The Brussels “Mitridate”, cont’d: Lungi da te



[This. This is my favorite moment of the entire Brussels “Mitridate”. These exact seconds. – And this entry is going to be a long post examining why that is the case (covering aspects of performance theory, bel canto aesthetics and gender politics, but I promise I will add screencaps, too), relating to the interpretation of Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.]

Shortly after the  production was livestreamed, I talked with GrammarGeek about the “Lungi da te” sequence and the moment pictured above, and we both said something along the lines of “of course it’s nice to have them make out, but, actually, what really gets me is that look.”

I’ve heard the same reaction from several among the regular White Shirt crowd; it also shows in our comments in the streamblogging.
The moment clearly resonates with us, and I think it is a combination of singing choices and acting approach, which results in a non-toxic portrayal of seduction (regardless of gender, even, though the ‘toxic’ discourse pertains more heavily to masculinity) that has us swoon.

It’s that slight bit of hesitation. It’s that nervous swallow and shaky intake of breath. It’s the unspoken “May I?” It’s the unblinking dedication. (God, that look.)

(Do you remember that first favorite trope of the early altfic days in the Xena fandom? The inevitable sudden stop in every story just as things took a turn for the horizontal, followed by the inevitable question, “Are you really okay with this?”. – We mocked that, a lot. And, yes, it broke the sensual flow of many a scene. But if we look at it through a lens of casual violence (that cultural pattern of consent being implicit), it is still a statement. — That look right up there? That is the opposite of rape culture. And it matters.)

Can you actually seduce someone with “Lungi da te”?

(this will be the belcanto aesthetics part. Feel free to skip to the screencaps further down.)

The aria is an odd vehicle for any kind of action. It is composed as static and concentric, as opposed to moving somewhere – both the lengthy A part and the short B part are situated on the slow spectrum with Adagio and Andante (not even dramatically slow like a Largo): something that seems to be ambling contentedly around itself in an exchange between vocal line and solo horn. It’s set in D major, with the orchestra moving in very small intervals, never losing the constant 4/4: nothing to hinder an endless line. Just check the first bit of progression (or lack of it): We’re at d – e – d (then an off-beat transfer c instead of c#, ok, but then we’re immediately back to getting comfortably anchored by a d ostinato). That’s not really screaming ‘motion’.
It doesn’t have the possessive build-up of later romantic repertory like “Cielo e mar” (if we remain in the sphere of seduction attempts). Or, within seria: It doesn’t have the inviting short-phrased trajectory of e.g. “V’adoro, pupille”. Or, with Mozart: the purposeful, sensual drive of “Deh, vieni, non tardar”.

“Mitridate” is only now turning into a household name (yes, please!); the only excerpt from it that was floating around as a concert piece when I got into opera was, in fact, “Lungi da te”. I always put it next to “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio” (solo horn/solo oboe plus lyric soprano glory = happy place) as something to listen to for the sheer beauty of the line, something to enjoy with a good coffee while I put up my feet and float away on a cloud of sonic bliss.

The first “Lungi da te” I knew was Kiri Te Kanawa. She was – the longterm readers among you know that – my favorite voice as a teenager (the impenetrable beauty of her sound had something very comforting at an age of great insecurity) and I can still listen to this interpretation with my feet up over a coffee. It is not moving anywhere, it is just drowning you in the exquisite silkiness of Te Kanawa’s tone. And of course she keeps the color wonderfully even (how does she manage to keep her “e”s that light, yet not shrill at all?!), ties in every “il piede”, but you can indeed enjoy it at a distance: it does not make you engage with the piece, just as the interpretation does not connect much to the text. By the third “mio bene”, I get the impression that this Sifare has already forgotten about Aspasia in favor of his own legato phrasing. He is never in danger of dying of a broken heart. The gently sweet “mia bella, addio” in the B part feels as if he were waving with a tissue after his aunt whom he just brought to the train station and who he knows will be back for tea come Sunday: “We have to break up? Oh, too bad.”

The biggest difference between Te Kanawa’ studio recording and Papatanasiu’s stage live recording may lie at the end of the B part with “mi scordo ancor di me”: “Oh, I think I forget the shopping list” vs. “Having to leave you is breaking me (and nearly the line, too).”

“Lungi da te” is an old-school legato piece, in that aspect closer to the castrato bel canto of older seria than the later Mozart works: it is about the perfect line, but it is also, always, about building it from the text. Even so, it is not a piece that conveys movement except for circling around itself, yet Papatanasiu (with the ample help of Rousset – and I am not even looking at Paris here because that would be another full post) manages to create just that: her take is not one to lean back into, but to lean forward to.

We talked about “Lungi da te” in Paris being a perfect example of Lacanian yearning: beautiful, restless, excruciating. Brussels is more clearly moving with a purpose, also owed to the faster speed, and even though the aria structure is cyclic, the impression is one of going forward (here, with every “mio bene”, it sounds as if Sifare is sneaking another glance at Aspasia he responds to, and the address is yet another small variation).

A few words on legato (and I declare beforehand that my teacher, when I still sang, was an Early Music soprano), which is, in a nutshell, building and carrying a seamless line with full control over the employed dynamics. It’s perhaps the zen state of singing, where you achieve a perfect, even, round tone, and have it flow organically with just the right amount of natural vibrato: not put on, not tight, not suppressed, more dynamically balanced than evenly spaced (think ‘circles on the water’). It is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve because you generally cannot fudge things: you have to keep the line. If it breaks, it shows. A lot.

A perfect, even line is possible (think Te Kanawa, who is 100% lyric), but if you don’t *do* something with it, it’s at risk of becoming beauty that bores. Any interpretation in this type of music (I would say in many types, but as I said, I come from Early Music there) is always a compromise between that perfect line, and (hopefully purposefully) disturbing that line to convey the story: Shaping it with little accents. Having it pool and become more voluminous at some points. Making it less glossy, and then very smooth again. Upsizing a consonant into a small stumble in speed, to create a barb the line has to adapt to. Coloring one moment differently than others. And all of it without ever truly breaking the line.

Now take this back to “Lungi da te” (if the link does not work for you: you need to head to the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe at, through there it’s – agree to yes for noncommercial use – Series II, No. 19): range is tricky there because it is at once very small-spaced and repetitive (basically, you have to do that heavy A chunk four times, and good luck with keeping that engaging and fresh), yet also counts with scales and leaps that you cannot rush through. In the gruppetti, you can not really slink past any of the notes, not even the transfer ones, not even with cheating via accentuating one more and the other less because a) the slower speed will tell on you and b) you have to keep the line. The leaps – and we’ve got full octave up to octave and a half here! – not only you cannot rush past (because the speed is too slow), but you also need to tie them into the line in color somehow, which is tough when you need to balance that between head and chest register. It’s perhaps especially tough for sopranos, who – at least with the way we educate mainstream sopranos for a repertory starting with Mozart and heading into the 19th century as a core  – are expected to carry some weight, but, unless they’re dramatic, not at the bottom.

Confession: Papatanasiu’s voice continues to puzzle me because I cannot pinpoint why exactly I connect to it. She does not fit the sonic profiles I usually go for (objective beauty of her tone notwithstanding), so it must be her approach.
Listening to “Lungi da te”, it’s easy to say that she’s a lyric voice at the core, but even here you hear that she is working with more open notes at times, with a more dramatic approach that makes you remember that she’s built much of her career on Traviatas. And if you look at faster coloratura (not happening in “Lungi”): she can do that (and well – just check the final Sifare aria in Paris), but I’d never say, “oh, she is essentially a Rossini voice who thrives on telling through ornamentation, this is her happy place”. My impression is one of telling much more through color and working with a line instead of on the line.

Perhaps that is what makes this interpretation so relatable? The choice to go for a stronger consonant articulation and have that bit of breathless space behind before the voice is fully in balance again. The bit of extra energy, e.g. in the lower range, that gives the line a more dynamic slant – I often describe it as turning a tone from round to oval and back again to round.
If we look at singing a legato piece as a negotiation between closely controlling an even tone on one side and giving it a little bit more reins and amplitude on the other (i.e. relinquising a part of that control), I find her to work with the later, to take that risk, in a  very engaging way. And even though it pushes the limits of the line at times, it is that very attitude that makes it so compelling for me as a listener, and that makes me remember that this is an aria given to someone in a state of despair and heartbreak.

Listen to some of the smaller stylistic choices made by Papatanasiu (and/or Rousset): the repeated “il piede” is more guttural than with Te Kanawa (I don’t know if she could tie it in like that), which is precisely one of those ‘risks’: it changes the color, but it results in a more directly affecting portrayal.
Or listen to the clear presence of the “g” in all the lower range repetitions of the word “Lungi”: it is much more poignant, much more alert than Te Kanawa, though this is a bit of an unfair comparison since Te Kanawa was famed for glossing over her consonants in favor of the line. Still, it is one of the core questions at play here: what moves us more? A perfectly contained line, or a line that can blur in moving somewhere?

