Setting the scene: this sky above was my view as I exited the Metro. Also, all of my curtain call shots are so wacky that they don’t really fit here. The highbrow review is down here. This is not a review, this is just snark and fangirling.
Okay. Have we lost everyone? Is it just us now?
Okay, then onto the *real* reviewing. You thought that other review was already 100% fangirling? Hoboy. Nope. (I almost put this post behind a password wall because it is snarkier than what I usually post, and also because it is very subjective and personal – I may still lock it up, when I see that it gets too much traffic. I also blanked out some of my unfiltered personal notes. Highlight at your own risk.)
First of all, can we take a moment for this season’s Vienna main curtain? I will be very disappointed if it is not called “The Socialist Orpheus” because it looks exactly like the public school wall/library reliefs that greeted me on every street corner when I was still living in a formerly communist part of Europe.
Cast for the night: all accounted for. That’s also about the amount of advertisement (and the amount of pictures – a total of four, two of them of the balloon, and all from the 2010 run) this show has been getting this season. I get that it may not be necessary to sell the show, but please pimp your own cast a little? No?
Musiciens Du Louvre in the house! – Excitement building at 6.20 p.m. – AAAaaaaaaah!!
Supernova effect at last night’s curtain call: strangely fitting for the evening. Also, while you don’t really see anything, but for ethnographic and documentary interests, here’s the first solo curtain for Papatanasiu last night.
And now I will simply assume that everyone who has scrolled past all the wacky candid shots and chatter all the way down here is one of you regulars, so onto the things that are not in the review. I will not even try to have a modicum of decorum here (it’s just us, right?), just as last night – I mean, I tried to play it cool, but there were the musicians assembling in the pit, and then the curtain rose and you see the palace hall with the blue chaise front left and I went from “un po’ di dignità” to “the curtain opens I’m dying PS feel free to place my body on that chaise” in under two seconds.
Overall, and this is in more detail in the review: Les Musiciens du Louvre were amazing, and Minkowski was all but swinging along on the podium, too. I really should try to hear them live more often again. I was surprised by how much muscle they let show – but then again, the Staatsoper is a big house – and I think it’s in some way the later repertory they also play making them a little more flexible in this regard.
You all know I went to this show for three reasons, in the following order: 1) Myrtò Papatanasiu, 2) Myrtò Papatanasiu, 3) Myrtò Papatanasiu. No that’s not quite true, it would actually be be 1) Myrtò Papatanasiu, 2) Les Musiciens du Louvre, 3) Marc Minkowski 4) it’s ALCINA I don’t need any reason pass me the smelling salts.
Yes, it’s “Alcina”. One of the queer-friendliest opera around, too (if you keep the countertenors out of it. Sorry, boys). And how could I have forgotten how deliciously queer this production concept is? When this show first opened, I found the look of it odd, and the aristocracy-roleplaying concept a little sought-out. Well, once you get past the trouser cuts and embrace the color scheme, it’s wildly appealing.
So, the concept is that the 1700s Duchess of Devonshire is staging a little opera with her social circle. With a good lady friend as Ruggiero. With her own child as Oberto and her own husband as the discarded Astolfo (*snort*). With her sister as Morgana, her brother-on-law as Oronte, and some other relative as Bradamante. (Bradamante was not my main focus this past night)
It leads to a stage-on-a-stage situation, which can be trite, but it works out here. The Staatsoper stagings and their frequent and short-term cast changes don’t allow for deeply psychological productions à la Herheim, so giving this a framework where you have pretty scenery and costumes to gaze at and where any lack of acting or acting involvement can be covered by a Baroque-looking pose is a pretty smart decision. Some people, last night, did not act that much (basically, everyone except the lead). Some tried. Some failed. Some didn’t even try, by the looks of it.
But back to when the scene opens and the relatives swarm in, and the trained White Shirt eye is immediately drawn to the wide-skirted figure in the red riding jacket with black gloves and a Napoleonic hat – hello, Lady Ruggiero. We would recognize that swagger even in a crinoline. Interestingly, that was the most commanding moment Rachel Frenkel had on stage last night.
