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Whips, chains, handcuffs and riding crops – all these instruments of pain and pleasure will be familiar to anyone who has been a regular opera-goer in recent decades. Modern directors are prone to interpolating sadomasochistic themes into operas by Handel, Mozart, Wagner and Puccini, so much so that some in the audience may feel like calling out a ‘safe word’ to stop the torture.

Axel Englund, a literature professor at Stockholm University who has, among other accomplishments, translated Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into Swedish, has produced an erudite smorgasbord of sadomasochism in opera. He analyses allusions to sadomasochism in fashionable productions in recent decades, but also inquires whether something inherent in opera lends itself to the ‘pain- pleasure principle’.

Englund cites as an ‘uncomfortable fact’ his view that opera ‘habitually eroticises pain and humiliation, that the audience is expected to come to the opera house to take sensual pleasure in hearing and seeing the intense suff ering of others’. The implication is that tragic characters typically suffer so that audiences may achieve catharsis; but doesn’t this reduce opera-goers to a bunch of sadists? If so, why is there not a dry eye in the house at Mimì’s demise in La bohème?

Among productions discussed here, Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Wagner’s Parsifal at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2011 offers the most coherent multi-layered argument for including sadomasochistic imagery onstage in opera houses. As playwright, artist and designer as well as director, Castellucci conceived of the magician Klingsor as a wannabe conductor on a podium, overseeing flower girls who are restrained in a traditional style of Japanese bondage, in which Kinbaku-bi means the ‘beauty of tight binding.’

By identifying Klingsor as a maestro who dominates the flower girls, Castellucci ‘suggests an affiliation between practices of sexual domination and the Wagnerian art. Ultimately, it is Wagner who is aspiring to complete control over the bodies in the opera house: the ones that are seen and heard, as well as those that look and listen.’

In turn, Englund adds, accusations of abuse against conductors by advocates of the MeToo movement are also echoed in opera. When an intelligent theatrical mind is at work, such metaphorical resonance justifies considerable leeway in stage imagery.

Thus, in Robert Carsen’s staging of Handel’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne in 2011, sadomasochistic imagery emerged from Baroque conventions in the libretto about love as pain and vice versa. Kinkiness abounded, with the Saracen sorceress Armida appearing as a dominatrix in charge of a troop of St Trinian’s-like sixth formers. Even when such stage effects are justified by the works themselves, not everyone finds them convincing. The female students in Rinaldo were slated in the Sunday Times, whose reviewer likened them to a sadistic version of Harry Potter’s school for magicians, or ‘Flogwarts’.

In still another directorial innovation, the Stuttgart State Opera’s staging of Handel’s Alcina (1999) by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, which visited the Edinburgh Festival in 2000, exulted in foot fetishism. Alcina’s shoe assumed the ‘displaced magic of a wand, granting her sexual power over whomever she pleases’.

This use of props as signals of perversion was also seen in Nikolaus Lehnhoff ’s version of Tosca at the Dutch National Opera in 1998, where much was made of the soprano’s high heels and Scarpia caressing a fur coat belonging to the diva, as if citing Venus in Furs, a novella by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose family name was used, much against his own wish, to coin the term ‘masochism’.

Less palatable is when sadomasochism appears in grimly literal guise, as for the peasant girl Zerlina’s aria, ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ (‘Beat me, handsome Masetto’) in Don Giovanni. In 2006 at Salzburg, Martin Kušej, currently artistic director at the Residenz Theatre in Munich, displayed a crowd of anonymous battered women during ‘Batti, batti…’ presumably as a consciousness-raising exercise for domestic abuse.

Catalan director Calixto Bieito, whose Don Giovanni opened at ENO in 2001, redefined Zerlina from innocent victim to active participant ‘irresistibly drawn to Giovanni’s violence and authority’. Worse than blaming Zerlina for her treatment by Mozart’s arch seducer was Bieito’s Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2004. The coloratura showpiece ‘Martern aller Arten’ (‘Tortures of all kinds’) in Seraglio became an occasion for enacting gory violence against women onstage, much to audiences’ (and sponsors’) dismay.

Despite the obnoxious nature of this sort of violent literalism, sometimes seemingly intended to wake punters from post-interval naps, Englund claims, ‘Since neither the sex nor the violence is real, the problem cannot be quite the same as in pornography or spectacles like public executions or torture. What takes place within the operatic fiction is clearly non- consensual torture, yet what the actors and singers provide is a theatrical enactment of it.’

Does the fact that it’s evidently not real make sadistic imagery more palatable on the opera stage? To assert that pornographic films are somehow ‘real’ is like claiming that all-in professional wrestling is a truthful depiction of human interactions. Perhaps the implication is that Bieito’s stagings are superior to porn, which is small praise indeed.

Deviant Opera makes some fairly outlandish directorial conceits seem logical, if not exactly reasonable; but the weak spots in this study consist of inadvertently risible assertions. One example occurs when an expression is incongruously borrowed from the writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, without further explanation, to assert that the ‘soprano voice is the ultimate maternal phallus’ because it supposedly emerges ‘from the cavities of the female body, it cuts through all other sonic resources of the operatic machine and pours into the body of the listener’. There can only be one response to this: ‘It’s only an opera, Axel!

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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