With Papatanasiu, you understand most of the text, which comes at the price of uniform color. Her top notes – like that two beat a” on “te” – are broader, with more dramatic drive behind it (paging Traviata!), to the point of sharpness or blurring the focus at times. In comparison to those choices, then look at the technical prowess in all the small-spaced descrescendi (e.g. on “da te”, “bene”, “in te”): they are seamlessly controlled down to pp, but not tightly so. They don’t feel made, or stilted. The never stop prematurely. In a manner of speaking, it’s the perfect length of leash she gives there.

(The only thing that annoys me in this take are some reverberation mic issues just before the B part, but that’s a sound crew issue – I think it happens because (it’s in the final cadenza of the A part) Ruiten’s mic catches her?)

Another approach to this take, and its effects: No voice can do everything, particularly when you sing stylistically diverse repertory (most people do, since they need to pay the rent, if not out of artistic curiosity). So a lot of interpretational skills also hinge on how well you work with the bits that are not really part of your core spectrum, be it a lot of power at the top or at the bottom, a strong middle register or a particular clarity of articulation, or great agility in runs.

Lyric sopranos generally don’t drive a heavy lower middle register, particularly if they have to connect it within a phrase, and neither Te Kanawa or Papatanasiu are exceptions there. So how do they tackle that two-octave scale (b to b”) toward the end of the A part?
Te Kanawa keeps the bottom b already very light and then tiptoes up the scale light-footed as if she had a cheat sheet, keeping the color and then sitting down leisurely at the top.
Now take Papatanasiu: She does not put pressure on the low b, but she gives it far more weight, which means she has to commit to color there. The upwards move is light, but not on tiptoes: she does not slink past any note, every step is taken. Which means you can clearly hear the color and resonance shift in the register change until the voice settles into head projection, yet by the time she reaches the top b”, she gives a bit more breadth (and she does not tie it down as Te Kanawa does). Right after that phrase, there’s the final A part cadenza, and that, in turn – since also narratively, it is a repetition, like an afterthought – is taking the same upper sound space in an absolutely smooth legato take, piano range, perfectly tempered in color and vibrato. And it wouldn’t make half the effect without the more gutsy approach to the phrase just before.

I think one thing we all can easily connect to, apart from all belcanto babble, is the simple fact of someone having the courage to make themselves vulnerable and, through that, relatable, and I think that is what happens in sound in this phrase. You are looking for an artistic idea of authenticity? There you have it.

Once more back to Te Kanawa: She seems to think the aria in long phrase takes that remain light and do not work with much color change: she does a monochrome gradient of sorts, it’s always “lungitademioBENE” and everything is subordinate to that line (it’s a beautiful line, I will not protest that).
With Papatanasiu, listen to the accent work she does. Some of it, I would attribute to working with conductors who do make a living in Early Music for the most part – e.g. details like shifting the focus to the off-beat notes to create more drive.
In the Second “Lungi da te” in the A part (bar 29 in the NMA edition linked above), you’ve got an ascending line of a’ – b’ – c#” – (f#”) – e#” with interspersed thirds, so it actually turns into a’ – (c#”) – b’ – (d”) – c #” – (e”) – f#” (g”) – e#”. And the phrase turns into something dynamic instead of a straight line by Papatanasiu/Rousset going for the off-beats in accentuating, which creates a much more textured feel. The quicker speed chosen for the aria here is more closely resembling a heartbeat anyway, and bits like this give it extra drive that take away from the static structure: more seduction than contemplation.

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Now back to that very moment at the top of this post (I have not forgotten about it). It is located at the beginning of the third “Lungi da te” in the A part (bar 38-40). Listen to how the voice sets in.
Again, Te Kanawa: one perpetuous, noble line – [lungidatemiobeeene].
Now Papatanasiu, and the way she creates drive: within the line, she marks the first three beats (think rocks influencing the flow of a river) so we actually have [lún–gí–da té], with just the tiniest bit of drawing out the first syllable towards the first appogiatura, only to then take away the logical accent in the following “bene”: she resolves the punctuated eight (followed by a sixteenth) into four sixteenth, doubling the c#”-d” progression, which turns the following “mio bene” (bar 41) into  a) something so smooth that my brain always shuts down when I get to this point (and you have no idea how many adjectives I just crossed out of this phrase) and b) something that actually points beyond the phrase, so it sounds like Sifare is indeed addressing Aspasia.

lungidate 40_41.png

Favorite moment of the whole evening. Told you so.

Now that you all will have a arrived at a point of “Anik, please, tone it down a notch”, let’s take a look at how that ‘active’ singing choice for this aria interacts with the stage blocking (I *did* warn you that this was going to be a long post).

This is where I locate the biggest difference (not as much in the general slant of singing, really) to the Lacanian Yearning in Paris (although perhaps we should replace that with Irigarayian Yearning?), and we have to take it from Sifare’s entrance because this is where the scene starts building up. Paris creates the tension by not allowing them to look at each other (it starts with a cornered Aspasia facing outwards there) and even later, barely look or touch, and have each moment of connection actually carry the loss of that very connection already: it’s I can’t get no satisfaction.

A casual reminder of how we got here in the first place: “Tu che fidel mi sei”/scene build-up for “Lungi da te”. – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare), Michael Spyres (Mitridate), Patricia Petibon (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Paris 2016.

The Paris blocking is Hitchcock in that the audience knows the depth of emotion the characters direct at each other, but the characters themselves don’t (otherwise, we end up with the Brussels problem of “But why does he walk away?”), and it breaks our hearts in the most exquisite way, without every being just culinary. I cannot lean back and drink a coffee over Paris (or Brussels).

Staging It, Brussels Style: As straight teenage girls flock to boybands for idealized boyfriend portrayals, queer female opera lovers flock to trouser roles for idealized  framings of female romance. So we’re not opposed to having trouser roles make out with their love interests on stage. But, lovely as it is in this staging, it is not what creates the emotional weight for me (more than anything, it’s the looks).

…I can’t even. – Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) and Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

The whole set-up through “Tu che fidel mi sei” is a bit rocky in Brussels because we have Aspasia suddenly very attentive towards Sifare, without knowing why – trying to establish eye contact as soon as he enters and basically pining after him, while Sifare, upon his entrance, learns that Aspasia is supposedly in love with Farnace, so he sulks around between heartbreak and jealousy. It’s really just one reaction look in the recit that sets his entire mood here:

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My favorite reaction shot of the bodyguards. Their facial expressions are gold. – Plus Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Michael Spyres (Mitridate) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Sifare then is continuously humiliated by his father throughout “Tu che fidel mi sei” – look how this Sifare draws in his shoulders and drags his feet when Mitridate orders him to walk over to Aspasia:

Someone just kicked my puppy. – Hilarious bodyguards, Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare), Michael Spyres (Mitridate) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Also, look at how Spyres and Papatanasiu act around that fatal pen as a symbol of subjugation and how Papatanasiu handles the whole contract signing as if Sifare is agreeing to a death sentence for himself.

“If I click twice, I set off the timer to a hidden explosive. Just saying.” – Michael Spyres (Mitridate) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Clearly a case of O pen fatale et détesté. – Michael Spyres (Mitridate), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Another detail is how Ruiten plays Aspasia as unable to look at the amount of humiliation, but then is bewildered by Sifare’s lacks of protest. She pushes him away twice: once early on, to spare him picking up the contract, then later to push away the pen that Sifare tries to hand to her – the staging gives her a moment of righteous indignation here, she feels betrayed by both Mitridate (who springs the contract on her) and Sifare (who does not intercede on her behalf).

Because “Pen Pals” is almost as bad as “Gal Pals”. – The bodyguards are really growing on me. Plus Michael Spyres (Mitridate), Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare), Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Sifare is more concerned with his own pain here, not with Aspasia. It is mirrored in Mitridate attacking his son foremost, not his bride/ally. It helps underline Sifare’s anger when he is alone with Aspasia and lashes out – I half expected this Sifare to break the pen he was holding – and I find the complete 180° (we talked about it before) he does when he learns that’s actually *him* Aspasia wants believable and relatable. This is also the point where his demeanor starts to be, as in Paris, completely non-toxic. I find it to be a very good choice of scenic cue to make the role portrayal relatable on the whole.

Getting hit with a clue-by-four, exhibit A: Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

 I find the framing for Aspasia (and the framing overall) more difficult  beyond this point because now the obstacle between them has been removed. And since the overall feel is very current-day, the moral obligation and the father/son conflict don’t carry as much weight (this Sifare is not as devoted to his father as the Paris one): So what does keep them apart, actually?

