Curtain Call for Handel’s “Arminio” at Theater an der Wien, Vienna, April 20th, 2016: Pavel Kudinov (Segeste), Vassilis Kavayas (Varo), Vince Li (Sigismondo), Max Emanuel Cencic (Arminio), George Petrou (Orchestra Direction), Sandrina Piau (Tusnelda), Ruxandra Donose (Ramise), Owen Willets (Tullio).
(This is going to be another lengthy review. Proceed at your own risk.)
“Arminio” is one of those later and less played Handel operas, but I had a chance to hear it last night, as the latest project of the Cencic Early Music Empire (and you’ve got it hand it to them: they do a lot of discoveries and promotion, for works and singers alike).
“Arminio” has a small orchestra cast, embodied last night by Armonia Atenea: Ten Violins For A Hallelujah. Two oboes. For one aria di bravura of the war leader tenor, two horns. Two cembali (one played by Petrou himself). You get the idea. The small orchestra makes for a much more intimate interaction with the voices, and it – rightfully – draws more focus to the continuo section. I could not see all of them that well from my vantage point, but shout out to Theodoros Kitsos on the theorbo. Damn, that was some sensually appealing recit sculpting.
With the set-up, the violins draw a lot of focus, but even beyond that, I had the feeling they they were given a lot of attention. My very first impression was that the playing was not as supple or effortlessly energetic as, say, under Haïm. But there was a very nice bit of florid ornamenting by the first violin, and I perked up. And into the B part of the ouverture, which is dance-based, they opened with a lot of rhythm, leaving space for the continuo group to provide the structure (my notes read “Who is that theorbist? Hot damn!”), and that was groovy in the best of senses.
The opera’s plot is about devoted married couple Arminio (Cencic) and Tusnelda (Piau), who get the bulk of the arias. He has the habit to get imprisioned by the Roman enemy leaders, she basically cries over him, cries for him, cries about him, and tries to keep him out of trouble. Not that easy, since her own father, Segeste (Kudinov) sells Arminio out.
Tusnelda also has a brother, Sigismondo (Li) who is the sensitive, hesitant “I love you, but I really can’t go against my father because this is patriarchal absolutism and I have to uphold it” type. His girlfriend, the resolute Ramise (Donose), is usually three steps ahead in orchestrating their moves. When he finally opposes his dad, the opera is as good as over already.
To complicate the situation further, we have the Roman leader Varo (Kavayas), who is actually a really decent guy, and happens to also be in love with Tusnelda. He does her bidding in the end, but ends up getting killed, which his aide Tullio (Willets) is none-too-amused about.
Cencic (my first note is “That’s some steep hair, Sir!”. Undercuts are for the faint of heart. The bold ones go full squirrel barret crew cut!) walks out onto stage like a proclamation of “Versace lives!” (well, if you sing Baroque, you better know how to make an entrance.)
It had been a while since I had heard him. He still has a dramatic, powerful tone, with a very distinct counter sound. At times, his “a” “o” and “i” sounds come with a heavy “e” slant, but he phrases with an eloquence that shows a deep commitment to the musical structure – he was also the only of the leads who sang without a score (the only other singer without a score was Kudinov; they were both in Cencic’s stage production for Karlsruhe).
Cencic’s attack is distinctly palate-lined, with a bit of flutter that he uses as a style element. His tone is present and carries well, but it is more made than effortlessly flowing. For sound purists, he may not be the easiest to listen to, but I will say that he never sounds bland, or as if he hasn’t thought about a phrase. “But it does not count if it does not sparkle!” would be a good motto. By the end of the night, though, his voice had gained in suppleness and his phrasing came across as more easily flowing.
Sandrine Piau, I had not heard live before last night. She is one of those names that’s always there, between French and Italian Baroque, and you likely have some recordings with her in your collection, but I never really stopped to consider her in-depth. Stupid me. But now I have seen the light!
Of all singers last night, her voice was the one most well steered, most round, most technically splendid. She has a noble, lyric, clear tone, with a lightness in color in the top register that makes her sound youthful. She also has stellar diction, and I think in that she profits hugely from her experience in French tragédie lyrique, which leans so much onto phrasing directed by speech patterns.
The first number is a duet between the married couple – with nice slapped bow accents from the string section – which was good, but nothing in comparison to their final duet, but we will get to that later on.
