Personal Notes on “Alcina”, Night #3


[…and the stars came down once more: back at “Alcina” (Handel) at Vienna/Staatsoper, 2016.]

Theatre stems from the realm of the sacred. In many ways, I would argue that it still is a realm of the sacred, one of few that remain in a purportedly secular society.

When you enter the theater, you enter into a space of communion. Your social functions and relations fall away as you are elevated, possible changed, within the ritual. In opera, it’s the singers who – also removed from their everyday lives – are the highpriestesses (and priests) that visibly, audibly carry the ritual and embody it.

In such a space, we may get the chance to reassure ourselves of our own humanity, to contemplate it, to draw hope and energy, to feel and be in a place of beauty and truth unguarded, which is something we rarely get to do in the modern Western world.

Rituals need formalities, a binding rhythm and frame and symbols that bestow meaning upon certain acts: things will have the value we attach to them by our rites, particular when those are embodying, physical rites.

And before you think I inhaled too much stage fog last night: these thoughts about rituals and the sacred actually fit right in with Alcina #3 that I was fortunate enough to attend with thadieu last night.

Giving value to things: It’s in the exited chatter in the metro on the way, in the nervous glance at the watch and hoping to get a good spot in line, it’s in rushing up the stairs until out of breath (we barely avoided getting ticketed – we had tickets, but we really were not in a mindframe to stand around showing them off. We had a queue to join!) and around the opera house, anxious to see how long the line already is —

Yesterday, we lined up at noon and were #2 and 3# in line. When the usher in charge stepped out to check the space early on, he was surprised to see people there already: “It’s early to be lining up!” We assured him that it was not early for this Alcina, and something in his expression shifted: a recognition of respect shared.

The waiting gives more meaning to the evening, makes oneself more conscious of its precious weight. It’s the standing in line for hours, the talk about shows past and future, it’s sharing a hot tea from the thermos and striking up a conversation with the people in front or behind of you. (apropos: hello, group of five Greek-speaking people behind us who kept staring at us: we would have shared the tea! And we could have had a chat instead of ogling each other. See you next time?)

thadieu and I both had work to do (academic fangirls and their conferences – the other kind of aca-fan), and time passed quickly. The moment of saying ‘Parterre!’ at the booth and pushing over the money, receiving your ticket that looks like someone has an asylum for old ink printers, rushing up through the fancy hall and lining up right at that glass door to the standing room stairs, with the sounds of Les Musiciens du Louvre tuning already carrying through… and waiting, happy and at peace in anticipation: the Staatsoper may get a few things wrong, but they are really good with the ritual angle.

thadieu and I ended up in the exact same spot as on Sunday. What was different was the energy on stage last night: With show #3, everyone seemed to have settled more comfortably into their roles and it resulted in  a notable increase in acting and involvement. It may be testimony to that energy that our binoculars remained largely forgotten on the railing in front of us. In evenings where the acting is pale and the physicality lacks, I tend to use binoculars to get input at least via facial expression, but that was not necessary last night.

By night 3, this “Alcina” has finally hit a flow that shows in the physicality of the singers, who were at large more at ease and confident in their portrayals.

Things I never thought I would hear myself say: I was charmed by Gritskova (even at curtain call!), who gave a more involved Bradamante last night.  There was finally some reaction to watching Ruggiero make out with Alcina in front of her that did not seemed studied, and I enjoyed the moment where the singer hurried offstage after “È gelosia”, still looking at the advancing Morgana, and knocked over a chair in the process (Reiss’ Morgana, in turn, chose to be in control at all times: somewhat frustrating to look at because you see the cue is there, and then it is purposefully stopped).

The most gratifying surprise was Rachel Frenkel, who seems to have broken through some invisible barrier with this third performance and was much more physically present. She has arrived at a take that I still find lightweight and a little too even in phrasing, but it is one she presents with sincerity, and, to her credit, she never pushes or forces the voice. Even so, her “Col celarvi a chi v’ama” was richer last night.

This Ruggiero and Bradamante managed to transport a sweet comradery across the pit that did not look too rehearsed, though I could have done without all the staged mechanical half kisses. The most convincing moment was both of them walking offstage after “Verdi prati”, first holding hands, then in each other’s arms: tender, gentle and somewhat lost.