Paging one clueless prince. Repeatedly. – Lennke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Aspasia, up to this point emoting a lot and being the force striving for contact, becomes, for the rest of the scene, much more passive in her reactions to the point of not really responding. And I think that is less a problem of Ruiten acting/not acting something, and more a problem of how the scene is blocked: the obstacle is missing, and now the singers have to act around that issue.

If this meager coffee table is enough to keep us apart, we may have commitment issues. –  Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

I know the slant is supposed to be “Wait, we can’t. My dad/the press!”, but if you look at someone like Aspasia looks at Sifare before she tells him she loves him (heart on her sleeve) or like Sifare at Aspasia right at the beginning of “Lungi da te”, and if that someone will put their hands on you,  I simply don’t buy that anything else could matter – if cue A is portrayed well, as I find here, cue B won’t fly (or it has to undo cue A).

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Solid Cue A: Deh, non partire. – Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Cue B: Why did I get up again?! – *facepalm* – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Bottom line: the “we can’t!” is too contemporary to suffice as a narrative anchor.

Arbate doing some whiteshirtblocking with tying in the little recitative bit is a nice touch (I appreciate Saelens’ understated comic timing in this more and more – just check how uncomfortably he walks in there, angling for the contract):

Feci per non sentir quanto potea… *cough* – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare), Yves Saelens (Arbate) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Perhaps that sums up my reaction to this scene as a stage entity: the overall arch – despite Papatanasiu giving Sifare as much motivation as she can for his turnabout actions – does not work smoothly since the “no – yes – no” lacks a deeper core, but along the way, there are some beautiful moments, both for the characters independently and in connection.

I continue to enjoy – as in Paris – the drive Papatanasiu gives her Sifare in striving to connect to Aspasia: hovering close without crowding, being attentive to cues, validating things said through listening presence. Even that first, sudden move to the couch does not come across as “I want to get you someplace”, but as “I want to get through to you”.

“I never even realized I put up my shoes on the couch” and other phrases not going through Sifare’s head at this point. – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

GrammarGeek pointed out elsewhere, and I would agree, that the transition towards the accompagnato’s final “Aspasia, addio” has to prepare the walk away and the return, in just a few moments, but even that works out thanks to the acting, though it has to be very condensed here.

It also leads to “Oh-God-that-look”.

You didn’t honestly think I’d have just one cap of this moment, did you now. – Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Despite the somewhat superficial blocking and the problems with motivational cues, the scene is compelling and gains emotional weight through the acting, particularly through Papatanasiu (who is in the easier position because her being the one who sings already frames her character with more agency).

The most endearing quality about her Sifare here (but also in Paris) is, to me, the choice of imbuing him with so much vulnerability. None of this seduction sequence comes across as cocky or threatening, at no point I get the impression of objectifying the other, at no point is Sifare’s masculinity established through chauvinist behavior or machismo.
I’m still wondering whether this approach is perhaps easier for sopranos who sing a lot of 19th century romantic repertory where (female) vulnerability is the core narrative, than for singers who deal more with trouser roles, also in earlier repertory, where the narrative often establishes (masculine) power through subjugation and precludes this very kind of vulnerability. Is this a sensitivity that carries over from having sung 100+ Traviatas, as in “19th century heroines who depend on that very kind of emoting”? Or is this something that is specific to Sifare and very few other roles?
You could stage him as a lot more of a jerk. In this Brussels take, he is painted as more seasoned, more cunning than in Paris: well-versed in political mind games and plotting, not as dependent on his father’s approval. But there is nothing of that – starting with the 180 at realizing that his connection to Aspasia was not imagined – in this scene.

One very crucial point in staging this scene evenly in terms of agency comes, I think, with the decision that Sifare takes off his own jacket before he tries to undress Aspasia. Visually (and symbolically), he is offering up himself before making a move on her, which establishes a dynamic that is not based in a gendered power setting of male agency.

Everyone involved can leave their hats on. – Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) and Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Note how Aspasia seems half surprised at first, and then there is a puzzling moment where she actually smiles at Sifare undressing – which could be read towards “still calculating”, or “nerves” or “having still enough distance to see this as cute”, but other than “nerves”, these interpretations are not working with Aspasia’s reactions throughout “Tu che fidel mi sei”. It’s a curious detail.

A curious smile. Also, Cherubino called. He wants his ribbon back. – Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016

The entire approach of the aria as an address to someone, as moving towards an addressed other, and the non-toxic and vulnerable portrayal of Sifare trying to genuinely establish a connection, culminate, for me, in that small moment of undoing the ribbon on Aspasia’s blouse. Not taking consent for granted, but asking for it, and making sure it is indeed given. I think it’s the blend of gentleness and intent (also within the singing) that creates such an impact, and it is beautifully delivered (all further commentary on my part, with apologies, would be some variant of “Oh dear GOD,” so I will refrain from making any).

Just in case you needed a reminder. And it would be an awfully long scroll up to the top of the post. – Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) and Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

We have mentioned at several points the issue of Aspasia not emoting back, or not at the same level, in reaction to this look. Much of it is, I think, a blocking issue because if there were a reaction on a similar level acted in here by Ruiten, we’d either have to fade the scene to black within less than 5 seconds, or we’d be stuck with an ever bigger credibility problem. Or we would need a compelling directing choice that resolves the impassé of reaction here.
The scene works more easily in character for Sifare, who is the one pleading his case. It makes more sense again for Aspasia at the point where Sifare withdraws and she tries to reach out, though that is placed late and is, in that, again a cue that works against the romance supposedly told.

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Another instance of “Focus, Aspasia, focus!” – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

The sequence on the chaise, where the motivational cue seems to have been “You need to be there on mark X and look good” does, as mentioned above, indeed look good.

How not to treat a tie: an illustration. You will never get those knot wrinkles out again if you leave it on the floor like that! Also in a knot: Sifare (Myrtò Papatanasiu) and Aspasia (Lenneke Ruiten), Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016)

It is, however, more difficult to tie into the (following) motivations. There is very little time to condense physical connection, doubt, and then Sifare’s anguish into a consecutive string of cued actions.

I find that the scene makes more sense again once Sifare is at a distance and has the space,  also in his singing, to reestablish the mood of “yearning” that ultimately prompts his exit. Likewise, the cueing for Aspasia moves much better from here on out as she is once more left with the agency to search out a connection (despite it being late – if relegated to sitting on the couch and looking sad, one is once more searching for the depth one hears). Though I really enjoyed the balance of now Aspasia (who, before this scene sequence, is painted as calculating and  not as committed) offering up herself in return in undressing, leveling the playing field. Also, the calm, unhurried buildup to it, portraying now quiet conviction, was beautifully done by Ruiten.

Deh non partire revisited. – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Lenneke Ruiten (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Another small bit that I found spot on was the little overwhelmed stumble Sifare offers up in reaction:

Caught off balance: Sifare (Myrtò Papatanasiu) faced with Aspasia (Lenneke Ruiten) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Brussels 2016.

Conclusion: While I do like a lot about this scene, I still find that the scenic cueing is too superficial in comparison to how the aria is sung, and also in comparison to the acting, particularly from Papatanasiu.

The scene, in consequence, feels uneven between its very moving and then again seemingly unmotivated  sequences. One is left with the question of what the connection between the characters is, if there is no serious obstacle threatening them and they can come together and then step apart again that easily – all while the music is offering a glimpse at something far deeper.

62 thoughts on “The Brussels “Mitridate”, cont’d: Lungi da te

  1. PS. I apologize for any typos (I am sure there are some) – it’s late and I have to be up before 5 to catch the red-eye to my conference. Happy weekend, everyone, and lively discussions!


  2. done reading 2x, and digesting.. but i love reading the dissection of MP’s singing as it answers so many of my curious self-questions (though lots of terminology to sift through while learning new things!)

    safe travel to you! hopefully at some point the link to the music sheet will be back.. (or is it just me who couldn’t get it? i got a page full of german, and while not fully understand, i clicked “Ja” instead of “Nein” and got to an empty page…) . Also, since the front picture is missing I’m freely interpreting which is your precise fav moment.


