Review: Exquisite Heartbreak. Handel’s “Alcina” at Vienna Staatsoper (2016)

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[Curtain Call for “Alcina” at Wiener Staatsoper, Oct 20th, 2016. – This is the sort-of respectable review. For the inedited fangirl side notes, please refer to the extra post]

The headline is both misleading and not: yes, this evening is exquisite heartbreak, but it is tiptoeing the Vienna Staatsoper line that so often indulges in the exquisiteness of something over actually considering the heartbreak. This „Alcina“ revivial – of the 2010 Adrian Noble production – falls on both sides of the spectrum.

Slated as an addendum of sorts to the new Ivan Alexandre staging of „Armide“, this Handel evening is a second showing for Les Musiciens du Louvre who have taken over the Staatsoper pit for the rest of the month while most of the house crew is touring Japan. My initial fear that „Alcina“ would end up as a mere afterthought to „Armide“ was not confirmed – the evening sounds and looks as if has been allotted sufficient rehearsal time both in the pit and on the scene.

Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski open the evening with barely condensed verve. Theirs is an early music tone that comes, perhaps adapted to the sizable Staatsoper digs or a result of their work also on much later repertory, with notable muscle beneath the veneer, like a Grand Cru that by the second sip already lets you know that its body will go to your head.

Time and again in this evening, you are perfectly happy to listen to entr’actes and ballet music without wishing for a singer to show up. The pit’s take is elegant without being dainty, energetic without losing polish, and marvelously smooth without lacking depth. Several of the orchestra members make a detour to the stage, like the flutes for “Mio bel tesoro” where there tone remains full-bodied and without sharpness throughout – something to be repeated with emphasis for the piccolo flute in the end. I caught myself at several points glancing into the pit instead of at the stage, as Minkowski and some of his musicians were swinging along with their take at times, and I could see it in the people seated around me on the balcony, too: some heads bobbed, and some hands did not remain quietly poised.

Of course – as so often happens to me in Baroque opera – there was a point where I got starry-eyed over the theorbo (“Verdi prati”), but my heart last night belonged to the string section. Not just the outward displays like the beautiful solo cello work in “Credete al mio dolore”, but the strings as a body: the warmth and subtly velveteen sheen during “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” with its long-stroke notes. I don’t know what magic secret their bow work has, but there is one. Another moment is Oronte’s “Semplicetto, a donna credi?”, where I have never heard the eighth/sixteenth figure in the  intro played so perfectly unisono, so much more laugh than sharp giggle. Imagine a hairdo with every single hair tied in, but without using any hairspray or gel. Impossible? Yes. Unless you were in the Staatsoper pit last night.

There were also some of the trademark Musiciens du Louvre dynamic dazzle moments – in the sustained smooth fire of the Bad Dreams in the dream sequence ballet with its rhythmic crackle, or in the shimmering down into an impossibly silky piano for the B part of “Mi restanto le lagrime”, at which point I really could have used some of Alcina’s stage scotch.

The Noble production is a thankful vehicle in that it offers plenty of dazzle and prettiness in its stage-upon-a-stage concept (a curtain of light stars! A balloon! Breathtaking dress cuts! Bare-chested dancers! Jewels and high wigs!) and does not require deeply emotional scenic portrayals of anyone involved: The Duchess of Devonshire stages an opera performance with friends and family, who are at all times watched, pretending, and sliding in and out of the supposed fiction. That’s a free pass on Baroque free-stancing, and the evening will indeed still carry if you strike nothing more than a vocal pose.

Of course, it does make a notable difference if a singer starts to actually explore the emotional setting of that framework – to a point where the exquisiteness gives way to actual heartbreak and leaves, as in a stunning “Ah, mio cor” just before the break, the Vienna audience beyond its comfort zone. This “Alcina” is overall something you can enjoy at a distance from the outset; it is not designed to grab you scenically by the throat. Yet there were some such moments last night – unsurprisingly, most of them linked to Myrtò Papatanasiu, who displayed both ample technical mastery and commanding stage presence.

When the cast for this revival was announced, I was admittedly apprehensive about the blend of in part young ensemble members with one prestigious international name to headline it (though since the show was not advertised at all, that did not make much of a difference).

After this spring’s utterly underwhelming “Tito”, I was worried that this “Alcina” would get a B-Cast treatment unfair to everyone involved. After last night, I am relieved to report that I enjoyed both the performances of Bruns (Oronte) and Gritskova (Bradamante) far more than their contributions to “Tito” – the singing in this “Alcina” is, throughout, on a good level, also in relation to Handelian requirements.

Chen Reiss, the local audience darling whose Sophie in June left me somewhat cold, got to show off a much more differentiated middle range work right away with “O s’apre il riso” and came across with a more appealing, warmer tone. Her strongest showing, to me, wasn’t even “Tornami a vagheggiar” – in tone, “Credete al mio dolore” was the more interesting take. While pleasant and in command of the tone throughout, I didn’t get a strong connection to the text or to the scene (also owed to the stylized staging, perhaps), with her last aria coming closest to reaching out.

As her stage partner, the seasoned Benjamin Bruns added some welcome stage presence, second only to the Alcina of the evening. He offered both of his arias with an even, balanced tone (“Semplicetto, in donna credi” is better suited to him in tessitura, though) and sounded much more at home and at ease than in the “Tito” earlier this year.