The Duchess aka Alcina walks in last [edit Oct. 24th: she actually walks in first. Don’t ask me what I was hallucinating on Thursday] and this is going to sound trite and embarrassingly crushtastic, but there is something about Papatanasiu’s stage presence that gives the impression that the lights are suddenly turned up two notches when she walks in. I swear it’s not just me. It’s not just the light design, either. (on a side note, the light design is exceptional, and was, from what I could see – apart from occasional focus loss (people stepping too far back/front) – very well cued. Props to the light crew!)
So while I still try to recover from Alcina walking in and am swept up in all the whirling skirts and frocks on stage and OH MY GOD I am actually seeing Papatanasiu live and, what, wait a minute, did Alcina just kiss Ruggiero in passing?! Am I having wishful hallucinations? Either way: gay-o-meter set to rainbow unicorns and coloratura sparkles by minute 3.
But instead of bringing this up to a the Kylie-Minogue-and-Cher-and-Madonna level, the first encounter between Morgana and Bradamante then kind of fizzles away like a misfired New Year’s cracker. MG’s Bradamante focuses on the awkwardness of being propositioned (and on her pose), while Morgana delivers a technically very fine aria that didn’t tell me anything about attraction. Then again, perhaps it should have been about attraction to a pose, or a hat.
When Lady Ruggiero reemerges as Youth Ruggiero (and we stop sighing in memory of Kasarova, which is unfair but also kind of unavoidable), we all take a deep breath (and when the Duchess reemerges as Alcina in the greenery, we all – just like in 2010 – miss a breath).
RF’s Ruggiero seems to stumble somewhat forlornly through the halls of this ducal palace, though the insecurity works as an angle (if you’re playing a milk toast, you can get away with it). In RF’s stage presence, you can see the still self-observing body placement that usually stems from lack of experience and/or training, e.g. the lack of floor contact that comes with a slightly unfocused handling of cues, or the lack of clear direction of impulses when you’re overwhelmed by your surroundings instead of commanding them. There are poses or gestures that are not filled up with meaning, and meaning will not drop from the sky because you strike the pose: the pose should arise from the meaning instead. All of this was most obvious in comparison to Papatanasiu’s Alcina, who commands space easily and who is not prone to empty gestures. Sometimes, less is more. Part of that confidence is experience, but part of it is also technique that gets taught too little.
But you’re not here for performance theory, you’re here for “Di’, cor mio”.
Did the house burn down? No, it did not. This Ruggiero was more on the overwhelmed-shy end of the spectrum than at the passionate-confident one
(not that we don’t feel your intimidation, Brother Milk Toast, but this won’t really cut it) My notes on the aria still amount to “sorry, brb dying”, but that was more due to Alcina.
Papatanasiu excels in acting off the physical energy of her stage partners, but since there was not that much forthcoming on that front last night, she was stuck with giving most of the cues. The aria pans out as a segue of teasing choreography that never delivers on its premise. If there is any point in this revival where you see that Alcina and Ruggiero are in love, it is not happening here.
Papatanasiu’s voice carries differently in a live show – there is a clear gleam, like an additional top layer, to her tone that gives it an extra shine. She moved through her first aria with remarkable ease, good focus and an impressive grasp on Baroque ornamentation – the little speed and dynamic things that usually only come with lots of work in the field.
My notes read, “MP needs a steak. Also, this is so gay, thadieu, you are going to die. – Oh God, the dress: where is a polite girl supposed to look? Oh right, there is also singing…OH HELP!”
I know we just spent a weekend talking about sexism and how women get objectified. I don’t want to do that, and I usually refuse to comment on singers’ bodies, but that dress is all sparkles and shoulders and far too generous amounts of skin and it is really, really distracting. I tried not to notice it. I failed. (though it’s not objectification as much as grateful recognition of beauty. I hope there’s a difference.)