As for this improved Ruggiero and Alcina —- well. Well! thadieu turned to me at some point and croaked, “Did they know there are White Shirts in the house? Are they doing this on purpose?!” (It sure felt like someone had done a set of push-ups before the show started, and entered a bet about getting the first White Shirt fangirl to collapse to boot)

From the get-go, the tension between Ruggiero and Alcina was more credible: it was in how Alcina looked at Ruggiero, and with Frenkel’s increased presence, Papatanasiu finally could do what she excels in scenically, which is reacting to her stage partners and giving a performance momentum from there – last night, that carried over onto Bradamante and Ruggiero and there were actual moments of conflict as opposed to tableaus.

But back to Ruggiero and Alcina, whose predicament was suddenly palpable in the acting-and-reacting-off-each-other, as opposed to the studied choreography of “now I touch here, now I walk around here, now I pretend to kiss there, five, six, seven, eight, move hand” of the previous nights.

What is “Dì, cor mio” about, in the end? It’s the only five minutes in the opera where Alcina is happily in love, sorceress or not. And the aria text basically translates to “Go, tell how we did it on the mountain, over the hills, down by the river, and everywhere. PS. remember how I sighed and then begged you for mercy?”

Seriously. That’s what it says, and it was audible and visible last night not in any wild action, but in the delivery. Not what you do, but how you do it. Not where you touch, but how you touch. They kicked out some of the “here I pretend to kiss your neck” mechanics and reacted to each other more spontaneously, in a bit of held hands or leaning in, and it worked much better. The aria really does not need a spectacular choreography or lots of skin, it needs a sense of connection, and it was there e.g. in walking away in each other’s arms (a nice parallel to the later “Verdi prati”) and Alcina’s hand sliding lower across Ruggiero’s hip.

Papatanasiu’s Alcina, at this point in the opera, is comfortably certain about her appeal and it is visible in small things like leaning back a little further in her chair, daring Ruggiero to make the next move and knowing that she is driving him crazy. It’s something used later to set up the heartbreak, when those little prompts do not work any longer, or work only brokenly, with Ruggiero being drawn back in only to then break away (something still too quickly left aside, but it was more present last night), and Alcina cannot fathom how those same movements no longer work – and you actually feel for her when during “Mio bel tesoro”, she briefly reconnects with him.

A key feature Papatanasiu uses to convey Alcina’s lovelorn state until the end is how she constantly angles her body towards Ruggiero and adapts to his stances, even when he is already closed off in his pose. It sets out in “Sì, son quella” (which we could try to talk about, but don’t take my word for it), which had, this time, Alcina physically trying to reconnect, and Ruggiero being an idiot resisting. It is also visible later, when Alcina appears in the dark at the very back of the stage during “Mi lusinga” and even in the dark manages to draw focus through body posture and gives Ruggiero a look that had thadieu and me hold our breaths and onto the velvet railing. Paging the Brussels “Lungi”!

Apropos breaths held, “Ah, mio cor” continues to be the centerpiece of the evening – last night again very strongly delivered, but more heartbroken than on Sunday. In the very end, even the “perché? Perché?” that I singled out in the last few performances was changed on the go in its last repetition: the drop in the second one was gone, withdrawing the end into plain, stripped heartache. If that was a spur-of-the-moment thing, Ms. P. is seriously good in adapting to atmosphere.

thadieu and I were over the moon anyway because we were in the first row of the standing room, with clear sight to the stage above a seated sea of heads in the pricey seats in front of us, so we did at times get to be in the direct line of the singing to the point of the air moving in front of us. Magic!

Last night also saw the most convincing “Ombre pallide” yet, with a strong, well-rounded accompagnato (once more, congenially carried by Les Musiciens du Louvre), that had not even the rhetorical questions towards the end feel disjointed or disembodied: it was one continuous flow. The line work in the aria itself was balanced and carried well, with a much firmer show of middle range color.

All in all, another evening that was an embarrassment of riches – one barely knows which detail to take in and favor over the others that will be lost: the exquisite side-lighting or a line in the bassoons in the ballet music, the flash of Alcina walking backwards into the falling stars or the bewitching blend of lines in “Non è amor, ne gelosia”.

thadieu and I found ourselves hollering during the curtain calls (which I never do. I swear haven’t done that since screaming my heart out at the balcony of Staatsoper Berlin over Naglestad in “Ballo in maschera”, which —- different story).

