Brigitte Fassbaender as Prinz Orlofsky ‘The Champagne Song’
Die Fledemaus: by Johann Strauss
’Presentation of the Rose’ – Brigitte Fassbaender & Lucia Popp
Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
Ist ein Traum
Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
As a concession to the season….
Brigitte Fassbaender: ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’: Weihnachts-Oratorium
by J.S. Bach
Brigitte Fassbaender ‘Una voce poco fa’ Il Barbiere di Siviglia:
by Gioachino Rossini
Brigitte Fassbaender sings “The Early Morning” Poem by Hillare Belloc, music by Graham Peel. The accompanist is Wolfgang Rieger.
And though at first I had decided to exclude this clip for its abrupt ending, I was unable to oppose my heart’s urging to do otherwise.
This is the German version of “J’ai perdu mon Euridice” / “Che faro senza Euridice”
Brigitte Fassbaender’s dark, rich and dramatic Mezzo voice (dipping easily into an equally smooth contralto and tenor) is as I have mentioned in the subtitle of this post, irresistibly transporting. There is such an undeniable, spine-tingling, psychological and erotic sub-text in ‘trouser roles’ that it hardly bears a mention, but even so, Fassbaender ratchets the tension to an almost unbearable degree. Her assured and exquisitely finessed Orlovsky, scintillating with elegantly butchy panache, and her gallant and courtly Octavian, bear the indelible imprint of an irrefutable lesbian sensibility.
Even as our left brain obediently accepts the premise imposed upon it and suspends its disbelief, our right brain immediately raises an opposing clamour of an even more insistently imposed belief. We are then swiftly trapped in the tableau of deliciously overt gender transgressivity – of literal travesty and blatant usurpation of privileges usually reserved by society for the male sex.
I have seen it asserted that ‘trouser roles’ were devised for the delectation of male eyes, so that they might freely ogle and gawk at the parts of the female anatomy which are usually concealed beneath an immensity of voluminous drapery, but I think that is a singularly unsophisticated and simplistic view.
The assertion makes far less sense when we stop to consider the difference between what is seen and what is perceived. In the hetero-normative dress codes assigned by society, a man wearing trousers is not considered to be engaging in an overt anatomical display, and our conditioning ensures that we transfer this manner of sartorial perception a human being of either sex whose lower limbs are clad in trousers. Though it may have been true in Restoration comedies, that women’s lower limbs were displayed in public for the first time in order to amuse and titillate men, it is far from true today. When revealing forms of dress are endemic, such an elaborate pretext need hardly be contrived given the revealing nature of what is considered normative in contemporary standards of female fashion. Why go to such elaborate lengths to showcase a sight which may be seen on any street and any city side-walk?
Besides, most heterosexual men would be made uncomfortable at the by the fact that they felt titillated by the spectacle someone who was presenting as another male – even that person was a pseudo, unless they already nursed a secret predilection in that regard.
Neither,I daresay, do women get particularly excited by the sight of trouser clad lower limbs per se, even when the trousers could be considered a considerably more opulent version of normal male fashion. Why then should we believe that the part of the trouser role in opera exists as a nod and a wink to male concupiscence? The simple answer is that it is not.
It is not the sex of the person in the trouser part that causes the hearts of opera aficionados to race, but her gender. What is exiting is to be found in the female, and not the male gaze. It is not anatomy that is the cynosure of female eyes, but the alchemy of gender – everything….. doth change into something rare and strange – unfolding in the context of passionate love. It is the rarity the public staging of this normally private enaction that gives us the chills. It is the sense we have of a secret being revealed and gender roles transgressed in a context where there can be no possibility of public disapprobation, – in other words safely – for actor and voyeur alike, that packs the secret punch in the trouser role.
There is also the fact that the simple construct of a woman assuming a ‘male’ role is plausibly unsustainable when we know the ‘male’ to be a woman, when what is believed to be seen and what is perceived and what involuntary belief imbibes is the fact we are watching women falling in love with each other in ways that lesbians consider entirely normal. Fassbaender takes full advantage of every angstrom of in the whole extensive continuum of female sexual ambiguity in order to subvert conventional assumptions about gender and sexuality.
But suddenly quite the reverse seems true when Fassbaender sings “Una voce poco fa”, Rosina’s famous aria from Il Barbieri di Sevliglia. As Rosina, Fassbaender’s voluptuous mezzo darkens to an unmistakable shade of high camp. Then we get to see the archness of this calculating little hussy take on a sarcastic tinge – especially when she brings her smiling face right up to the cage of the poor parrot in order to sweetly issue her threat of “una vipera sarò” ! At that moment it almost seems to me the hapless bird’s plumage turns a little greener.
All of of Fassbaender’s gestures and mannerisms are calculated to a niceity. They are precise and exact, even when she mimes playing the piano. Her Italian is beautiful, and when she coyly pokes her cheek with her index finger as she sings the words “sono obediente,” the preposterous insincerity of her words is positively mind-boggling! I have to say it made it very difficult to supress a giggle as it began to dawn on me that I was watching a woman playing the part of a woman as a gay man would play her. Even Shakespeare would have been mightily impressed.
Of course no one does any of the little sleights of gender better than Brigitte Fassbaender, and no one deconstructs the whole phenomenon with greater sophistication and acuity than Terry Castle in the chapter headed “In praise of Brigitte Fassbaender” of her book The Apparitional Lesbian. Castle’s close observations of diva veneration (she too joins the retinue of women who offer fervent and devoted worship at Fassbaender’s shrine) document the many operatic sopranos who openly and assiduously cultivated the aura of fascination their sexually ambiguous appeal exerted on their female admirers.
One quality that Fassbaender possesses in conspicuous abundance is charm — and this is no ordinary charm, but the charm that comes with an instinctive grasp of the part and not just the role. It is a very sincere and convincing charm, that is integral to being, and not just simply playing the part.
Fassbaender’s boyish charm simply overflows in the part of Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, (regrettably I was unable to find a Youtube clip of this wonderful opera) and its all one can do to not want to pinch her little dimpled cheeks. If “all the world’s a stage,” the parts of Orlovsky, Octavian, Orpheus – and even little Hansel – belong indisputably to Brigitte Fassbaender.
So Brava! To the great Brigitte Fassbaender in all her divine duality – or is it Bravo? Brave? Bravi?
Some interesting sites.