We’re in the middle of a renaissance for historically-maligned women: Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Britney Spears, Lorena Bobbitt, and Pamela Anderson are among those whose cultural perceptions have been challenged and reconfigured, to varying degrees of success and with varying shades of nuance. 

Some of this zeitgeist has spilled over into classical music, though it often comes with more misses than hits. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Anna Nicole” eschews nuance in favor of nihilism. Director Stephen Lawless’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired staging of Handel’s “Semele” makes a case for the modern-day parallels to be found in ancient mythology, but would have fared better had it opted for a Marilyn/Jackie O/JFK-esque triangle rather than a checklist of visual tropes (pillbox hat, Seven Year Itch dress and draft). It takes a combination of consideration and chutzpah for the metaphor to succeed on its own terms. 

Patricia Petibon has both, in ample supply. This isn’t breaking news if you’ve followed the French soprano’s recording career (or even just glanced at her album covers). 2020’s “L’Amour, la Mort, la Mer” plays on the homonymic qualities shared by the French words for love, death, and the sea with songs that intersect these themes, and while Isolde may not be in Petibon’s rep, she makes a “Liebestod” out of “Danny Boy.” Her “In trutina” from the 2010 “Carmina Burana” (also featuring Daniel Harding and Christian Gerhaher) is so rich in tentative desire that I want to spread it on toast. 

It’s not that Petibon recorded her latest album, “La Traversée,” with #FreeBritney, Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana on “The Crown,” or “Pam & Tommy” explicitly in mind. Still, this compellingly-curated collection of 17th- and 18th-century arias touches on our current moment, portraying tragic and oft-maligned figures of myth and history including Phaedra, Electra, and Cleopatra. The parallels come to life largely thanks to Petibon’s tenacious performance and resolute devotion to musical and emotional honesty. 

“Furie terribili,” Armida’s fiery aria in Handel’s “Rinaldo,” begins with the cracks and whistles of a thunderstorm, with Petibon’s voice undulating a growl of the aria’s minimal lyrics, calling upon the furies to surround and consume her. Full credit to Andrea Marcon and La Cetra for being as committed to this balls-to-the-wall concept as Petibon, as the baroque storm effects continue throughout the aria. What could easily veer into camp becomes an emotionally-raw portrayal of a woman hit by rejection with all the velocity and force of a Tomahawk cruise missile. It’s the sort of performance that makes you curious about Armida’s childhood; you don’t want her to fail so much as you want her to tell you who hurt her. 

This fall is cushioned by another Handel aria, Cleopatra’s “Se pieta di me non senti” from “Giulio Cesare,” a plaintive rejoinder to Armida’s rage: “If the heavens in all their justice do not take pity and deliver me from my torments, I will die.” Given the character singing these words, it’s been easy for directors to present this plea cynically, as genuine as a tear-stained confessional on reality TV. Petibon and Marcon take the words at face value, and the effect is incandescent. There are some moments that don’t translate as well on recording—like many singers, Petibon’s is a voice that is best seen and heard, her whole-package performances making up for the slight dulling of her knife’s edge soprano. The aerealist’s agility with which she sailed through the high notes of “Dulcissime” on that 2010 “Carmina Burana” is, understandably, a bit less lithe 12 years later and she occasionally dangles just short of the precipice of the top notes in “Divinités du Styx” from Gluck’s “Alceste.” 

In other cases, however, the medium is perfectly suited to the message—I’m not sure even Petibon could get me to sit through all of Verdi’s “Les vêpres Siciliennes,” but her Act IV aria is laced with pathos and handled with the delicacy and care of a Fabergé egg. (On the flip side, I’d happily watch a marathon of Offenbach operettas starring Petibon after her excerpt from “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein”—Périchole! Helen of Troy! Now!)

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For centuries, however, the issue in classical music hasn’t been how women were considered so much as it is whether women were considered. Lately, the narratives used to explain these gaps are likewise showing their age. Croatian composer Sara Glojnarić points to her compatriot, Dora Pejačević, as an example. At an early age, despite loving Pejačević’s music for its sheer beauty, Glojnarić also believed it to be “too ‘soft’ or even kitschy—all these things that we attribute to ‘feminine’ music.” She now sees that idea as “total nonsense. Her music is ridiculously well-written.” In VAN last year, Glojnarić argued that, had Pejačević not been Croatian or a woman, “she would probably be as well-known as Brahms.” 