Afterwards, we went to line up at the stage door, which is also something I never do, nor usually feel compelled to do. It gives me the sensation to intrude where I have no right. This links back to theater as a space of the sacred: You don’t chat up the priest or priestess after the ritual and confuse their function within the ceremony with your or their personal life. The shared space of communion happens within the show, not afterwards.

But I know from my own ‘performances’ in front of large hordes of students that, when I am still in full-on lecture mood (and in that larger-than-life imbalance where I, as a single person, have just reached 400-500 people across a big hall), the attention of the students coming up afterwards with a smart question or a comment or a thank you is a rush. And I assume that this must be similar for stage performers, with the difference that their performance is physically much more demanding than mine, and that the energies they generate are so much more emotional: they will need to disconnect and recharge to not be drained dry by all the emotions pushed onto them.

Last night, I had to think of that as thadieu and I stood smashed against the wall of the cramped Staatsoper stage exit antechamber (yes of course the Staatsoper has an antechamber for such things), looking on in bewilderment at the dozen of people pushing their program books at Papatanasiu, and at one woman demanding a photo with both her and Reiss despite the singer’s obvious reluctance (argument: “It was my birthday this week! So might I request…” – Lady, it was *my* birthday, too, and you didn’t see me accosting any artist on behalf of that).

thadieu – who is much better in talking to musicians – and I managed to offer a quick “thank you” on Papatanasiu’s way out. We did not want anything signed, just make clear that there is a growing international fanbase who truly cares about her work. Papatanasiu looked worn out and in a hurry to get away, so thadieu just quickly mentioned that she flew in from the U.S. to hear her, and that we got into her work via Mitridate (at which she perked up and asked “Paris or Brussels?” – Both, of course!) and thadieu even got in that she hopes to catch her again in Paris in December in Don Giovanni. I think all I said was “thank you”. (I’m no good at stage doors)

thadieu did float home next to me in the Metro afterwards, and we got to spend one last evening together over dinner and the bounty before our ways split again early this morning. Until the next time in WhiteShirtFangirlLand, whenever and wherever that will be – I am now seriously tempted to fit Papatanasiu’s upcoming Donna Anna into my schedule (and my finances).

(Yes, one more set of notes on “Alcina” after I will attend the final show on Sunday, then this blog should return to something resembling normalcy)

30 thoughts on “Personal Notes on “Alcina”, Night #3”

  1. These Alcina reflections – and reflections on theatre and opera as ritual in general – are KILLING me in the best way. I feel like I got to be there with you both. Thank you so much.


    1. Thank you, GGeek! Just as I was morosely thinking that I am likely boringmy dear dozen readers to tears with all this and am only amusing myself… this means a lot.


      1. You guys are more than adept at communicating enthusiasm, and of course the illustrations don’t hurt 🙂

        It’s also really cool to have details of multiple performances and how they vary, so no, not bored at all.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. you forgot to mentiin she grabbed my hand and turned around with a big smile (as she rushed by us, then turned back : “Paris or Brussels?” , hence my floating 🙂 ). i put up the rest of the goodies, in a playlist called alcina 2016 on the channel.


    1. thank you, I am cleaning out that playlist right now! It is really such a (birthday) gift to have these arias, in such high quality, as a permanent reminder to these incredible performances. I think all the Papatanasiu fans internationally will show up at some point at your channel to say thank you!

      (and not, I did not forget, of course! 🙂 How could I?!
      I was just not sure how much of that you wanted public. But oh yes, dear White Shirt audiences, I (the dumbstruck fool who murmered a “thank you” at some point) did witness Ms. P. reach for the arm of Dr. T and smile at her while on the issue of “Mitridate”. And I did then travel home with a floating Dr. T. who couldn’t stop grinning and who kept repeating “She grabbed my arm!” and “She was so charming!” all the way back to the apartment and and it was pretty much the best evening ever. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. PS. So now let’s make a bet how long it will take DeLux to catch onto the latest bounty and broadcast them for everyone (and ~someone~) to like. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. well and as someone whose work is the sacred and ritual, yes, yes you get it (and you get the bit about not wanting to be pawed at afterwards BUT/AND when people come up to you with eyes lit like yours must have been, yes, yes we need that too, that this meant something, that you’re paying attention…)

    i love everything about this, really. Including the amped up White Shirt bits.