Since the stage energies in this evening roughly translate to “cute litter of kittens meets lioness who prowls around them in circles”, the aria didn’t approach Stuttgart levels of anything. (le sigh)
Yes, stage energy. I half expected Bradamante to break out into the Habanera and not into “È gelosia” – I found the singer’s timbre less striking here (and I could not fathom how this aria garnered the first scene applause of the evening – neither could the standing room opera queens behind me who murmured among them). Every note was sung, and sung well, and the coloratura was fully executed, but on stage, nothing happened other than the singer listening after herself and struggling with her sword. Props to the clean coloratura, but the coloratura was not telling me anything about the character. The mere thought of Iervolino in her place had more sizzle than that entire scene had, and If I had to sum this up in one song, it would be If I had a Hammar(ström).
BB’s Oronte had more stage presence and was a welcome change of scenery, and I don’t think I ever said that before in an “Alcina”. But then Alcina walked back in through the greenery and Papatanasiu’s voice continued to carry extremely well through “Sì, son quella” – which is not a flashy aria at all, and allowed a deeper look at Papatanasiu’s technical prowess and phrasing: small dynamic changes, even and immediate response of tone, a bit of messa di voce, a very clean interpolated top note, all while keeping the sound slender. To quote from my notes: “Damn, she is good. Please sing Monteverdi. This is limpid tears. Why is there no scene applause? How can there be no applause??”
Side note: the mere sight of her back as she walked away had more presence than any action taking place in the foreground. Which brings me back to that dress. Sparkles. Shoulder lines. Pass me the smelling salts.
The up to then funniest moment of the evening was Melisso’s epic eyeroll when he motioned for Bradamante to say no to Morgana’s advances, and Bradamante defiantly said yes. Sadly, there was no follow-up to that (even the awkwardness looked put-on) and we don’t quite figure out why Bradamante agrees – to stick it to Ruggiero, with an “you may kiss Alcina, but I kissed her little sister, and forgot my Valentine”? Because it’s not because there is any sizzle between Morgana and Bradamante.
The following “Tornami a vagheggiar” flew easily – everything was technically good, but it didn’t carry over into the scene. There was no seductive energy at all, not the breathless giggle of Petibon in the Paris staging, or the ‘I can heat up the room just by talking about a person while I am alone on a concert stage’ by Anna Devin. – Ah…excuse me, where was I?
The staging also does not seem to look for a deeper take on Morgana – she dances around with everyone and sings, and there is never any conflict about feeling drawn to Bradamante and dismissing Oronte (whom I really liked here).
Ruggiero’ dreamy accompagnati before and after “the ring” were beautiful and there is a brief spike in scene energy when he supposedly recognizes Bradamante, whose “Vorrei vendicarmi” belonged entirely to the pit. MG got all the notes, very well, yet did nothing with them. If you think e.g. of Delphine Galou’s firecracker showdown for this aria, you just want to weep (again, I don’t think the casting was completely fair to MG, either).
RF meanwhile improved notably during “Mi lusinga” and was more convincing when not trying to outwardly act something – singing it was enough.
And then there was the one moment of the evening that actually sizzled romantically, which was Alcina, hurt and feeling that she is losing Ruggiero, dancing with him. She does it very slowly, very deliberately and carefully – afraid to spook him, yet desperate to reach out, and both of them get caught up in their prior romance. That’s a moment where actually something happens between two characters.
And there’s flutes, there’s “Mio bel tesoro”, there Martha needing to sit down for a moment. (Notes: “God thadieu if you could only see this!”) I live for Alcina lounging on chaises and seducing hapless mezzo kittens. (God, did I actually just type that out?)
But enough with the fun. I have notes on “Ah mio cor!” – most of which are illegible because it was dark and I kind of landed on another planet.
This aria is the centerpiece of the evening. It reaches out more than any other and as you can see (or not) in my notes, the scene worked even before any note was sung: it was one of these instances where the singing was an organic extension of the heightened turmoil of a character. The scene starts with an intake of breath before the orchestra sets in, and actually, you’re already swooning at that breath because it already transmits the situation.
And then the orchestra does set in and they manage to make it a pulse that is constantly restless, an ostinato that is never at ease – it’s small, crunchy bow movements in the strings, and I watched on in fascination in how they created this drive. Basically, I felt like crying before there even was any singing.