Oberto was cast with a soprano from the Tölzer Knabenchor, who naturally did not have the heft or even range of the adults, but came through on all three arias. All arias were very well supported by the pit, careful to give structure, but not overpower, and garnered the soloist the instant affection of the audience.

I wholly enjoyed the likewise smooth and confident Melisso aria in the take of Orhan Yildiz where only the top range at the very end was a little bit of a stretch. Overall, I found this to be a signature point if the evening: one, that Minkowski managed to keep the pit at a level to allow the singers to sing unforced and with a focus on even tone, and two, that he obviously worked with them – notable especially in the ornamentation and in phrase length – to a point to give them this audible kind of confidence in a repertory that is not the usual fair at Vienna Staatsoper.

Margarita Gritskova is an emerging favorite with Vienna audiences, bringing an interesting, somewhat burnished, timbre to the stage. I found her more connected to the part as Bradamante than as Sesto, and while the part of Bradamante sits low for her (most notable in the final “All’alma fedel”), all of the heavy coloratura comes across perhaps not with outward verve, but with technical clarity: there was no fudging over notes. Given that she is not the lower tessitura powerhouse actually required for Bradamante (evident in “Vorrei vendicarmi”), Gritskova worked well within her vocal framework. Acting-wise, she grappled with her hairdo and hat, and while she delivered on a few scenic cues, she left me overall disengaged, with no connection to the text or actual embodiment of the affects allotted to her character.

In between Gritskova and the Ruggiero of Rachel Frenkel, Bradamante and Ruggiero came across as a youthful, somewhat hapless couple of Hansel and Gretel kittens who stumbled into the den of an Alcina who in comparison came across as a lioness on a prowl. As a dynamic, it was the most convincing angle to work with, and Gritskova and Frenkel balanced each other well, despite not transmitting outward chemistry (something arguably not really the point for Bradamante and Ruggiero, anyway).

I hadn’t heard Rachel Frenkel on the scene before. In this production, she has to wrangle the heavy – and DVD-documented – legacy of Kasarova, whose stage presence gave the original run a very different dynamic. Frenkel’s wide-eyed, gentle Ruggiero was a convincing approach, though. Since Ruggiero is a bit of milk toast per se, a light, even voice can convey him well, and Frenkel grows into the demanding part over the course of the evening, offering sincerity much more than aplomb. The more confidence she gains vocally in an audibly well-studied part (here as well: I could not find a single line of fudged coloratura), the more energy also flows into her somewhat airy stage presence: the sudden spike of energy in the reprise of “Sta nell’Ircana” is fueled by palpable relief. What stood out to me was a beautifully done “Col celarvi a chi v’ama“, which leads to Ruggiero, who is supposed to see, being blindfolded – a nice comment on the overall trompelœil.

Characteristic for Frenkel’s Ruggiero last night was, perhaps, her „Mi lusinga“. It does not have the luscious darkness of Kasarova, or the relentless, searching despair of Alice Coote, or the effortless glow of Maite Beaumont. But as Les Musiciens du Louvre made the da capo rise from the pit as something corporeal, Frenkel rose to the occasion and gave a sincere performance – her voice remains lightweight, even for a Ruggiero, but based alone on how she reacted to the evening around her, I am looking forward to revisiting her take in the upcoming days.

It would be unfair to measure this musically solid-and-upward cast against its leading lady, the Alcina of Myrtò Papatanasiu, who has more stage experience, but is also simply playing in another league.

A lyric soprano by vocation, Papatanasiu surprised me last night by how well and how intelligently she adapted her tone to fit Handel. It makes me curious to hear her with some Monteverdi, because it was not, as so often with “Alcina”, a case of Handel being sturdy enough for modern voices to sing and still work out. Rather, it was a case study in bringing that characteristic lyrical gleam to Handel’s own style. This was particularly obvious in the ornaments and phrase takes in the da capo parts.

Papatanasiu has worked repeatedly with Early Music directors and bands, and moves within Early Music idiom with good judgment and awareness of her limits. Last night, those were few and far between. The aria least fitted to her, sending her repeatedly into a more guttural middle range approach, is “Ma quando tornerai”, which she counteracted by not making it into a display of spitting fury, but giving it a lighter tone.

The core piece of the evening is a vocally and emotionally gripping “Ah, mio cor” right before the intermission, the mood for which is set by an intake of breath before the orchestra even sets in. And then it’s a ten-minute-class on perfect dynamic command of the line, while always using it to express. Over the precise slap-and-scratch ostinato from the pit, the “Stelle! Dei!” cries drop like pearls, yet they make you remember that that is what they actually are: cries.

Another moment of pit and soloist coming together is in the slow crescendo towards “Traditore!” in the reprise – the orchestra flexing its muscle in a way that would not be possible with a lighter Early Music voice. But more than those outbreaks, it was the small moments that were the most arresting, like the rhetorical take on the repeated “Perché? Perché?” which forced you to sit up at and listen, with the focus more on the heartbreak than on its aural exquisiteness. It is something that finds an echo in a moving “Mi restano le lagrime”, easily carried by a stage presence that never resorts to illustration, or in the First Act “Si, son quella”, where “se amar tu non mi vuoi” was topped by a miniature messa di voce that was less a display of vocal command (fine, that, too) than one of Alcina’s anguish.

After last night, I am wondering why Papatanasiu isn’t everywhere, and why she doesn’t get much more recognition.

Overall, a scenically and vocally pleasant revival that is moved to another level entirely thanks to the Les Musiciens du Louvre and Myrtò Papatanasiu knocking it out of the park.

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