    THANK YOU for bringing us along for this amazing ride (who needs normal, anyway?).


    1. It’s a tricky bit – that line between giving something to a performer by saying thank you, and showing them the effect they have caused, and bothering them as they try to escape, with things they may have caused in the ritual, but that are not their responsibility outside of the ritual, when they wish to return to their personal lives that are none of our business.

      For me, what gave me pause at times during the past week(s) was not the moment of “this artist who has just connected me on a visceral level with my own humanity is standing in the same small antechamber with me”, (though, yes, ok. I was a little swoony) but the occasional thought of “in this same city, these days, other people are likely performing the same mundane tasks as I – clearing the breakfast table, perhaps picking up after their kids, taking a stroll through the park, looking out the window to see that there is need for an umbrella. Yet when the moment of the ritual will come, my motions will still be mundane, yet theirs will – with instruments or voices – be transformed to mean so much more to so many people”. And that always gives me pause.



        1. prepping my class for tomorrow at noon and looking forward to lunch break after that, when I will be allowed to write the notes on #4 – but I think most things are said with #3!


      1. Very true, but not all of the truth. Because there is a continuum, on which the act of communicating feverish excitement, rapturous delight, in a way that enables your readers to imagine the experience, as you have been enabled to share it by the performers — and they by Handel — is anything but mundane. What you write remains, and spreads, cultivating insight and responsiveness. Declaring how much the ritual is worth to you is professing how to worship (= worth-ship), a venerated role. Enthusiasm also embodies the divine.


        1. …which ties back to the ritual and Early Modern notions of being possessed: being a vessel as feminine-linked yielding of self, but also, at the same time, embed with power through this very possession, revered as the presence of the Divine…



          1. Personified, amazingly, by Mijanovic as Penelope when she becomes the vessel of Athena, in the Ritorno. Witnessing that was like being an anthropologist confronting the actuality.


      2. been thinking about this more, and I think I would say, part of what makes the ritual the ritual is not only the vessel but that there is something there to hold what the vessel pours out. As in, your actions as preparing to come to the theater, and be present and receptive to the outpouring, are no less important than the artist-as-vessel.

        It doesn’t always work that way of course (coughidiotpeoplewhogetupinthemiddleofariascough) — I’m not sure all artists think this way (or, heh, pastors either), nor do audiences/congregations. Part of that (at least over here I think this is very true) is how everything has become consumption (art, sport, church, teaching) rather than something we all participate in (to create) together.

        When I preach, now, if the gathered people are not talking back to me in some way in the moment, it feels off. Likewise I wonder — does (did) MP feel your breathlessness? Who knows if your presence the first two nights contributed in some way to the more courageous white-shirtness of this third night? (and likewise, a rather dud audience the 4th dampening that energy).

        so, yeah, i preached for nearly 200 people 2 weeks ago. (i don’t actually preach often, mine is an odd vocation). i needed their energy to connect with my energy, and that happened, and people spoke to me afterwards and the next day when I led 2 workshops (more talking, sigh, i’m such an introvert it’s hilarious this is my job), some just to paw at me which whatever but some with fire and I will talk to you all day if you are lit, that’s also being the vessel. And when it was all done…i came home and climbed into my pajamas and had a beer and read fanfiction. 🙂 I’m not sure why I’m sharing that but something about all of this, ritual and communion and connecting as humans and divine presence showing up…yeah. all of that.


        1. poignant and true and beautiful. Thank you for sharing! I’ve kept this in my head today and now only late (very late) get to reply –

          I absolutely agree (as so recently witnessed) that the energy in the house, and the dedication and involvement of the crowd, can make a difference, also to an artist (of course, the dangerous narrative here lies in ‘establishing connection with artist’ because that is not it, it is always ‘the artist /in their function as a vessel/’ and ‘the audience member /in their function as a ritual attendant/participant/’ – I am so pushy about this because I had to read a paper lately by a scholar who was basically getting off on writing about the imagined ‘relationship’ between a soprano onstage and himself in the audience during a Verdi performance, and he constantly ignored the assigned functions within the ritual (dude, this may be your life, but she goes home to hers afterwards, so give it a rest already) and I just wanted to take a shower afterwards).