But then there is singing. And acting. And they’re kind of one and the same. The technical level Papatanasiu shows, especially in the A part, is astonishing. My notes say, at some point, ‘she’s got this’, because that was the impression: all ranges (and fine, this scene is mostly middle and up, up and away) responded evenly and with focus. She was at all times in control in tying down notes or opening them up a little, in shading in small color nuances, in executing those perfectly controlled but not-too-tight, not-too-measured crescendi and decrescendi that already bewitched me so in her Brussels Sifare.
And apropos Sifare – Alcina has to drop, and it was the same ‘the moment is taking my legs out from under me’ fall that some of us may recall from the Paris “Lungi da te”. Which, apropos, for a second I half expected Petibon to rush onto the scene to not quite reach out.
The scene: it is dark, and the light-string stars above are fading and it is just one very well-lit soprano in the dark singing her heart out. In other words, it’s perfection – if a singer can carry it. And Papatanasiu can.
If anything, this aria showed how well she is in command of her instrument, and how she always seems to focus on what a moment is expressing beyond just beautiful sound. There is not much movement: A fall, slowly getting up, standing briefly on a chair, crawling over to the chaise (oh, that chaise. I think when they eventually retire this production in about 50 years, thadieu and I will escape with our canes from the Shady Belcanto Pines retirement home, steal it, and put it into the living room) – there is no outward action, there is not much motion, yet the scene is the most riveting of the evening, and it’s all due to the incredible level of expressiveness: deeply involved singing, deeply moving – and stylistic choices that reach into the music. In the other review (the on that is actually a review and not me fainting all over the post), I mentioned the rhetorical take on “Perché? Perché?” with the first one cut short, as if losing breath over tears, unable to make sense of a situation, and the second drawn out in helpless question, and it relates on a visceral level to the universal feeling of loving someone whom you are losing.
There’s the perfectly even cries of “Stelle! Dei!” that sound indeed like cries even as they are not hurting any laws of legato or belcanto at large. I had to think of Naglestad (my reference point for this part, in many instances), whose larger voice always needed a bit to fit into these. With Papatanasiu, there was no friction: the voice responded smoothly and instantly. (minor quibble: in the faster B part and its middle range section, the voice was not as focused as during the rest, but the rest was simply otherworldly, including the freer take on the da capo with an unstrained interpolated top note that was of course tied into the expression). The singing and handling of line structure is on such a high level here that in the end, when there was friendly applause to welcome the intermission, I did not understand how people were able to move and talk at all, and if they were, why there were not clapping frenetically to celebrate the level of mastery they had just been able to witness. My finale note in this reads, as you can see above, Why is this woman not everywhere? Why???
(Actually, on “Ah, mio cor”: could we make this is a permanent Papatanasiu fixture? Giving her a big scene of pining away for a mezzo or a soprano in the middle of every opera she sings, no matter what her part is? Because she slays that. coughlungidatecough)
After the intermission, there was “Verdi prati” – and as much as I appreciated RF’s sincerity and growing confidence, her voice is overall a very light choice for Ruggiero, and you could see that she struggled with the heft and had to breathe differently than a heavier voice would have.
Of “Ombre pallide”, I cannot make out my own notes anymore. I had the impression Papatanasiu needed a minute to get back into the scene after the utterly intense aria before the break, but she caught herself quickly, quite unlike me. It’s not her best aria in this evening – though she does them all well – because it’s mostly coloratura lines, and she has not much of a chance to musically shape word expressions small-scale, or to work with large, spun lines. In this, you notice the lyric soprano core, and I wondered throughout this year how to express this, the sensation I get that when Papatanasiu sings Rossini, or coloratura-heavy Early Music, and she sings it well, but it does at times not sound like her core repertory? It is the lyric soprano gleam being a kind of mother-of-pearl veneer that reflects the musical ‘light’ differently: like a slight lag. And in repertory that is geared towards different voice types, that was not written for this kind of veneer (matte dramatic voices, round belcanto polish, ‘untreated’ Early Music voices), you notice that, and it sometimes catches the musical ‘light’ in a different manner.