The second countertenor to grace the stage was Owen Willets as Tullio, and despite his smallish part, he turned out to be a scene stealer, effortlessly charming and with a nicely muted, burnished, shimmering tone (matching his shoes, in fact). He clearly is a counter, with the lack of carrying in the lower range, but he did not use pressure, and did at no point sound screechy. His tone was rounder than both his co-counters. In sound, he was probably my favorite counter of the night.
With Kavayas (Varo), I was already so etched onto counter sound, that it took me a while to remember that he is a tenor, but he fit in well with the counters, with a light core, some middle-range heft, less power in the lower range and a very light, open quality on the “e” sounds.
Piau’s first solo number was “Scagliano amore, e sangue” and only fortified the fact that she projects extremely well – her voice carries without any strain, and the detours she had to make in this and also in later numbers into the very top, both in runs, but particular in staccati (that all opened easily and immediately, without any shrillness or dryness. A case of soprano witchcraft!), only drove home the point. Her tone is the kind of Deneuve-meets-Audrey-Hepburn-noblesse for which you would hold the door (to then steal one of its ribbons).
The strings came across a little thick in this one and my notes read “A string accent does not solve everything!” Two minutes later, the addendum reads “But sometimes, it does.”
Kudinov (Segeste) had only one aria to show for, with a lightly fanned-out top, but otherwise an even and flexible sound, and with a very enjoyable smoothness to it.
The last counter (we are on No. 3 now) to enter was Vince Li’s Sigismondo. He garnered some of the most enthusiastic applause of the evening. He really is more of a soprano in sound (Sigismondo was originally written for Gizziello). The voice is not big, not dramatic, but has a gleaming, piercing, light color, framed by a bit of light flutter in sustained notes. The voice in itself still has the characteristic off-roundness of a counter, but barely so, and the clear, bright top really stands out (the middle and lower range accordingly pale in comparison). He does have piano command, too, even in the top register, and when his entrance aria switched between arioso and accompagnato parts, he adapted and tried to act, too (acting in concert performances. One of my favorite things to write home about!). He gave an overall dedicated performance, even though his color stays the same throughout.
The final entrance aria belonged to my secret favorite reason for attending this concert, Ruxandra Donose (another singer I had not heard live before). I knew her Salzburg Ramiro, of course, and was familiar with her Adalgisa. Hers is a dark-colored mezzo, but while the timbre may border on contralto, her tessitura does not. I found the part of Ramise sitting too low for her; the team should have cast an actual contralto in this. That aside, I still enjoyed Donose’s performance.
She has always given me a kind of Xena vibe, and walking out onto stage in something floor-length, violet and generously cleavaged I — wait, what did I want to say?
Either way, she is blond now, all flowing tresses like a Christmas Tree Angel, but that does not really nix the Lucy Lawless vibe, either
(we all know that Xena is still just as much Xena, no matter the hair style). Part of it is stance, but most of it is really how she carries herself and how she approaches her music. She was also the only one who made an early point of connecting with the entire house, cheap ranks included.
Among three counters and a soprano, a light tenor and a bass appearing mostly in recits, the only one to bring some low heft to the table last night was Donose, and it was a thrill to watch and listen to. In a set-up that held no innate queerness, her “Sento il cor per ogni lato” with its low tessitura marked a sound space usually reserved for masculine expression, particularly in its assertiveness. The voice played off sbatutto accents in the violins that gave further weight and density to it (also: what was that ghosting, high whining glissando accent there, violins? That was downright Murnau! I loved it!), and rounded off a notion of power grasped.
Then Piau again, dressed in a silver robe, much more subdued, but qualifying as Jeanne La Pucelle Chainmail Couture, and also for moonlighting as Queen Titania on the side. Her “È vil segno d’un debole amore” showed amazing musicality in the cadenza and small ex-tempore bits, a whole different level of communcation with the orchestra, not just on top of it. And also, again, it showed the control she has in very small-spaced dynamic shading that she has likewise completely at her disposal. There is no wild flutter at any point: Piau manages “evenly tempered” at any range. Her voice was, certainly in technique, the best of the evening.
The First Act ends with a high tessitura piece for Li’s Sigismondo, “Posso morir, ma vivere”, and showcased his impressive top. Li clearly enjoyed himself, he kept smiling beyond what he needed for sound projection.
