When I saw the Met Live in HD’s production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito last Saturday at my local movie theater, I was surprised to see not one but two women playing the parts of men.
Reading the summary of La Clemenza a half hour before the film, I was confused-with six characters in various configurations of love, passion, and plot:
The Roman Emperor Tito loves Berenice, but can’t marry her.
Vitellia, daughter of the former emperor, wants Tito murdered.
Sesto loves Vitellia, and so he agrees to assassinate Tito.
Annio, Sesto’s friend, wants to marry Sesto’s sister, Servilia, but Tito now wants to marry her.
Confusing enough, but then it turns out that two male roles-Sesto and Annio-are played by females, the lovely mezzo sopranos Elina Garanca as Sesto, Kate Lindsey as Annio.
Women as Men Not New
Both women play their roles well, with sublime voices and convincing masculine looks, thanks to makeup, costume and demeanor-Lindsey perhaps a little more naturally boyish than Garanca.
Still, it’s not a simple thing to watch a man that you know is a woman make amorous overtures to a woman. (Remember, Sesto loves Vitellia, Annio Servilia-and the women love them back.)
Why does the Met cast women in men’s roles? Is it because they don’t have enough male singers?
No. The tradition of “trouser roles” for women in opera-also called “pants roles,” “breeches roles,” or “travesti”–really harks back to the days of the castrati-young male singers who were castrated when their voices began to change, so they could continue singing in the high range. In those times, women were not allowed to perform in the theater. But when the use of castrati came into disfavor, women took on their roles.
In later years, male parts were sometimes written for women singers. This is the true “trouser role.” Some say that the higher voice indicated the purity of the character. Others say that the female body is actually better suited to portray boys and young men.
Kate Lindsey Comfortable in Trousers
We see this clearly with Kate Lindsey’s portrayal of Annio in La Clemenza di Tito. When interviewed during the intermission of La Clemenza di Tito, Lindsey said that she carries her weight lower when she plays a male. She’s thin and boyish and thus has been cast often in her young career as a young male (Hansel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Cherubino in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro).
Sometimes an opera role for a high male voice is played by a countertenor (David Daniels as Prospero in last January’s The Enchanted Island). The other option is to rewrite the part in a lower range for a male-which changes the “dynamic and color” of the role considerably, and so is not the best option.
So although it is a bit disconcerting to see women playing men in La Clemenza di Tito, there is something sweet and gentle expressed in the characters of Sesto and Annio by Elina Garanca and Kate Lindsey-and that is not such a bad thing, at all.