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Mad Queen Opera:
Singing Women, Structured Madness and Men’s Power

It is possible to give several different answers to the question: What the opera, “A Rainha Louca”, is about? Declaratively, it is about Maria I of Portugal (1734-1816), the first queen of the country, which became republic in 1910. Still, the opera is about more issues, and further on I will briefly discuss some of them.

An alternative answer to the initial question may be that Alexandre Delgado’s second opera is about women in opera. Indeed, all the roles in this two act piece are female: the queen (Maria I, the queen of Portugal – Ana Ester Neves, soprano), her aid (Henriqueta, the duchess of Lafões – Maria Luísa de Freitas, mezzo), three ladies – green (Ana Paula Russo, soprano), red (Maria Luísa de Freitas, mezzo) and yellow (Teresa Cardoso de Menezes, soprano); and the maid (Rosa, Afro-Portuguese, referred by the libretto in pejorative manner as the black maid, “criada negra” – Nilma Santos, actress). Although not common for the world of opera, it would not be the first time that contemporary composer decides to make the whole cast feminine. In 1997-98 Louis Andriessen and Peter Greenaway realized “Writing to Vermeer”, in which Vermeer does not appear, but only women, who write letters to him. The first act of “A Rainha Louca” is primarily devoted to the character of Maria I and her mental instability, as well as the confrontational relation with her aid. The second act, dominated by the figures of the three ladies, is more involved in often-ironical reflections on Portugal, and Maria’s contribution to its history and development.

Despite the fact that the opera introduces only female characters and their mutual relations, it should not be forgotten that the libretto was written by a man – Alexandre Delgado himself. Moreover, the libretto is based on Miguel Rovisco’s (1959-1987) play on femininity “O tempo feminino” (1987). Thus, the women characters are represented only through masculine discourse. They are objectified from the masculine point of view whether that point of view is the one by Rovisco, Delgado or of the opera’s stage director, Joaquim Benite. When the opera’s audience becomes aware of this fact, the situation turns intriguing and suggests that actually the opera is not about women, but about how men see women in it.

Although it may not seem so at first sight, the roles given to women in this piece are quite common both for conventional opera, and patriarchal society. The first Portuguese queen, Maria I is represented as a mad woman, and it seems like her madness tends to overshadow her power and achievements. The ladies (“as damas”), Henriqueta and Rosa, appear as stereotypes – when they reflect about themselves they actually speak of women conventional roles in a masculine discourse – that of wives, mothers, lovers and maids. Rosa, “craida negra”, is treated rather as a kind of insignificant creature than a human being. She is not even given the right to sing, so her role is spoken. Even though Rosa barely speaks, she still possesses ‘dangerous’ sensual, corporeal powers, which are revealed at the end of the opera. This point of view is explicitly patriarchal.

Benite’s staging supports the librettist’s point of view on the women on stage. In the first act, which contains numerous dialogues between Maria and Henriqueta, the staging is conventional. It shows the two characters in static postures, almost motionless when singing, like in many hard-core-mainstream opera productions. Moreover, the singing bodies are hidden under the layers of period costumes, wigs and makeup, which suggest realistic approach to the representation of the depicted situations and characters. However, opera and realism are not good friends, at least due to the fact that the characters sing something that in ‘real’ life would not be sung. Thus, the singing itself always ‘denies’ realistic approach and even makes it grotesque. After becoming aware of some of the strategies and procedures that the most intriguing contemporary opera directors started to introduce to the world of opera more than thirty years ago (to mention Wilson, Sellars, Greenaway, Van der Aa, Korot), choosing realistic approach looks as an unnecessary setback. The second act offers a bit more vivid staging due to dynamic dialogues between the ladies, but the (failed) attempt to achieve realism remains. The most intriguing moment of the staging is at the very end when suddenly, almost out of the blue, an ensemble of five half-naked Afro-Portuguese dancers appears in a sensual dance to illustrate Rosa’s exotic fantasies. Although this scene confirms how the Others – non-Western cultures – were (and still are) seen in Europe, and seems politically problematic as such, the scene itself is a proof that fantasy works much better in opera than realism. In this scene the representatives of the Others are Rosa and her Afro-Portuguese fellows. And, objectified women are also the Others for white male heterosexuals – the holders and subjects of power. This is the point, at which the character of Rosa (representative of a non-Western culture) and the character of Maria I (both woman, and mad) are very close to each other despite the social gap between them.

I will now return to the initial question – what is this opera about. So far I have shown how it appears to be about Maria I and about women in opera. Still, it could be claimed that this opera is about madness too. The subject of madness seems to be especially intriguing for Delgado. His first opera was entitled “O Doido e a Morte” (“The Lunatic and Death”, 1993) and “A Rainha Louca” is supposed to be the second part of his opera trilogy about madness. Throughout its history opera was often the place for depicting madness, and mad scenes, especially in connection with women characters, were often included in operas. In the eighteenth century madness was seen as reverse to Reason, and only in the nineteenth century did it become institutionalized as mental illness. Madness defines the limits of social order, and also represents threat, often resulting in the isolation of the ‘mad’. And what happened to Maria I in real life and how it was illustrated in this opera seems to confirm this politics of isolation. However, more than how Maria I was characterized as a mad woman, I am interested in how Delgado’s eclectic music played by OrchestrUtopica and conducted by the composer himself could be theorized as a metaphor of destroying the recognizable order. Delgado’s music explores numerous musical languages. Sometimes it is possible to recognize the quotation, which the composer uses, and sometimes the music only simulates other musical language without quoting it, for example: music by Gabriel Fauré, period minuet music, Wagner’s “Nibelung” motif, fragments of cabaret-like music, Spanish traditional music, etc. Moreover, each of the main characters has an instrument exclusively assigned to its part – that is, harp to Maria, harpsichord to Henriqueta and marimba to Rosa. The eclectic approach is used both in the choice of musical languages and in orchestration procedures (frequent changes of instruments, which introduce the materials). The situation of bringing together many languages at the end opposes the logic of the language itself. When it is underlined with occasional incomprehensibility of the sung words, the whole construction of the piece appears as questioning the intelligibility of the relation between music and text, and appears in itself as a kind of structure of the madness.

Finally, it could be claimed that “A Rainha Louca” is also about politics. The second act of the opera introduces a text, which questions the achievements of queen Maria (for example by claiming that Basílica da Estrela, which construction she initiated, is nothing more than a reference point), or different insinuations on the status of the state of Portugal in international community. These statements, it seems, often reach contemporary situations. It shows how this opera reflects the matters of daily politics. And in relation to questions of power, “A Rainha Louca” confirms the power of men to represent woman in opera, it confirms the power to decide where madness begins, and finally it exemplifies the power to compose and stage an opera today and to have it performed in one of Portugal’s most respected cultural institutions with excellent singers and a renowned ensemble. All these powers, however, do not pose the most necessary questions that would examine how the art of opera is supposed to embrace the age of new media, and how this should affect opera’s status and function. Thus, despite its good performance and aura of a significant social event “A Rainha Louca” most likely will not leave a striking trace on the global opera map.

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