The more I hear of Pejačević’s works, which have flourished on recordings over the last decade, the more I’m inclined to agree, although this isn’t to say that Pejačević and Brahms are cut from precisely the same stylistic cloth. She was only 11 when he died in 1897; although a sense of the composer’s outsized influence comes from a comment made by critic Walter Niemann in 1912, around the same time that Pejačević’s musical language began to come into its own: “Brahms is everywhere.” What composer Wilhelm Tappert called the “Brahms Fog” was still hanging in the atmosphere, and it shows in Pejačević’s unapologetically substantive chords, melancholy sensibility, and rhythmic intimacy. 

The beginning of Pejačević’s first—and only—symphony emerges like a Brahmsian cortege, garlanded with grand strokes and unusually expressive melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place in Borodin’s musical world. But it soon picks up the strange beauty of Strauss’s unsettling textures and harmonies, along with his predilection for the cinematic. 

Croatian musicologist and Pejačević biographer Koraljka Kos characterizes her work during World War I as “vigorous,” and borne “perhaps out of the need to fence herself off from some of the awful reality she witnessed daily.” What she witnessed wasn’t at a remove; despite growing up in an aristocratic family, Pejačević rejected the leisure of her class in favor of work and, during the war, volunteered as a nurse in her village of Našice. She also held little regard for family friends and acquaintances whose only dismay at this time was over the effect that conflict had on their finances and not “about the most wretched and disgraceful acts in the war…I despise them because of this.” 

Reading about this in the liner notes for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new recording of Pejačević’s Symphony (along with her equally intoxicating Piano Concerto), I was reminded of what John Berger wrote about developing an affinity for Caravaggio in post-World War II Livorno: “This city was then war-scarred and poor, and it was there that I first began to learn something about the ingenuity of the dispossessed. It was there too that I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power.” Caravaggio likewise questioned power in his canvases, often throwing its might and heft back in its own face through bold colors and stories told in contrasts and shadows. For all of the threads of music history that come together in Pejačević’s works, their real attraction lies in this Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro, written with an assertive hand but designed to evoke in the listener a sense of precariousness and dispossession. Brahms and Strauss wield power. Pejačević remonstrates it.

Power is also a theme central to Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso. As Giovanni Andrea Sechi writes in the liner notes for “Angelica Diabolica,” soprano Giulia Semenzato’s debut solo album, the focal point of the work “is a male universe characterized by a powerful sense of honor and the use of physical force and religion as instruments of domination.” Still, Ariosto challenges the tradition of chivalric epics by focusing more on his characters’ love lives than military conquests. By doing this, he also increases the prominence of his female characters. 

It’s these heroines at the heart of “Angelica Diabolica,” whose name offers a double entendre: Angelica is one of the central characters of Orlando Furioso and its many operatic adaptations. And while the Italian word for “angel” is angelo (a masculine noun), “Angelica” still calls to mind a sort of seraphim. As a character, the pagan princess is, as Sechi notes, “one of the most eye-catching figures…[and] the most ambiguous character in the poem.” Her unwillingness to be conquered is the catalyst for action in many of Ariosto’s episodes. Her arias are snapshots of passion rendered all the more complex in context. 

“As I bring you back to life—Oh God!—your wound passes from your flank to my heart,” sings Porpora’s Angelica to the injured Medoro in his 1720 opera of the same name. It’s a crestfallen tune, delivered with trembling breathlessness by Semenzato as she realizes how far gone she’s about to become. It’s a 180 from the buoyant later aria in which she feigns love in florid prose to Orlando: “Just as an eagle cannot quit the rays of the sun, so my desire cannot take leave of you.” 

Blending dramatic tone and texture, Semenzato creates composite characters whose dimensionality comes from the ways different composers and librettists shaped them. Handel’s Angelica is more straightforward and pragmatic in her rejection of Orlando; the heroine of Sabadini’s “Angelica nel Catai” is more militaristic. Heralded by trumpets and sending out battalions of coloratura, she equates her own heart with the terrain of war. As ever, love is a battlefield. ¶

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