The nineteenth century has relatively few redeeming qualities, as centuries go. (Among them: Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, Victoria Woodhull, Charles Darwin, railroads, sewing machines, and a few other things.) Otherwise, the 1800s are basically an epically saccharine crapfest. I will categorically state that the whole thing is in the worst possible taste – between the mourning rings (hair of dead people! in jewelry!) and the cult of domesticity I think we can all be sort of glad about WWI. Certainly the first world war killed many people. But at least it put paid to a great deal of bullshit.
There is a reason behind this particular rant. Verdi. After watching Mozart operas for a week or two, it’s nice to have a change in pace. And Verdi is great. Late Verdi, performed well, is like having someone go down on your brain. (That sounded a lot better in my head than it does on paper.)
But there are drawbacks to Verdi. Some of his heroines? I want to punch them. Aida, for example. She doesn’t DO anything. She’s just endlessly put upon, and at the end, the only thing she decides to do is die. She doesn’t, say, spring Radames from the tomb and help him escape. No, she gets herself locked IN the tomb with him so that they can die together. The girl is useless. Radames is also, when you get down to it, sort of useless. The two of them deserve each other. Amneris deserves better – and, fortunately, she is the last person left standing at the end, so maybe Verdi is on to something with that. (But this is true of so many of Verdi’s mezzo roles. Eboli in Don Carlos, for example. She is a character that deserves a much better story than she gets. “Going to a convent” my ass. Whereas Elisabetta is sort of useless in the approved nineteenth century manner. I have seen precisely one production of Don Carlos, this one, where the singer made me care one way or another about her. Props to Iano Tamar for that.)
Things were better in the eighteenth century. Take Handel. Rodelinda gets shit done, even if she doesn’t want to. Cleopatra likewise. Bradamante stalks around Alcina’s magic island with a sword, and even at the end, when her fiance is dis-enchanted, and ready to kill Alcina with his bare hands, and Bradamante no longer is absolutely obligated to pretend to be her own brother, she’s along for the ride with her sword, and no one seems in the least perturbed about it. Even the operas that appear to say some fairly nasty things about women, like Cosi Fan Tutte (but on examination, the music/story indicates something more complicated than that) at least admit that a girl might, sometimes, want to fuck someone just for the hell of it — which is far more than was allowed after 1800 or so.