    1. back, with the music sheets in hands (on screen, dl from, though music notes to me is likely the navier-stokes equations to some so take it as I know which way is up and how long the pauses are / fast certain sections are / where to trill etc. and thus i rely much more on my blind hearing.. on which point:
      1. when i heard this particular rendition the first time, esp. the first phrase of “Lungi da te” as she floated on, as you said, almost exactly the heart beat (which one can feel if happening to grab ones’ hands a bit too tight while listening..) , it sounded like our ship gliding gracefully through the calm and smooth ocean after a storm, that’s my vision of legato🙂

      2. I cannot pinpoint why exactly I connect to it
      During the multiple Paris rewatch I sorted out, in my terminology, the way she phrases things is how it really works in my head, or in your words, so it must be her approach. Since I can’t tell much from the music I often reduce it down to how some singers just emphasizes the right point in the phrase, shapes the words and the music line, breaths at the right point, approach sections soft/loud etc., and those work for the (my) brain while others don’t. In fact Paris Mitridate was a bit new so I didn’t really get to that point until Semiramide..

      3. With Papatanasiu, you understand most of the text
      For you and those understanding Italian yes, but for me no, and thus the points in (2) above are even much more critical, in that the way she delivers the phrases that it makes sense (in my head!) and expresses emotion, rather than simply beautiful music but I don’t understand what it’s about..

      4. they are seamlessly controlled down to pp, but not tightly so. They don’t feel made, or stilted. The never stop prematurely
      I reached the impression she can control her voice very precisely by the time i got to Semiramide, again probably because I wasn’t familiar with early Mozart style.. all from the listening point of hearing of course… And that because she can control it very well, she can phrase it exactly as she chooses, and with the combo of that and point (2) above, it confirms again why it works for me.

      Backing up a little bit on your point about She does not fit the sonic profiles I usually go for
      I realized yesterday that I actually don’t listen often to sopranos (for personal reason due to my own problem with headaches) and often “forget” what the colors of sopranos sound like… but yes, on this point, because she phrases it so well it works for me in certain dosage and definitely in certain roles, no doubt somehow related to recording tech.

      5. So how do they tackle that two-octave scale (b to b”) toward the end of the A part?
      Finally now with the music sheets, i’m impressed! but as with my home-made terminology, she’s quite good in her low notes and i actually do enjoy those tremendously, i often simply listen, even occasionally enjoying what I thought was a break in register, and esp. in Semiramide you can even hear her almost doing what VK does plunging into the chest.
      So on this note, i tremendously enjoyed your explanation here, including And it wouldn’t make half the effect without the more gutsy approach to the phrase just before.

      6. I got lost where you faint on the music sheet, too many music notes🙂

      7. We already discussed at length on the “issues” with this Lungi da te.. and I will give it more thoughts before writing another chapter here… But I’d like to emphasize how much I love your point on vulnerability . It is indeed always something I look for *especially* in a trouser role (not sure why, but I think because it shows humility, the human aspect of strong and weak points)… Perhaps it is her unique approach to trouser role (M.Persson is not doing this, but i guess she’s also not singing Traviata..). Food for thoughts: If P.Petibon sings trouser roles, I think she will offer a very wide range of emotion and vulnerability as well… it is something of a matter of personal taste as to why sometimes I don’t quite enjoy S.Connolly’s take on certain roles or why I identified with how VK acts/sings them.. but again, all personal…

      Related to that, many thanks for pointing out the “not taken as a given” permission/liberty bit. Indeed these hesitation / acting on equal footing / giving respect to female partners are why I enjoyed these takes of Sifare by MP so much, in addition to her vocal phrasing.

      I don’t really want to compare, but I found myself doing it quite a bit lately thinking of what she does and how quite similar it is to how I hear/see VK + ACA. I think it’s a conscious choice of an artist to push and explore humanity, and for that i’m quite glad to have discovered her/them.


    2. ps- since we’ve now established my level of *cough* obsession… let me make a point on “the look”!
      It must be that i’m very unfamiliar with these types of eyes (!!) that I always have difficulty telling exactly where they’re focusing.. and as a result “the look” didn’t quite have the same effect for me.. but _the look_ during the first touch of the ribbon and facial expression plus hesitancy while searching for an approval cue from Aspasia was for me *the moment* of sensitivity and vulnerability , and since it comes a bit in reverse after “the jacket”, i always see the sequence a bit differently than you (and others…)

      (ok, i’m back to work.. really…)


      1. Perhaps Agathe knows the cognitive psychology studies better than I do, but isn’t there a toddler-age timeframe on how well people will be able to read faces of different cultures depending on whether having been exposed to them soon enough?

        Also, obsessive? Nah. Just thorough. It’s like researching papers and grant proposals. Although I am sure we have thought about this performance and its motivations far more than anyone actually involved in them by now!😉



      2. ps- oh, now that the front photo is up,🙂 . I thought it was “the look” prior to “the jacket”, which I couldn’t figure out where (s)he was looking (above the head of Aspasia I thought…) . But this side-way look is exactly what i described as *the moment* for my brain! (and severe cut of camera angle deprived us several more seconds of this look before the singing phrase entered…)


  3. more distraction…
    If this meager coffee table is enough…
    Actually this begins to sound like my log analogy during Capuleti in Munich the year VK was missing… and even with the right combo of singing actresses one might still need multiple sittings to perhaps get the point of the staging (if there’s really a clever one to start with.. either that or brilliant singing actresses can make sense of it and communicate to us).. but here we only get a snap shot and well… i was already moaning a bit about missing exchanges of looks to reciprocate MP’s acting and expressions…


  4. Thank you for this, most especially for the Belcanto section! I don’t have the time to answer to this in lengths at the moment, but I absolutely love your detailed analysis and your main point of perfect legato versus phrasing really hits the nail on head in my view. I can also very much relate to your more detailed description of MP’s phrasing, she really underlines the moments essence really well. On the other hand, funnily enough, taking Te Kanava as the counter-example did not really work for me. To be honest, Lungi da te is not really my favourite piece within Mitridate, I liked it as I like practically everything Mozart ever wrote but somehow it didn’t really click with me neither in MP’s nor Persson’s version (and I didn’t track down any others because I was simply not so taken with it). Now, on hearing Te Kanava’s version, all of a sudden it makes sense to me, although I really cannot pinpoint this sensation at all. I agree with you that Te Kanava’s version does not really mirror the text content, but this lighter and more „brilliant“ (I lack vocabulary here) version really gets through to me. I also hear a lot of beautiful phrasing and colour changes here, much more subtle, yes, but I don’t have a feeling of ‘distance’. (I’d like to sound like that when I forget the shopping list….). Also with Te Kanava this piece sounds much easier then it is (it’s really, really difficult in my view, precisely because of the legato issues you described). Isn’t it interesting how much our reactions to music and especially singing are determined by our very individual tastes as well as current states of mind/mood or even life situations as with your teenage years.
    But I did not want to distract from MP’s performance which I also like a lot and her more serious approach, both in phrasing and natural voice colour, does fit the scene very well and really perfectly fits her touching portray of tenderness here.


    1. And we are the lucky ones because we have the chance to listen to different takes! And of course Te Kanawa is wonderful in her own right and her establishment of line and “lighter” color is masterful. It is simply the version I know best so that is what I fall back on to compare, not really for any deeper stylistic reason. (I like her better with other Mozart arias – not just the Countess, but also most of the concert ones on the G. Fischer recording with the crazy 80s cover) I think it also shows that that recording is from about 30 years ago (?), and that time span – and the changed way Mozart is being played now – also influences my hearing preferences at this point. Mozart is my center of everything, but I realize that from there, I mainly go backwards now, and not that much forwards, and the importance of diction in Early Music is probably something that has wormed it’s way into my aesthetics along the way.

      But who knows where I will be in another twenty years? How we listen to things and why really is a fascinating topic.

      (Also, I am smiling broadly at the fact that someone actually got a kick out of my belcanto babbling 😊)



      1. Anik, this is very interesting, can you maybe explain in more detail how the way Mozart is played changed over the last, let’s say 25 years? I kind of grew up with historical performance practice because the conductor of the choir I sang in as teenager was a Harnoncourt devotee, e.g. he would usually perform Bach or Monteverdi with specialized Early music ensembles in bigger concerts, so this is what would practically be the baseline for me. In know some have pushed this to extremes, like overly fast tempi and this is not done any more but, listening to early music today I so far did not have the impression things have profoundly changed (one version of Lungi da te pushing it a bit to far might be Emma Kirkby’s version of 1991, although it’s still fun). With both Haim and Rousset choosing MP’s comparably ‘heavy’ voice and Haims slow tempo, would that maybe mean a development into the opposite direction of what was once thought the ideal in historical performance practice? I get your point on diction of course, still MP’s ‘Traviata’-voice would in my opinion not be ideally suited for this role from a historical point of view (probably very different from a castrato). I’m curious on your expert opinions on this.