Back to “Ombre pallide” and my hieroglyphs: I can only tell you that it’s Alcina and a sparkling magic wand and, yes, thank your fates that I am not into Lacan that much, and then there’s a ballet, I think, with topless guys, but it might have been unicorns or stuffed teddy bears because Alcina sinks onto the blue chaise (the chaise again!) with the end of her aria, and as my notes say, “My brain kind of stopped processing at the sight of Alcina dropping onto the chaise.”
The ballet music was marvelously played, though, detailed and elegant and soft, then vibrant and rhythmic and still elegant, but never dainty, and the first thing I will do once this Alcina/Armide run is through is get out my Musiciens du Louvre recordings to play them on a loop until Christmas.
My notes for “Credete al mio dolore” draw hearts around the continuo cello, and state – “CR sings this beautifully, but does not transmit as much”. And then they read, “In which world does CR get more scene applause than MP?” Next line: “Les Musiciens du Louvre even make that second Oronte aria very appealing” Generally, I wait for that one to pass quickly because the next thing coming up is “Ma quando tornerai”. Papatanasiu does not go for spitting fury here, something which both Harteros (lirico spinto) and Naglestad (lirico spinto reaching well into dramatic territory by now) do, and it is a smart choice: she does it much lighter, giving it more a shade of very cold shoulder (very nice cold shoulder. Nice and cold and covered in sparkling jewelry. Yes, yes, I’m shutting up. Just hand me that Scotch. With extra ice. I don’t even like jewelry) and glaring daggers at him. There was some coloratura involved that sounded not as focused, but that’s the thing with Alcina: you’ve got six arias in vastly differing styles, and you will naturally have some that fit you better than others (of course, this being Papatanasiu, she found a ways to sell all six of them expressively, but her core pieces? Those are the slow pining ones. My “Ah, mio cor” notes read “I’m dying” for a reason!)
Next up was “Sta nell’Ircana, kittykittykitty…”
It was another case of RF having to balance her lighter timbre with a powerhouse aria (and it is unfortunate that most of us will immediately recall Kasarova here). In her favor: she gained in confidence and verve in the reprise, and I got at all times the impression that she was not standing there in love with her own tone, but that she was trying to sincerely inhabit the role.
“Sta nell’Ircana” also showcased the pit once more, and the band’s and Minkowski’s consideration of singers: The orchestra went wild for the interlude with the horns, loud accents, wonderfully bodied strings, but as soon as the voice set it, they turned it down to a simmer that still had the verve, but made sure not to overpower the voice.
Then there’s Bradamante’s “All’alma fedel”, during which she strips to a skirt and corsage, and MG’s movements became palpably more at ease as of that point, also in interacting with the choir staring at her transformation. The low tessitura of the aria was not working in her favor – again, not to blame on her, but it made her push – and my notes read something like “But the pot is great!” only that it probably doesn’t say ‘pot’. I give up. I should not try to take notes in the dark while emotionally overwhelmed.
Which. Apropos. “Mi restano le lagrime”.
Yes. The strongest moments of the evening are indeed the slow arias with just the lead soprano on stage in the near dark, bottle of Scotch optional.
PS. Make that a double please thank you and also I might need some extra ice.
The scene is beautifully set: as the music starts, Alcina dances sadly by herself, recalling the earlier, happier choreography with Ruggiero, but now she is without him, half reaching out for someone not there. Les Musiciens du Louvre are setting out a sound that — “oh God, we have reached the point where she quotes Rilke!” Yes, we have. Sorry. — reminded me of the Rilke lines about the fountains in the park at night: the water faucets are off, but it feels as if the memory of them still lingers in the air.
And then you’ve got another slow, pining aria which has this Gluck-Orpheus feel of being pure sadness, especially when it comes to the modulation in the B part, for which the pit shimmers down into the silkiest pp you have ever heard, and wraps around the voice that ascends in that bright sadness, with just the line and barely any ornaments to work with.
