shouting about.  It’s a model of what exhibitions should be and do: scholarly and yet approachable, painstakingly curated in structure and detail, it subtly and yet boldly debunks facile dichotomies.  It’s a highly successful example of how the outcomes of interdisciplinary research (in this case, a four-year European Research Council-funded Synergy project) can be brought to the attention of the general public.  The catalogue, too, combines rigorous learning and an accessible tone.  You can access my article on the Talking Humanities website of the School of Advanced Study, the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of research in the humanities.

Review of Madonnas and Miracles

I’ve been fascinated by the Renaissance for years, but in the last two my studies have focused particularly on women and Southern Italy during this period.  My second novel will in fact be set in Puglia during the late 1500s.  When I first mentioned my project to an acquaintance, the response was, “But surely, the South didn’t have a Renaissance.”  Delving into historical research, including primary sources, swiftly disproves that and other common misconceptions.  I’m hopeful that my novel will be a tiny step in that direction.  It matters not least because the Renaissance’s legacy extends to the present day in realms and manners on which we don’t usually pause to reflect.

As an example, take the apocryphal story of The birth of the Virgin, a common subject in churches as well as on birth trays and bowls given to new mothers during the Renaissance.  In the Madonnas and Miracles exhibition, it is on view in a painting (c. 1440) by the Master of the Osservanza, as well as (though it may be a ‘birth of the Baptist’) in an arresting one by Leandro Bassano.  The latter’s Woman at her devotions (c. 1590-1600) shows a widow at her kneeling-stool with a string of rosary beads and a book of hours, in contemplation of a depiction of St. Anne (or St. Elizabeth) attended by other women while her new-born is about to be bathed.  The subject had deep meaning for a woman.  During pregnancy and labour, she would have prayed to the Virgin – and to St. Margaret, patron saint of childbirth.  As in the painting, she too would have been sustained by female relatives, friends and neighbours until the midwife’s arrival and again after the baby’s birth.  She would also have recognised the bath in which the baby was to be washed: for a new-born girl, its water would be tipped over ashes from the hearth, and for a boy, thrown outside the house, in a gesture symbolic of their required gender roles.  Similarly, a painting such as Pinturicchio’s Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist (c. 1490-1495), also in the exhibition, reflected and reinforced mothers’ responsibility for their children’s religious education.  The roots of societal expectations about men and women’s lives went back centuries – some remain entrenched to this day.


Image credits:

Image of Madonnas and Miracles review from the Talking Humanities website.