The Second Act starts with Pinky and the Brain scheming “But how do we kill him?” and comes with another aria for Owen Willets’ Tullio, “Con quel sangue dipinta vedrai”, which confirmed my impression of him as my favorite counter sound for the night, even though I enjoyed all three of them.
The orchestra kept getting words in, also beyond the tangible recit intros of the theorbo. Arminio’s next grand scene is preceded by a gavotte-style introduction that has some nice gravitas and was likewise one of the best offerings from the pit: you simply could not listen past it.
Arminio’s “Sì, cadrò, ma sorgerà” then is a bravour piece with many runs and Cencic delivers it with gusto. His coloratura may not be the prettiest, per se, but he has it, no beat skipped.
During this aria, I also thought about the wider setting – what it means to have a flamboyantly out, gay man carry an opera evening, of him neither playing queerness for eccentrics or laughs, nor toning it down to appease audiences, but to just project a persona that works for him, and have a largely conservative middle/upper class audience embrace it and celebrate him not as “that queer” but with respect for his musicianship. It was beautiful to watch. Of course there were a lot of gay guys in the audience, too – flocking to one of them like in the proverbial setting – and a few dykes (I saw two outwardly coded ones), but the general audience was older straight folks. I walked in to two older ladies bitching about their Staatsoper seating for the season (“And so close to the standing room! I cannot deal with that! And my husband says…”).
I also really enjoyed the set-up of Armonia Atena (with one violin giving me family vibes, too): a lot of women! The strings were about 50:50, a bigger age blend, too, and, on a shallow level, much cleavage and shoulders and arms to be admired.
As Donose sung again, I wondered whether – in this trouser role free zone – coding something as queer-readable is, when it comes to women, always anchored to low notes and a dark timbre. And for last night, and Donose last night, my answer would be “yes”, because she exuded vocal presence in a range not taken up by the countertenors and it resulted in a strong, confident and active sound. It is something I don’t even want to gender here. And at the same time, I asked myself why and when I have learned to hear so strongly in categories of gendered divide, and whether I can or even want to unlearn it, since its transgression is of such appeal to me.
Ramise (Donose) and Sigismondo (Li) get into a fight towards the end of Act Two: He still does not want to oppose his father, while she, in a Xena-tells-Joxer-to-shut-up-when-a-ten-is-speaking dynamic, calls him out on it. Her “Niente spero, tutto credo” is one big scoff, and in both timbre and stance, Donose easily overpowers Li. It is the color, but also the physicality of her sound: how she owns it and shapes it, and refigures her appearance of conventional femininity (flowing locks, flowing gown) into something more powerful than what is generally allotted to such femininity. Vocally, she tossed him over her shoulder and carried him off.
Li then has a dazzling showpiece in which he duets (and duels) with a solo oboe , “Quella fiamma, che ‘l petto m’accende”, which is a very good fit for him, and it is, again, cut to show off his top register and agility, but the tone of the aria is one of evenly inward fretting, not one of reaching out: if you want to read it in gendered tropes, on levels of timbre, phrasing and written vocal line, Ramise severely outbutched her beau here.
The Second Act is closed out by two more arias for the leads, a lamento-style “Vado a morir” for Cencic’s Arminio, which he sang with beautiful poise, and then Piau did not exactly bring the house down, but, what is more, she was the only one to bring the house to be completely silent for more than two full seconds after finishing her “Rendimi il dolce sposo”. The piano control, the close-to-messa-di-voce takes on the repeated “Rendimi” were magical, her voice interweaving with just a few violins and continuo for long stretches.
After the silence, the applause was heartfelt, and Piau, in a class act, immediately passed it on to the orchestra.
The Third Act saw Cencic, who is the one who organized this production, gaining in relaxation, ease and suppleness. Perhaps it was also that his large number of arias was largely behind him at that point, so he could allow himself to let go a little more. His “Fier teatro di morte” and the following aria had more of a flow than all his previous appearances.
Varo, in a last showing before his offstage death on the battlefield, got the military leader aria with two horns, but the best part about it, which Kavayas rocked nicely, are some syncopated coloratura bits that were positively swinging.
Then, in the most unusual offering of the evening, we get a brief duet between Piau and Donose, ostensibly as the wife and sister plotting to get Arminio out of jail, but it is called “Quando più minacci il cielo” and we all know since the Paris Mitridate that as soon as we talk of “minaccia” while having two women on stage, things take a turn for the gay.