        On further wondering why I prefer the more ‘lighthearted’ version of Te Kanava, could it be that the drama and emotional complexity as displayed by MP is not fully supported by the way this aria is written? Mozart was 14 years old, maybe he was lacking in emotional maturity here? But then, it obviously works very well for you and many others here…


        1. It seems we share an important part of musical socialization, Agathe – one of my formative influences was also a choir director of the Harnoncourt school who in the early 1990s created quite stir regionally by casting a male alto for Bach oratorio solo parts. It is my impression that since the early 1990s, Early Music in historically informed practice has moved from the margins to a position central enough that it now informs also “conventional” interpretations of Classic and (early) Romantic repertory to a point where ignoring this input is seen as inacceptable and artistically backwards. Te Kanawa’s recording with Tate clearly happened before this shift and is shows so much in the orchestral idiom: look at the string carpet, at the widely spaced vibrato, and how that interacts with the line – it is, to return to the terminology from last week, a much more horizontal take on the aria. I don’t want to put an aesthetic judgment on these interpretations, they simply reflect the context of when they were made and what discussions and ideas of style happened at that point.

          That is, a bit, linked with the choice of, as you said, a “heavier”, non-Early Music voice here for Sifare in Papatanasiu: I get the impression that the strict and purist Early Music approach is more now than it was 10-15 years ago, reflecting the insight that we cannot reproduce “authenticity” through trying to replicate historical conditions (in style, in instruments, in technique). It will never be the same thing, but of course working with this knowledge brings us closer to the sensitivities of older styles of music. And I would say the goal, reflected in the practice at the moment, is a more creative and relaxed interaction with our knowledge of older techniques and with historically informed performance that stems from the realization that we do of course make music today, for today’s audiences. So “authenticity” – a moving, truthful performance – is not painstakingly imitating e.g. 17th century style, but acknowledging that that is impossible: we always interact with it. And I think this reflects a bit in casting e.g. the role of Handel’s Alcina with singers that are not from Early Music, but who then work within Early Music idioms with specialized conductors and players.



          1. Thank you very much for explaining and what a nice coincidence (do you remember how German early music instrumentalists would inevitably wear Birkenstocks in the 90s?) ! I see of course that Te Kanava’s version does not reflect principles of historical performance practice (although it doesn’t bother me much) but was confused in relation to MP’s Sifare which is also not typical, so after your explanation this makes a lot more sense. What you describe as today’s more relaxed approach of course also widens the spectrum of different and interesting takes on pieces which is certainly a good thing.
            By the way, with regard to Sifare, I’m also very interested in Anett Fritsch’s approach at ROH next season and hope that there will be some sort of streaming. This will probably again be a very different Sifare and I personally like her voice and its special timbre (Spyres will again be Mitridate in that production and after so much re-listening I’m slowly turning into a fan).


          2. Oh, it will be interesting to see/hear if Spyres will come up with a mediating approach somewhere between the very smooth and elegant Brussels take and the energetic, powerful Paris version.

            I don’t remember the Birkenstocks as much (though they were and still are part of the church music student uniform…), but the woolen pullovers!! (useful in cold churches, too)
            I absolutely share your impression of a committeed, yet creative handling of Early Music principles leading to a multitude of inspiring performances beyond a simply purist approach.


    2. motivated by Agathe’s discussion, and after spending my entire day listening to PP’s Nel grave tormento (the more I listen + watch the more I’m amazed at her level of commitment and characterization! and the orchestra!!!) , I’ve now a line up of Lungi da te, starting w/ Dame Kiri, will follow with A.Bonitatibus, M.Persson, E.Gruberova (the first version i heard! wayy back in that cd with A.Auger), C.Bartoli, and that cd with VK as Farnace (not sure who is Sifare but will dig up). At least on the first take, the biggest difference i hear between Te Kanava and both MP’s takes is in section B where the former does not give me a sense of urgency (I’d even say it’s way too smooth and casual… but let me investigate more… will report my findings🙂


      1. ps- and after spending my whole day re-listening on repeat to P.Petibon’s Aspasia’s “Nel grave tormento”, I would like to make a public request that (a) Mitridate should be now a regular at opera houses, and (b) the pair of P.Petibon and M.Papatanasiu should be Aspasia-Sifare . Throw at them any staging, let them interpret and communicate, let us analyze the effectiveness!

        After a couple more rounds on Brussels’ take, I went back to Paris the last 3 nights and am astonished how much more I hear in term of differences.. Personally I’d like to get to know the music to the level of “I capuleti e i montecchi” to be able to digest the most minute variation in phrasing in both the orchestra (<– my goodness, E.Haïm!!!) and Aspasia (<– this will require more work as I haven't relistened enough) and Sifare (<– only the last aria needs more significant investigation, I haven't gotten to the level of "Roméo" in fine-tuning my ears yet but it's getting there!). On the fine-tuning note, many thanks again Anik for the really detailed belcanto analysis, can't say I understand 50% but whichever part that makes sense is working out great for my ears!!)


      2. back to report my amateur findings, in what might turn out to be another chapter…

        I sat through 2 rounds:
        1st round with ten “Lungi da te”: (1) Dame Kiri, (2) A.Bonitatibus, live in Munich 2011, (3) M.Persson from Salzburg 2006, (4) C.Bartoli, recording i think, (5) Anne Murray, live from London 1993 (6) E.Gruberova from full recording 1991, (7) C.Oelze from live full performance with Norrington (the one with VK as Farnace in 1997), (8) C.Karg, cd recording, (9) MP’s Brussels, (10) MP’s Paris.

        First, a general finding: given that I have no training for what sort of singing it requires for this aria as well as very poor to zero understanding of Italian text, I can only go with my gut feeling as to how well I hear *any* kind of emotion being expressed and how effective they are for my brain.

        With that as a starting point, I immediately have 2 categories: (i) too smooth and (ii) expressive. I’m guessing these two do not need to be mutually exclusive, so my general terminology might be incorrect, and there’s a whole range in between. In the extreme end, category (i), it’s so smooth and beautiful but I can’t tell what the aria is about, and in many cases it ended up being too “rehearsed” instead of being spontaneous. But I would put (1), (3), (6), (8) above into/toward category (i) . In fact this finally explains why I never quite identify with M.Persson’s singing and said waaaay back 3 months ago what I thought I needed more “vocal acting” (<– bad terminology perhaps, but that's how it works in my head, if I can imagine from the musical phrasing what the content is about.) On the other extreme, category (ii), besides MP's two takes, which I will get back to in a bit.., two versions worked tremendously well for me are (4) C.Bartoli and (5) Anne Murray. I've discussed Anne Murray's take before when first discussed why London 1993 Mitridate worked for me (with the amazing Luba Orgonášová) in term of vocal acting…

        This time, "armed" with (amateur understanding of) the music sheet and an entire re-read of Anik's superb descriptive partI of this post, I went back for 2nd round of detailed listening to: (2), (4), (5), (9), and (10). It's truly great to actually hear many of the fine details you pointed out Anik, as well as hearing now the contrast between all the takes…

        So now, some more points for discussion and conclusions:

        Prior to reading this post, I was not aware how lyrical this aria is. In fact during the entire XXX re-listens of Paris, even from day 1, I was impressed with MP's delivery and took it as is, an aria with huuge heartbreak and yearning and desperation. And (to some degree?) as Anik pointed out here, but also through all these 10 clips, the BIGGEST difference I hear is how MP delivered section B versus the rest. There are sort of 2 camps for section B: mellow self discussion (A.Murray) or military-driven determination (C.Bartoli, A.Bonitatibus) and some ranges in between. And then there's MP's take of what to my ears as true desperation. In fact it fitted perfectly with the disgust (to life) image I always have of her stepping off the chair in Paris as she ended this section. Does it need to be so desperate? perhaps not, but once you hear it and it makes sense, it operates as a comparison point.

        The 2nd biggest difference I hear is how MP delivered the .. (hang on, now I need the music sheets) : yes, the 3rd of the four Lungi da te within section A, how she treated the low "ram" on "non rammentar" as well as the continuous ascent to the high "che" in "che provi, o cara..". There is a (very) strong emphasis in both places, creating large dramatic "pleading/reasoning" almost, giving so much "desperation" as well as vulnerability to the character. Especially on the highest notes, I felt she pushed it even to the rough edge of her voice. When first heard I thought that's quite a strain.. but upon hearing again in comparison with many other takes (as well as hearing her singing in other things), I think she did it on purpose, giving it this "edge", stripping the character bare, to the breaking point. She did similar thing on the high notes on that ascent from the lowest "pro" which Anik covered here in the post. (In the past I have mentioned this edge to be similar to ACA's and can give so much insights about the characters for my brain.) I was surprised to hear none of the other 8 clips I heard gave such treatment to this, and I'm guessing without hearing MP's take I wouldn't have paid much attention.. but the fact is it was done so movingly/with such great effectiveness (to my brain) I will always hear when it's not there..

