Love: Sacred and Profane

Kaite Welsh reviews a performance of "romantic duets and melancholy ayres" by new opera ensemble En Travesti

Kaite Welsh, 18 June 2010

opera.jpgThanks to its somewhat stuffy reputation, you'd be forgiven for not knowing that there is a long tradition of gender-bending in classical music.

Countless opera plots, for example, centre around a slim-hipped mezzo-soprano having to dress as a boy for the flimsiest of reasons, and there is a wealth of music composed for the castrati voice.

Although the sexing-up of classical music in the past 20 years has been largely heterocentric, the appearance of En Travesti Ensemble on London's music scene is about to change that.

The chapel of King's College was the setting for this month's concert, 'Love: Sacred and Profane', and the elaborate room was a perfect backdrop for the combined talents of mezzo-soprano C.N Lester, soprano Anne Rebecca Højlund clad in a dramatic purple corset and floorlength skirt, and Philip D. Lawton on the harpsichord. Lawton's jacket wasn't quite as impressive as Højlund's outfit, resembling curtains more than the gilded 18th century look he was clearly going for, but he gets points for effort.

En Travesti has managed to ground an evening of exquisite music in meticulously-researched gender theory and musical history

The company's name comes from the theatrical term referring to the portrayal of a character in a play, opera or ballet by a performer of the opposite sex, and the company specialise in pieces written for castrati and cross-dressing or gender-neutral characters.

This gender ambiguity is given an extra layer by the fact that singer and creative director Lester is trans but doesn't want to compromise hir velvety mezzo-soprano with the attendant testosterone.

All three performers have an academic background as well as a musical one - Lester and Højlund originally bonded over their Masters dissertations on the role of castrati - and Lawton read classics and music at Durham.

As a result, En Travesti has managed to ground an evening of exquisite music in meticulously-researched gender theory and musical history. Luckily, the seriousness with which En Travesti takes its mission of introducing audiences both to little-known pieces and to a rich musical tradition often glossed over by the mainstream classical industry prevents it from being more than a gimmick.

The evening was billed as a mixture of "Romantic duets and Melancholy Ayres", giving both singers the opportunity to show off their impressive dramatic and vocal range.

Lester's smoky sensuality was best displayed in John Weldon's haunting 'Take, oh, Take those lips away' and Højlund enchanted from the opening number as Monteverdi's heroine Poppea, a choice role for any soprano.

The company plan to put on their first full-length oratorio this summer. With their stellar performances and savvy marketing, it might be wise to suggest you book your tickets well in advance.

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