Effeminates on the Stage and in the Street: Nuancing Handel’s move from Opera to Oratorio
In both Handel’s Orlando (1733) as well as in Giulio Cesare (1724) male characters portrayed at their premieres by castrati are accused of “effeminacy”. In Giulio Cesare Cleopatra, for instance, accuses Ptolemy in Act I Scene V of disdaining his duty in order to “cultivate your Amours […] like a young effeminate lover,” in the words of the original word-book. The librettist’s rendering of Ptolemy, and by extension, the castrato performing his role, as an effeminate, underscores with remarkable cogency contemporary English anxieties about Italian opera, castrati, and the evolving and increasingly public sexual identities of the fop and the so-called “molly”. The King’s Theatre at the Haymarket, for example, where many of Handel’s operas took place, apparently had a cruising area in the pit, or modern-day parterre, which was called “Fop’s Alley.” Public displays of exaggerated affectation by fops were “looked upon as an essential portion of the evening’s entertainments”, in the words of a diarist. This paper looks at the compositional, literary, and performative strategies of composer, librettist, and vocalist alike in their depictions of effeminacy on the operatic stage. Even though modern scholars are divided in how to interpret readings of effeminacy in the eighteenth century and of how to untangle the complex relationship of effeminacy with mollies and fops, this paper argues that contemporaneous descriptions of fops, with their exaggerated and jerky movements, might be understood to have been simulated by Handel in his musical settings for characters accused of effeminate actions. Giulio Cesare was produced at a time when xenophobic discussions about the effeminizing influence of Italian opera were at the height of their paranoia. Although previous discussion on Handel’s disengagement with the Italian opera have focussed the debate squarely on the mechanics of economy, this paper nuances the issue with a closer reading of how the more “manly” and morally instructive institution of the English oratorio was brought to bear in direct opposition to an Italian opera increasingly perceived as a corrupting agent of effeminacy and vice.