        The 3rd biggest difference in general is, as Anik pointed out, the emphasis on the consonants in the musical phrasing. This can have the effect of either (a) breaking the line of thought or (b) helping "making sense" in communication of the phrase. I might have mentioned before how when ACA sings, I don't understand Italian, but her singing "makes sense" to me! I think universally there's a way to communicate a line of thought and where you emphasize matters a lot in getting the point across or blurring it so as to take attention away… and I've always talked before about how certain singers, even with the same phrase of music, because they emphasize different points (here both in pronunciation as well as word-shaping and/or intensity and ascent/descent) I often tried my best but simply do or do not get what they're trying to "say" (in music, not in libretto, in fact I almost never trust the libretto🙂 ). And it was a point back in Paris that I said MP's way of phrasing works for me, I think this is now settled what I mean, thanks to Anik's marking of her emphasis on "L", "g", "t" (now i get the fainting part🙂 ). Some other variations also work for me but of course it has to work as a whole within the flow of how the aria is delivered.

        To the point just mentioned above, Anne Murray's delivery is quite a discovery then for me as to why the group of C.Bartoli, A.Murray, and MP work (for brain): I find them very expressive. The emphasis can be different, but that's because they're emphasizing different things within that same line, but they have a point and manage to communicate that across. In fact, if I recall correctly, especially w/ A.Murray there's also quite a few breaks in the music line. In all these cases, with the exception of MP's Brussels take, I wouldn't have known that this aria is a "lyrical" one (though I did get a hint that it's not vocal gymnastics because after some time I discovered MP is at her best in lyrical phrasing..)

        And a last point: these 3 singers did it with expressiveness _without_ over-emoting. I don't know if this is a "correct" description, but to me that is so important: that all expressions are done via attention to the musical line, to intensity and emphasis and shaping, such that we can skip all the stagings and simply listening and we still "feel" the situation (instead of hearing pouting). Of course this is a bit of a cheat because now I constantly have in my head Paris.. and I had a discussion with Anik before where even with MP's Brussels's take, I simply can NOT remember the sequence in this staging (!! how can that be!) but somehow always automatically revert back to Paris, and perhaps surprisingly i got it to work with Paris!

        Finally, I do have my favorite "Lungi da te" (in case you didn't deduce yet): MP's Paris take. To my ears, she went for broke, in the dramatic sense, without sacrificing the meaning of the aria / scene (ignore the lyrical part for the moment as I already mentioned I didn't think it was..). When it is done this way you feel so strongly for the character, the situation, the desperation.. and I think that's arts at its highest level. There are so many more details in this aria as you (Anik) have pointed out, but a few stand-outs sometimes suddenly reveal the character deeply to me, and I'd say the 3 biggest differences I mentioned above are what made MP's take stood out for my brain (thanks to Anik's post, this post!). Following that I like equally MP's Brussels as well as C.Bartoli's amazingly expressive take, which from the rhythm and phrasing points are quite similar I find. Finally, A.Murray's take, to about the same speed as MP's Paris take works for me, even though the context is very different (in hearing): Sifare seems to have more a conversation to self instead of pleading to existence… A.Bonitatibus sits somewhere right at the center between categories (i) and (ii) and perhaps on a given day it might work and next not..

        On an interesting note, C.Oelze's take is worth a listen for its (world?) record length of 6min!! and faster sections A than B !! it was sooooo fast I simply couldn't quite figure out *how* to get it to work in my head… and then B simply slowed down to relatively crawling speed, which actually sort of works in the pleading sense.. before the 100m-dash-sectionA came back again… Anyone interested in this I can put it up.

        (also in case anyone is interested, here's C.Bartoli's take.)


        1. Still need to digest this in-depth and listen, listen, listen (oh, I know what I will do on my way to the airport later!) but Thank You So Much for sharing this, for taking the time to describe your impressions and making it accessible for all of us. Ironically, part of my weekend conference is on processes of knowledge and presenting/preserving knowledge away from encyclopedias and connecting knowledge with people again, to get it out of a purely intellectual realm and make it more about communication – this would be a perfect example!



        2. Oh that will be fun to follow in on your detailed comparisons as soon as I get to it! Yes please to Oelze’s version and could you maybe also put up C. Karg’s version, I’m very interested in that one?


          1. For completeness, let me just list all 10 here🙂
            (1) Dame Kiri (see link in main post)
            (2) A.Bonitatibus, Munich 2011,
            (3) M.Persson from Salzburg 2006,
            (4) C.Bartoli, recording
            (5) Anne Murray, London 1993
            (6) E.Gruberova 1991,
            (7) C.Oelze, Norrington 1997,
            (8) C.Karg, cd recording,
            (9) MP’s Brussels,
            (10) MP’s Paris.


          2. ps- i just posted a comment with all the links and I know it ends up in the spam box somewhere… Anik, when you have a chance to rescue it could to toss this comment? (I typing while re-listening now to A.Murray…)


          3. Thank you for the link list – much appreciated! I just saw it in the coffee break and rescued it.


        3. My compliments on this structured approach, thadieu, meeting scientific principles beyond musicology, e.g. I love how you relate all your observations to ‘effectiveness for your brain’, thus making clear the context in which your ‘study results’ are valid (and of course no one could argue with you about your results being true or not).

          Even before hearing my way through your list, I noticed that your group (i) contains many singers I personally admire and after hearing most of the versions, I was actually tempted to calculate Spearman’s r on the negative correlation of our preferences here, with Anne Murray seeming to be the lowest common denominator. I’m exaggerating of course and let me add that this does not mean I don’t like the versions you singled out in (ii) but on spontaneous hearing I would have singled out more of category (i). What I further notice is that category (i) on average contains lighter voices with brighter timbre, while category B would be mainly comprised of more voluminous, and often darker coloured voices. So, I’m not saying it is as simple as that, but, with regard to your criterion of how well the different versions transported ’emotion’, could it be, that your brain responds better to emotions when transported by voice types fitting cat. (ii). while quite the opposite would be true for my brain, for whatever reasons? I’m only playing around here, don’t take it too seriously. But, in general I think it is not possible to sing this aria at a high level without being emotionally involved, so this would basically be true for all versions here and I do hear lot’s of emotion in singer’s of (i), although it may often be more subtly delivered. But I agree with you, it is hard to meet MP’s level of ‘desperateness’ and I do like her version for it’s authenticity even if MP’s voice does not really fit my usual voice preferences within early music (as I said earlier, I loved her Rusalka :-)).

          C. Karg’s version was one I was particularly interested in so let me add some brief impressions on that: Apart from my personal preference for this type of voice her transport of emotions worked well for me here and I had a clear feeling of yearning from her building of line and phrasing, also, she has this occasional slight nuance of breathlessness working well in this context. The best part of this version for me were at bars 50 to 60 with Karg wonderfully working out ‘che provi, o cara, in te’ in bar 55/56, followed by an organic crescendo over the easily delivered two octave-ascend and ending with a smart, and just slightly unconventional trill. The only thing I did not like so much about her performance was that at some points she was doing what could maybe be described as ‘over-phrasing’, accentuating BEne“ or „DIo“ a tiny bit too much (you mentioned some approaches seemed at bit ‘rehearsed’, thadieu, maybe she was asked to deliver more ’emotion’ here?)

          Oh, and before I forget: Cecilia Bartoli in the B part: ‘military-driven determination’, chuckle, yes, I can hear that!


          1. many thanks Agathe, for your very nice (and highly diplomatic <– meant in the most respect and peace sense🙂 ) response as well as going through the samples. Actually even before you replied I already thought we would have a negative correlation given your original response to Anik's post, which motivated me to "investigate" further. And it's also true that after I posted my findings I saw a clear pattern between my categories and brightness + lightness. I agree with you that it is most certainly true I'm responding better to the cat (ii) voice type and thus "hear" clearer the emotions and that all singers do express emotions and it's a matter of what one (can) hear. I would even go further and say it is likely that due to my zero music background/training I can not hear subtle distinctions (e.g., by the time I hear someone is out of tune they 're likely *very* out of tune). That, in combination with my disclosure that I don't listen often to "high + bright + light" voices due to issues of headaches, it's most likely I can not hear the difference between "very bright" to "bright" but resolve much better "dark to bright" (ears resolving texture/color contrast).

            As I was fully aware my investigations are always very subjective given that the measure is “how I hear things” rather than based on any objective scale / technical details (which I can’t tell / have no training for), I always make it clear right at the beginning. It does not necessary mean my hearing are not any more valid than yours or that yours are more/less divine (the typical sling shots commenters on youtube hurl at each other). It points to the larger picture (in my opinion) that we human perceive sounds very differently depending on our past experiences (and physical makeups?), and that an engaging conversation like this and/or at the theater are great for wider understanding / appreciation of diversity and should enrich life. And most importantly, because I am very aware that I don’t necessarily hear what others do, I always tell people to not rely on my opinion or any supposed critics but be there for themselves to experience the arts live (and have hopefully a lively and fascinating conversation afterward).