This duet – it is small, really, starting right away with a shared line a third apart, with no bigger rhythmic shifts – is smooth and sensual and the voices of Piau and Donose blend together exquisitely. Perhaps the singers noticed it, too, since there was an inordinate amount of smiling at each other afterwards.
Li’s Sigismondo enters again at that point, and my notes read “Sorry, Sigi, you don’t stand a chance.”
Sigismondo, though, finally stands up to his father, who promptly has him jailed. When Ramise steps in and tries to take the blame, she is jailed, too. Of course they each get an aria about that. Li’s “Impara a non temer” is once more bright and virtuosic and gleaming, but it really only has that one color and does not have any kind of dramatic reach. In contrast, Donose turns Ramise’s “Voglio seguir lo sposo” into a slice of tragedy that chews on the words, colors them, and tosses them into the audience (she would have had even more heft if the tessitura of the part were higher. It really is a shame because whenever she had a chance to show off more powerful notes starting at mid-range, the audience sat up straighter (or, in my case, gayer)).
The opera – before a shared chorus – ends with a duet for the reunited couple of Arminio and Tusnelda, “Ritorna nel core vezzosa”, and even though this bit isn’t lengthy, either, Cencic and Piau achieve a sublime performance, down to their body language that shows how deep they move into a phrase to have it arch upwards. The sound was smooth and flowing throughout, again without much orchestra to supplant drive or cover up things. The singers kept smiling at each other as they created this bit of music and I have to admit that Cencic’s dark cooing set against Piau’s clear lyrical gentleness made for a beautiful mix. They seemed similarly taken and hugged on stage in reaction, smiling widely, even though the final number was yet to follow.
In the end, enthusiastic applause throughout the house.
So, yes, a very enjoyable three hours of Handel that should be done far more often, not despite but because of the intimate instrumental setting.
It was also an evening with a lot of countertenor singing. And I get that: If you are a countertenor (and Cencic is the driving force behind the project), you promote your own voice range, and there is a lot of talent out there that deserves spotlight.
But I still miss(ed) my mezzos. Gay men making an out impact on opera, great as it is, are still men making an impact on opera, and not just last night, but the entire 16/17 season line-up for the Baroque productions of Theater an der Wien, feel, to me, as if men both gay and straight are sidelining women, and particularly the sonar space of queer women, in mezzo Baroque repertory. It’s the patriarchy stomping all over my little carved-out niche of queer-female representation.
Last night, I thought a lot about this cis-shift in Baroque casting. There were three male part for high voices, all sung by countertenors. Every male character was sung by a man, every female character was sung by a woman.
And if I am really honest with myself? Then I am far less excited by that than I am by cross-casting.
And I don’t just mean the usual have-a-woman-sing-a-man-and-address-another-woman-because-lesbians. I will not deny that that is an immense thrill, but it is also part of a larger issue of overall denied crosscasting (the line-up is just as well immediately more thrilling for me if there is a man’s voice creating a woman): It is an issue of tying voiced gender to gendered bodies, or rather: to force them into alignment to biologically gendered bodies. And that robs the voice – if there is no break at all in this sorting, if truly every male character is sung by a man, and every female character is sung by a woman – of a chance to show its gender-defying, gender-creating potential. And, yes, that transgression is what I, as a queer viewer, react to on a visceral level. It calls to me.
And I see with worry and regret that the space it has had, in making Baroque music (yes, I know, there is still Mozart and Belcanto, but you’ve got counters gaining importance in Mozart already, and who knows how far that will go?), is disappearing in favor of more male representation.
I’d be fine with it if the line-up would be about 50:50, depending on whom you can cast, and whose tessitura fits a part best, but – to stay with the TADW example – there is an overwhelming weight of countertenor voices slated (and none of them in a female role). And to me, that smacks of patriarchy and of cis-gendering. And I do not like that impetus, even if I like countertenor voices per se.
Would I have rooted for Donose singing Arminio? Hell yes. Also in that dress.
Xena had plenty swagger in whatever she wore. Would I have rooted for a voice like Vince Li’s as seconda donna, if e.g. the Ramise tessitura were higher? You bet. And boy would I ever have been excited for Cencic vocally creating a scheming, powerful villainess (in all fairness: he has done so before).
So many opportunities. Get on that. And don’t take the possibility of cross-gender queerness out of things, especially if you are queers yourselves. Closing off spaces will ultimately hurt all of us who identify as crossing borders, of one kind or another.