One of the servants brings a scotch at this point, and Papatanasiu settles into a nicely varied repetition of the A part (some catchy melodic and rhythmic spins there) on the chaise (that chaise again. In case you had forgotten about it). It’s just a few quiet gestures on a dark stage, lit only by a single side spot: opening the bottle, slowly pouring a glass. Fingers on the crystal stopper, a moment of hesitation, gently setting it back on the bottle. Finally, when all is said and sung, Alcina rises the glass to her lips.
It is a moment that could easly slip into voyeuristic consumption of wallowing heartbreak, but it is a moment that stays, precisely because it manages to avoid that kind of larmoyance.
The following last Oberto aria basically is there to have Alcina try out for javelin throwing (and you have to think of Rosalind’s 3rd Act cries in “As You Like It” with this Diana reference: “…was furnished like a hunter. – Oh, ominous! He comes to kill my heart!”), but of course little Oberto does not want to skewer Astolfo/Mr. Duchess Devonshire, and Alcina has to do a lot of artful posing, and circle-prowling and staring and glaring and the house was smart enough in all runs so far to hire a soprano who can sell that kind of posturing.
On a very related note: when then Bradamante and Ruggiero walk out like the hapless Hansel and Gretel kittens they are here, the figure drawing focus is still Alcina, who all but prowls through the greenery with nothing but her stance and an arc look.
At one point in Act I, my notes say “There is more chemistry between this Alcina’s back and one of the dangling star lightbulbs than between Ruggiero and Bradamante in the whole evening.”
And there is one final point where something happens between characters, and that’s the “Non è amor, nè gelosia” trio, which indeed feels at first like Hansel and Gretel scattering in fear of the witch, after they try defiantly to make out in front of her (which we all comment with Alcina’s tired eyeroll because, yeah, *that’s* convincing. And that was the biggest attempt at action this evening sees. I could have done without it – either, actually sell making out, or focus instead on other meaningful gestures, but make them charged! Let me go off on a tangent here for a minute: There are smaller bits between e.g. Alcina and Ruggiero that might not convey mad passion, but they work as romantic tension at least. And those things are not the awkward half-kissing of a neck, or sliding hands up hips in a a way that make very clear that they have not been there before much. Rather, it is, in this evening, in the moments of decisively reaching out to curl a hand into another, or sliding a foot up someone else’s leg, or leaning back just a little more in one’s seat with confidence. You don’t need to kiss anyone to sell romance. As for Bradamante and Ruggiero, I am referring back to the above note. And anyway, the only logical reply in this whole set-up is Ruggiero sending Bradamante off in her balloon and returning to Alcina. Of course. #RofranoDarwinAwards).
Alcina has to do some more artful walking in circles, until she bodily separates the kittens and pulls Ruggiero with her onto – you guessed it – the chaise, and here you have once more actual conflict happening and being reflected in the acting: Alcina, who fears for Ruggiero’s life and wants to save him no matter what, slips back into romantic possessiveness, making one last, desperate attempt to draw him back, holding onto him, also with an edge of defiance against Bradamante (“This is the power I still have over him.”) and Ruggiero – in a nice bit of reaction from Frenkel – falls back into it for a bit, hesitates (and ideally, Bradamante would be anxious and conflicted and hurt on the sidelines here), and only then pulls himself away, but it is clear that this is unresolved business. It falls away too quickly here (other than in the DVD release of the original run, where this undercurrent kept going on), but there was a bit of narrative tension that I enjoyed.
The stage-on-a-stage fiction is resolved in the end, and the Duchess gets to dance a ring-a-ring-a-roses with her husband and son, and then even that fictional barrier is broken in the last chorus being a tutti already sent out as a frontline to the audience. It’s a nice bit of frame-reversal in an evening that does not focus much on acting, apart from the individual qualities that the singers bring to their parts.
But as the evening resolved into applause and bright lights (and smiles and waves into the audience), I found myself still lingering in the dark with that scotch, moved in a way that didn’t allow to just jump to clapping and cheering. What a night!
(and really, I can’t believe you’ve read this all the way down to here. Apologies to everyone involved. I’ll behave like a regular adult again next month. Promise! (I’ll lock this post down again if I become self-conscious about it.))