Artsbitching – Fat Lady Furiosa

Sasha Selavie reviews Rodelina at the English National Opera

Does opera suck? Of course! It sucks up time, talent, disproportionate and arguably elitist funding, but – most unforgettably- also sucks utterly ravishing sounds from the endlessly giving, prostitute throats of pure divas!

Is that comparison insulting? How could it be? Just like rent boys and gay-for-pay bruisers, don’t tenors and divas sell pure pleasure to the highest bidders? No wonder that metaphor forms one layer of extended substance in Wayne Kostenbaum’s remarkable The Queen’s Throat, a pithy analysis of the symbiotic relationship between opera and gay men. 

Still, while that book’s a superb excuse for a leisurely afternoon’s convoluted, mental masturbation, nothing beats the sheer exhilaration of live opera. Face it, there’s far more to life than RuPaul’s Drag Race or Grindr, so why willingly lock ourselves inside permanently undemanding gay clichés? 

Screw that – instead, why not open your hearts, minds and stage-struck genitals to the far richer, aesthetic perversions of hardcore opera? The perfect winter art-form, it demands that we gather in art-fag cluster-fucks in seemingly purpose-built, OTT gay cathedrals, like the designer Frank Matcham’s uber-kitsch Coliseum, the home of English National Opera.


Okay, granted, opera demands serious butt preparation – buns of steel are needed for multi-hour marathons – but surely, any dedicated anal enthusiast has those in spades? And yes, a ferociously long attention span is required, but, if you willingly endure box-set purgatory, that’s hardly an extreme ask!

Better yet, you’ll find opera is shockingly relevant to LGBT trends, particularly gender diversity. Our subject this week, Handel’s gloriously baroque masterpiece, Rodelinda, was fronted by the arrogant but acclaimed Senesino, an 18th Century castrati superstar, a Conchita Wurst with world-shaking talent!

Sadly – for those gender-variant souls favourably inclined- severing one’s bollocks for vocal purity has become inexplicably unfashionable, and so – to be properly performed – Handel’s operas necessarily require a piercingly sweet, male countertenor.

Now sure, any buffoon- especially the shatteringly mediocre Sam Smith – can claim to be ‘gender non-binary’, but fuck cheesy, easy lip service. On the contrary, living that statement takes thick, feisty balls, a beautifully insolent pussy, rigorous hormone treatment or – in the case of opera – savage, relentless vocal training!

So, let’s rightfully applaud Tim Mead, the stunning, counter-tenor star of Rodelinda. If the plot’s simple, and Game of Thrones lite – King Bertarido (Mead) is usurped by pretender Grimualdo, who tries seducing Rodelinda, Bertarido’s wife – Mead’s use of an apparent, female voice hugely expands the sexual subtexts.

To paraphrase Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw My Fair Lady, ‘Why can’t a man sing like a woman?’ It’s a countertenor ambiguity fabulously exploited in the movie Farinelli, which timid opera virgins should feast themselves on ASAP, and features homo-friendly, quasi-incest! Physically incapable of ejaculating due to castration, Farinelli initiates penetration with a woman, then slithers aside for his brother’s hot, orgasmic spurt, completely redefining brotherly love!

But back to Rodelinda, which, if staged in dull, 1940s dress, simply teems with post-modern pervery, from the delights of webcam infidelities to a fabulously warped, emotional disconnect worth of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. One character –Bertarido’s sidekick – bleeds with stuck pig panache, and Rodelinda demands her son Flavio’s killed in front of her, as she can’t marry the pretender and be mother to the prospective, rightful king.   

Like a simply  gorgeous, S&M wet-dream scenario, Flavio’s vertically strapped to an upright bed, while  his tormentors finger bizarrely outsize swords! And finally – treading a very precarious line between pure farce and shock- Grimoaldo bombs Bertarido’s monument with back-projected, explosive overkill worthy of a Looney Tunes cartoon!

Improbable? Inappropriate? Who cares? This is opera, darlings, which demands action far larger than life! Where else is a giant, onstage bottle visual shorthand for uncontrollable, liquid passions? Boasting soprano Rebecca Evans’ steely sensual Rodelinda, and tenor Juan Sancho’s magisterial Grimoaldo, this is Machiavellian passion-play adroitly reconfigured for the Peaky Blinders generation, as bloody, memorable and depraved as Cillian Murphy’s rawest revenge sex! Who could ask for anything more?

Rodelina is at the English National Opera until 15th November.