[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 dme.mozarteum.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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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:
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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).
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):
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Another small bit that I found spot on was the little overwhelmed stumble Sifare offers up in reaction:
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.