            Lastly, we do have a researcher here who is also extremely knowledgeable of music theory (and practice), and we exchange a lot of discussions on music and hearings, and he made a comment which I think I should do: have my brain measured at some point while listening to music, because we’re quite certain which part of mine that lit up will be very different to those who have musical training (or even to the general public..).

            ps- oh, on the resolving contrast, I have a bit of a laugh thinking how for those who can hear very tiny distinction well, it might be falling off the chair for them to hear, for example, VK’s register break🙂 .

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Thank you, all of you, for the continued respectful discussion – respectful of the voices (and the people behind them) and of each other. It is among my favorite things about maintaining this blog that the comment space is nothing like the petty fighting one often encounters on YT. And that is all thanks to you, and your willingness to be kind and patient and take the time and listen to each other as we listen to music. And I thank you for that.

            Of course this is a small, hidden niche and our conversations are more those of a private salon than those of a crowded station hall. We do tend to know each other better, and write a little more in depth, and I am honored that you keep coming back, and turn this place into what it is.

            I’ll return to our music/listening discussion later – at times, I wish my students had more of this level of reflection (although that is unfair of me; in my experience being kind in communication takes a lot longer to learn than being smart (and I am not excluding myself there)


            Liked by 1 person

          3. Thanks thadieu, and just one more thing on our discussion: please do not think your brain lacks the sensitivity to respond to subtle aspects of singing, concluding from the way you write about music I would rather think the opposite (and noticing somebody is out of tune is a different story I’d say). I just meant in my post, that we all might be able to better to relate to choices of interpretation and emotional involvement in voices who appeal to us more.   


          4. Oh, this was a lot of food for thought – thank you, Agathe.
            As someone who is like thadieu, generally much more prone to react to lower voices (and transgression of gendered sound spaces and perceptions of power might play a role in that), I am trying to see whether my reaction perhaps limited by that preference.
            And it is curious because usually, my preferences to voices in Early Music is much more purist, yet I recognize that two of the performances that really reached me the most, out of anything I’ve ever heard, in a sense that my brain literally shut down, are castings of Early Music with modern voices – namely Papatanasiu’s Sifare and Naglestad’s Alcina. And Naglestad is a lot more dramatic than MP, but she is very musical in how she thinks her accent work (and, as stated elsewhere, I think Alcina is a role that manages to accomoate a broad scope of soprano types) and it clicked for me on a level that is beyond rational reasoning, even though I *know* that it was and “odd” casting.
            So of course the part of me who has been taught to think about music with historical and formal knowledge, and which has been taught to appreciate “correct” Early Music stances is a bit embarrassed by how in these instances, I throw all that overboard and perhaps fall for that very 19th century direct-drama approach that I usually scoff at *sigh*
            The perfect poise of the lighter-voiced Sifare’s (Oelze is gorwing on me, btw – the “Lungi da te” is so far the most boring part of the 1997 take. Her Sifare has far more game in the recits) is much more genuinely Baroque, but then we’re again at the crossroads of our patterns of perception and emotion and of how we watch and listen have changed (most profoundly through anthropological shifts in the late 18th century) so even if we replicated a 1770 performance perfectly, we would not have the same reaction to it. And perhaps we get closer to that reaction when we “translate” things into today’s perception patterns and find a mediating stance between pedantical purism and ahistorical oblivion (putting it harshly)?

            I also enjoyed Karg – the two octave scale stood out to me, too – and her take is Baroque for me in that it is always mediated: I listen and I don’t think “God, she’s dying”, but I think “Oh, she does a very intelligent choice in thinking about how to portray anguish here, this is good!” i.e. I remain aware of her *work* here (with MP, those two things collapse into each other for me). I found her to be very Bauhaus and purist in really going for the flawless line and small color variation in many instances, and in the way she structures, it’s obvious she’s intelligent. Just as you said, very much her own take. (oh, that Ginevra should be intriguing, especially next to JDD’s unabashed 120% and-at-’em approach.)


          5. Wouldn’t it be very boring if we always stayed within our preferred „category“ of voices? Your example of being taught to like purist approaches in early music and then being struck by something else is very indicative of the boundaries of analysing music by ‘objective’ means, I think. This was actually always something I didn’t like about theoretical musicology, but your posts have made it interesting and fun for me again, thank you for that!
            ‘transgression of gendered sound spaces’ that’s interesting. Having spent the afternoon on the couch with a sick child and listening to the Salzburg Mitridate, I’d say I definitely fall for the boyish timbre of this Sifare within a very ‘female’ tessitura (Deborah York would be a similar case). Also, it’s very interesting to just listen to this, having to leave acting, looks and staging completely aside because sometimes I think it’s difficult to get to the bottom of which aspect is mainly determining our preferences for a singer.
            Oh, and I like Naglestadt’s Alcina, too and don’t find her overly dramatic, she has volume but keeps it light here (a bit similar to Fleming’s Alcina maybe?), maybe this character even requires a more outgoing expression of emotions and a purely purist approach wouldn’t meet the personality of this woman (particularly in the later arias)?


          6. A Get Well Soon to your little one!

            Musicology is a minefield in that I don’t like snobbism à la “you can only truly appreciate this when you understand the mechanics of it”. You can love something just as well without knowing anything about it. But knowing some mechanics can also be pleasant. It should just never be used to exclude other listeners.

            Good point on Alcina – I think Handel is actually moving towards a more later 18th century type of role “psychology” with the character.

            Oelze’s Sifare, I find vocally well acted especially in the recits, and independent of the soundspace. Or is it another, very gay , kind of thrill to hear a very feminine-marked voice wooing a female character? In the whole Salzburg take, I enjoy the boys, but am rather lukewarm about the ladies.



          7. Regarding Oelze’s voice the point for me is that, apart from the range, I don’t hear it as very feminine. The quality of her timbre makes her very believable as a male character in my perception, and is this just me or is anybody else hearing that? Lukewarm for the ladies in contrast, yes exactly, I’d rather have Oelze’s Sifare end up with VK’s Farnace (and never mind they are brothers, since this is seria I’m sure this little problem could quickly be resolved by some unexpected turn of events, revealing they are not brothers after all).


          8. yes, nothing a little deus ex machina plot device couldn’t fix. Vocally, they make the most interesting combination in this entire take.

            Feminine sound or not: that’s a big issue right there – as in “are we already able again to listen to a soprano/mezzo sound space as gender neutral by default or is our first associaion/expectation still ‘feminine’ by default?” Because I’m not sure we’ve superated the bio-legycy of the 19th century to this extent yet. Working on it, though…
            But that leads to another important point, I think, for gender portrayals in singing: one thing (the not so interesting one) may be the absolute sound space inhabited/the tessitura, but then the far more interesting thing is the timbre (and in my opinion, timbre is ‘made’ to a good deal, through education and cultural patterns, as well as a result of given physiognomy) and finally the STYLE of singing.

            And in that, I find e.g. Oelze to sound in part feminine because her voice is light and high plus light in color, but how she then handles text with that “voice material”, I find to be pretty convincingly masculine (for a young, upper class man). Then again, this leads to the question of what we perceive as ‘masculine’ (much of it related to power/subjugation/assertiveness/confidence/active stance), which is another can of worms I should not open while at work.


          9. Oh, a lot of interesting food for thought again… With regard to the actual timbre in the narrower sense, I recently watched a Masterclass with B. Bonney on YT where she said that the timbre of a voice would to the largest extend be determined by anatomical factors and if one would try to ‘artificially’ change the natural timbre, this would not be heard by the audience or heard in a way of something not fitting, even if it would sound good in the ‘inner ear’ of the singer her/himself (my teacher says similar things). However, with Oelze’s Sifare, I can see how her handling of text as well as the energy she brings into this influences the vocal presentation of the character as you described and this might also, maybe subconsciously, influence the perception of a given timbre. I didn’t find this ‘masculine touch’ in her voice totally gone in her Pamina but much less pronounced.
            Maybe you’ll write a post about your can of worms some time?


