Does your favourite opera pass the Bechdel test?

I was browsing idly after much Christmas food and found this clever post. So, to remind you, gentle reader, the Bechdel test quantifies the feminism of films. Let’s apply it to dehggi’s favourite opera:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Vitellia and Servilia, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about Tito choosing a wife and about saving Sesto, fail.

Two outta three ain’t bad, eh? Feminism isn’t the first thing I think about when it comes to Tito yet the women in the libretto are not damsels in distress; they are quite able to negotiate getting out of whatever messes they get into.

Now let’s put Alcina to the test:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; more than 2, woohoo! Alcina, Morgana and Bradamante, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: it turns interesting when Morgana gets sweet on Bradamante, check.

Alcina is a good example of how women in Baroque opera are more interesting than their later sisters. If the Bradamante-Morgana thing is not quite two women having a conversation about astrophysics or practical ways of eradicating famine in poor countries at least it’s not two women fighting over a man. You could say Morgana thinks she’s talking to a (goodlooking) man, does this count? I think it does, because 1) gender ambiguity = yes, 2) Bradamante is still a woman and though her actions are typical woman fighting for her man she is not wringing her hands expecting others (men) to fix everything.

Alcina famously does not need men to save her. It’s when she starts thinking she needs a man that things turn pearshaped. Cautionary tale, eh.

Stepping into the 19th century with I Capuleti e i Montecchi:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; ooops, not enough women in this, fail
  2. they talk to each other; N/A, fail
  3. they talk about something other than a man: ok, given that Giulietta has a long monologue, she ends up talking about how much she hates her life and would rather die than marry the man imposed on her by her father. Not really check but at least something. Still fail.

It’s a 19th century opera, what did you expect? The libretto is textbook woman oppressed by the patriarchy. You do want to cry during her first duet (or first part of the long duet) with Romeo and not just because the music is so damn beautiful (snif, snif).

How about 17th century’s L’incoronazione di Poppea:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; way more than 2: Poppea, Ottavia, Arnalta (Nutrice is just Nutrice), Drusilla, goddesses, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about the weakness of humans, attaining power, losing power, getting old, check.

If a Baroque opera is named after a woman chances are good she’s a strong one. Also in early Baroque you get at least 2-3 goddesses who talk about ethics, so the Prologue already passes the test.

I am afraid to put Die Frau ohne Schatten to this test 😀 But let’s try Der Rosenkavalier:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Die Marschallin (Marie Therese), Sophie, Annina, Marianne, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: not really, do they? Maybe Die Marschallin and Mariandel do 😉 fail

Can’t have everything, can we?

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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on December 26, 2015, in 20th century, baroque, belcanto, classical period and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. DTO also wrote a blog post about this! that’s how i learned about it first… and i remember thinking so many of the twisted Händel’s operas fail the test, leading the way is Almira which i endured 2 yrs ago at bemf (the music is great, and then you read up on the translation and .. facepalm… tancredi is also disastrous i think.. but Dido and Aeneas might work (those vengeance witches! — i think they have names! (or may be just witch #1 & #2), as well as the 1st 2 hours of Berlioz’ les troyens (go CASSANDRA!!!.. though let me think.. one of those many women she talked to must have names?! juditha triumphans too methinks, is plotting to KILL a man an ok convo? :D)

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    • Juditha triunfans should work, she talks about patriotism and she definitely isn’t mooning over Holofernes. You said, didn’t you, that Les Troyens is two operas in one anyway? Could make for an interesting discussion in regards to the Bechdel test 😉

      I am as sad about Tancredi as about Capuleti – great music, shit libretto. Though I always rate Amenaide better than Giulietta.

      I must read up on that Almira 😉

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      • there’s nothing to read up on Almira! music great (as usual with Händel, Stray will give me strange look again with my “generic” comparison 😀 ), but the moment you look up at the translation all is ruined (like Tancredi!!) . oh, and strangely it’s in german.

        I had a read up on Agrippina just now because there are a couple of extensive scenes between her and Poppea, all about manipulation.. but i think it also qualifies, as they’re trying to out-manipulating each other and motive isn’t any love for any male character…, e.g., scene XXIII here, with of course complementary music clip if desired 🙂

        Also, that scene in Maria Stuarda of the showdown b/t the 2 main characters are about power i think and not fighting or dying over men? btw, does the convo have to last at least 3 sentences or 5min or something? coz i was digging up also on L’incoronazione di Dario.. and the duet right off the bat b/t the 2 contraltos are about beautiful landscape or something:

        “L’alma rasserenate: il genitore
        che dall’orbe terren sciolte ha le penne,
        o fra le stelle alberga,
        o vicino alle stelle il seggio ottenne.
        Dunque il pianto si lasci, e il riso torni.
        Né più il sol ne conduca i mesti giorni.

        Cessi il pianto, e il riso torni
        sulle ciglia a balenar;
        nubilosi, e mesti giorni
        venga Febo a serena”

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        • Agrippina definitely works (see my if named after a woman…). Maria Stuarda was named in the post I linked as one of the most Bechdel-happy operas! Gotta admit that duet is hilariously soap-opera worthy.

          It doesn’t matter how long they talk about something else, they just have to do it. Dario seems very pastoral, lots of talking about nature, that counts. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s something else.

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          • oh good, i mis-read your comment as Maria Stuarda “failed spectacularly” and was wondering if i had understood that opera correctly 😀 , all is well!

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            • hehe, no, it’s all about women fighting for power in that one. Then man is eye-candy (the one I saw at ROH was quite so).

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              • of course i have to listen to it now…

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                • you’ll get stuck on it 😉 I went through a phase last summer where I kept listening to it.

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                  • back, after getting my ears seared off.. damn, it’s fine fine music + drama!! (i like the version w/ just italian subtitle, the one with english just totally kills all the drama 😀 — i remember a line ACA delivered VERY authoritatively and translation was “hey you!” !!)

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                    • I remember the translation at ROH was very amusing. The drama is just “you bitch!” and “you slut!” 😀 plus “gentler” moments of “I miss the country where I grew up” and “how should I kill her?”

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                    • this is vhy poetry can never be translated properly! here, i found the post where i made comment about this test with link to DTO’s post.. funnily enough i was just talking about the test to a friend here in the elevator just < 1 week ago.. and whenever walking on street over-hearing 2 women talking i always have it in mind! (and how people fail miserably as well, not just in movie / operas..) But i bet you there’s a cultural difference b/c we asians might pass it much more often: we talk about FOOD all the time 😀

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                    • I do that too, especially with Romanians – 9/10 times they talk about money.

                      typical Handel’s A loves B who loves C who loves A and D while F wants power and used to love C but now wants A

                      haha, very funny! Baroque opera in a nutshell.

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                    • back, after more sopranos screaming into the ears… i think one can only sit through 3 sessions.. i tried the one w/ JDD.. need to get used to the tempo.. was a bit too slow i find.. then B.Fritolli killed my eardrums in the 3rd version…
                      did you write up on the ROH experience?

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                    • I did!

                      The version I listened to a lot last summer was with Montserrat Caballe and Brigitte Fassbaender (she’s way more effective than you’d think in this repertoire).

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                    • back, from dinner w/ friend (asian) where we talk about nothing except food while we ate.. let me go check on your sopranos’ post 😀

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      • Almira was written for Hamburg, so it isn’t all that strange that it’s in German. The strange part may be that it actually isn’t all in German 😛

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