          10. I’D need a few weeks on that one, likely!
            I would agree with Bonney in the physiology/physiognomy part. And I understand that most singers (since the way singing is taught, the rhetoric is still so much about “what is natural/what feels natural” and “finding one’s *real* *true* voice”) would frame it entirely that way. Being aware of how much cultural perception and aesthetics also influence voice teaching, and subsequently perhaps losing the confidence of “I have found my one true voice!” would be detrimental to a singer (and, ultimately their listeners).
            But is there “one true voice” for a person? In what style? At what time? In what culture?
            if we look at singing education, and how it has changed historically, and how the idea of what a “good” voice is has changed, too, I cannot help but think that some things we like to call “natural” are actually learned. Not the forms of our skulls and our bone structure, but an idea of heavy or light sound, of darker or lighter color, of how/where voice is produced, how much energy is suposed to be in the projection, how tight/dense/packed projection should be… I don’t believe that for each person, there is just one way to sing, or one “true voice” one has to find.
            A voice, even within a given styleset like belcanto, is in part a choice, even if it is not a conscious choice.
            It’s a difficult example perhaps, but just listen to how the idea of a “good” CT sound has changed over the past 50 years: that would be one recent example of how style on one hand and physics on the other hand meet in a murky middle ground called “timbre”.

            (now I need to revisit Oelze’s Pamina)
            (another good example is Marilyn Horne who has gone on record saying that she styles her voice differently for hero trouser roles and for young women characters. But then the question is where exactly we draw the line between “physiologically given timbre” and “chosen style”, even we can even clearly draw it)

            Thank you for the continued discussion!


          11. Hmm, this is a complex topic and one I’m really interested in. A real natural voice is of course by definition not possible in a trained singer. With regard to choices, my impression is, that parts of a voice’s „presentation“ can be chosen while others can’t and how much physiological flexibility there is to change the style of singing differs greatly between singers. This is of course also linked to the question if a singer sings roles from different periods or is specialized e.g. to early music or wagner and contemporaries. There are of course exceptional singers who can basically sing everything across different periods and be good at it, like Marylin Horne or, in our time, VK who may (within limits) conciously adapt their voice to the respective musical period and character for each individual role. For others, who are more specialized to a certain period (most likely because their vooices have characteristics optimal for a certain style, like volume or agility) I think opportunities for choices are more limited as they would usually stick to the style preferred in the repertoire they sing. In the end, a variety of character presentations is possible within a certain period but how much of that can be consciously changed by the singer or is trained and delivered subconsciously, or determined by anatomical factors is very difficult to say. I agree of course that factors like phrasing, projection and text handling are important and influenceable factors of character presentation but I would separate that from the actual timbre in the narrower sense.
            For my own singing I can say that, whenever I tried to consciously change the timbre, e.g. darkening the colour, it would go wrong, while, if the role fits the voice (not necessarily the singers personality) the presentation would immediately be much more convincing. (I hadn’t really seen myself as a ‘seductive minx’ before recently trying Zerlina again, but it was total fun). But then, things might be different for professionals of course.


          12. Thank you for this in-depth anwer, Agathe – loving it! (And of course now I want to hear your Zerlina take!😉 )

            Writing on timbre and choices feel somewhat schizophrenic because I judge it differently as someone who used to sing, and as someone who is a researcher interested in cultural frameworks.

            Because as a singer, I absolutely had the sensation of “this is natural, this works, this is the only way it can work, it feels right!” – which may, as you say, of course be different for professional singers who can change more elements of will due to technical prowess. (now it retrospect I ask myself if something else had felt “right” if my teacher e.g. had not been an Early Music singer, or if I had studied in earlier times, when other voices were considered beautiful, or in another place.)

            On the other hand, as someone coming from an angle of Cultural Anthropology (and I apologize, this blends into my job), I am dissecting every “this feels natural” and ask “why?”

            So I am torn. Ultimately, I believe that the border between physiological fact and stylistic choice is blurringthe closer we get to it – how have we learned to breathe, how have we learned to train and move or bodies? What have we been taught is beautiful, both in sound and beyond?

            Classically trained singing is a perfect topic here because, as you say, it is per se not “natural”. Yet how it is taught relies so much on describing things as “natural” and I find that fascinating (Hm, I may have to do an actual paper on that eventually!)

            Overall, perhaps my schizophrenia on this can be resolve by saying that I do not debate “naturalness” if looked at from the inside (as a singer, or singing teacher); I debate it more as a framework from the outside – the whole mechanics that by the time we perhaps begin to study singing we have already internalized simply by being part of a certain culture.


          13. Yes, I get your point and it is a fascinating subject with much more food for thought, thank you! I’m short on time now but I guess this topic mixes into many others so probably more discussions on this to follow…


  5. Really superb close technical analysis, Anik, extraordinarily observant, and written with Mozartean precision and lucidity. Criticism as art, a stellar performance.

    “The mimetic moment in music gradually converges with the rational, the control of the material; how they have worn each other away is their history.”

    Domingo has spoken of legato as the key to his gestural acting; each emotion, each motion, tied to the ones before, arising naturally, extending comprehensibly, conscious and subconscious mingling like control and expression, smooth and rough.

    “But why does he walk away?” The challenge for staging in a context other than the original libretto’s is to find coherent moment-by-moment motivations and reactions sufficient to tie the required actions (and music) together. Modern political maneuvers, West Wing style, offer plenty: ambition, distrust, conflicting loyalties, reluctance to commitment feared as vulnerability, over-excitement struggling with over-calculation. But a scenarist or dramaturg has to work these out, durchinterpretiert; otherwise the staging remains a set of visual metaphors, if stylish ones.


    1. Thank you, Duchess!

      And a very good point your are making on the technical craft aspect – how a concept does need cueing to be believable (Domingo’s legato image is lovely!), or to be consciously stylish in metaphors.



  6. I’m away from the computer for the weekend, but I didn’t want to let this masterpiece of a post go without popping by for a quick comment.

    THANK YOU, Anik, for the analysis and abundant screencaps (mmm, yes). As ever, I come to the table with mostly a theatre background, not a background in operatic technical experience, so reading the deconstruction of the aria has been very rich with new terminology and understanding for me.

    I want to make .gifs of a few of the moments where MP squeezes in expressions to communicate all of Sifare’s internal thoughts that have to be compressed in the few moments she’s given. She’s an incredibly talented actress in addition to everything else, and she’s the main reason this faster aria really works for me in spite of the slightly awkward staging. Ruiten does a very credible job responding to her, too, and I wish she had been given more opportunities for that in the production so that we could feel the connection throughout instead of only here.

    If I figure out the .gifs, I will be back to share them after the weekend. But if one must watch this aria 10-20 more times in the service of learning a new skill, so be it.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i might be able to help with the gif thing given that i’ve just figured out how to do it with my own tools, speed up or slowing as needed, and with any size, even cropped..


      1. Give a White Shirt sufficient inspiration and they will get anything done!😉
        Looking forward to the .gif work (for research purposes…)


  7. Wow, Anik, this is amazing. (And all the other thoughtful commenters as well!) I learn so much when you write posts like this, you help me understand my own responses to things like this and how to watch for the tiny moments that open up worlds.


    1. “opening up worlds” may the perfect phrase to describe what happens – like being reaffirmed in our humanity on a more intense level, framed with beauty that leaves a lingering sensation of being so very blessed.


  8. Since today was a holiday over here, I finally got the chance to watch this. (I know, reading all the posts and THEN watching seems backwards, but it works for me). MP is an incredible presence on stage, and I totally have a crush on Ruiten. 🙂 And yes while this particular scene did leave me breathless, the singing/acting (THE LOOKS, especially MP, how we do love the gaze!) from both of them so deft, overall the re-setting makes it feel like there’s not as much at stake as the music/text tell us there is. But still. This scene. MY.

    Now I want to see the Paris version. This is what I mean, Anik and everyone get me watching/listening to things I never would have expected.


    1. The pleasure in sharing (and shared fangirling) is entirely mutual! Shared joy, and all that.

      Oh, and if you would like higher stakes, watch Paris! (If you have trouble accessing it, send me an email and I’ll set you up)


  9. This is a somewhat belated response, but it was very interesting to read your comparison of Te Kanawa’s and Papatanasiu’s versions. Previously, I had not thought that MP’s singing was not anything other than smooth given my untrained ears, but your analysis of their differing approaches was very helpful in illustrating what sorts of choices go into the interpretation of a piece. Now I can appreciate MP’s acting here even more…


    1. Thank you! I am happy to hear that it was of use to you in appreciating the work at play here even more deeply.


  10. in looking for the source photo for your front cover of the blue bird, i got here (and found the source) . Really a lovely way to make the connection. and an opportunity for me to re-read and re-listen to this again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a partial manuscript (al destin is included, too) from 1770, available via IMSLP. Of course I could say that it was merely a choice mandated by the color scheme and the wish for some pretty sheet music… which would be a lie.😉 I wanted something that is meaningful to me, but I tried to pick a shot not that obvious to someone not familiar with the piece.


      Liked by 1 person

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