          So, yes, breathlessness felt! (not the individual one, but the contributions to the overall atmosphere) The ritual is an exceptional space – of recharging, presence of the divine, communion, being allowed to react without reason – and I would say everyone who is in that space is a participant, not just a bystander, and everyone contributes. Bystanders are the people who get up during the most impossible points in quiet arias. They are not connected to the ritual and disturb the concentration. Speaking is one thing, but you are right in that is only half the thing: it has to be heard, and heard with a dedicated mindset.

          And some of it may carry over into everyday life afterwards, or inspire change, but you step out of it, and then it’s pajamas and beer (or scotch and blogging as a ‘witness’), but I think now, and you made me think about this a lot today, that you only really attend a space of sacred presence (like a service, or a performance) truthfully, if you agree to be different in that space, and most importantly let go off it again as you leave it, and not see it as something where you are the same you are at all other times.

          I am not sure I am making sense here, and I really need to sleep (do not speak to me of tomorrow’s class…), but thank you for making me think about all this!


  4. happy belated 🙂 nice presents, eh? Good time of the year to be born around, there are always lots of shows to choose from.

    very vivid, I could follow you guys around the stairs and whatnot (“the antechamber” reminds me of Die Marschallin’s orphans!). I also loved the “counting” when it comes to opera kissing. Personally I would just go for it, even with a chap (that would be hilarious for all the wrong reasons but surely your stage partner has showered/brushed their teeth so come on, how disgusting can it be?! And it if is disgusting, you have a funny/gross story to tell later (and outgross your partner the next night, haha; slobber revenge)).

    I remember from my recent incursions on Jennifer Rivera’s old blog her mentioning the second performance being a bit of slump, so it sounds like things usually get better after that one. It’s actually interesting hearing from different singers what they recommend – VK said it was all about opening night (and I’m sure Angela Gheorghiu agrees, there might not even be a second night with her 😉 ) but JDD said it’s an upwards curve, so “come see me later in the run”. Sounds like the 3rd or the 4th are the best bets – too late in the run and they might be tired.

    gotta love demanding fans, there’s always some. I’m going to try to use the “birthday” (so cliche, haha) trick next time I want to extract something from a performer (guardami, e tutto oblio, of course). My favourite uber fan experience was the “heavy breather” at ASvO, who sighed wistfully after and beat the rhythm on the back of my chair.

    I don’t know how you guys do this waiting around + 4hrs standing, I honestly couldn’t, especially if it’s cold. I’d be beyond grumpy by the time the fun started.

    sorry for the incipient novel here, I’ve cabin fever! btw, you should come to Paris 🙂


    1. Paris, don’t I wish! But the 5th is off limits due to the kids because on the 6th in the morning, there is St. Nikolaus celebration, and I have to (and want to) be with them.

      The antechamber figures… with the Marschallin being set in Vienna, too!

      Usually, I wouldn’t complain that much about kissing or the lack thereof, but it’s like “Tristan”: I don’t care how you approach Act II, but please have a working approach. Do the Heiner Müller oratory redux before you do empty choreography. Ugh. Same for “Alcina”. (though as someone who is biased by having small kids and sniffling all through winter: I would refuse to kiss anyone during flu season, particularly if my livelihood depended on the use of my voice)

      The night energy changed a lot across the board – vocally, night 2 was the strongest here, scenically it was the 3rd. I suppose it hinges on a lot of factors? But waiting for 4 hours in the cold is not detracting from it. You get to bring hot tea! Plus the anticipation puts you on another plane already. 😉 (no heavy breathing, though. That… uh, no.)


      1. oops, forgot about the flu and I shouldn’t have, ha. You’re right, it’s problematic as it is and any singer would be absolutely paranoid about it. But you might be amused to know I actually checked if they were counting tonight 😉 they were rather good, or at least made use of hair and shoulders wisely.

        St Nick, bringer of coal to naughty children! I always forget some people have kids. In any case, lovely report 🙂 the beginning made me all Musik ist heilige Kunst…


        1. but it *is* heilige Kunst!

          also, likely no coals, but all the candy and fruit and mini toys their tiny-but-not-that-tiny-any-longer boots can hold.

          So glad you brought up shoulders today and not me or thadieu… 😉 I don’t care much what people do, as long as they sell the storyline. Ideally, you’ve got good directing, too. I still remember getting swoony over the Milan Tristan by Chereau with Waltraud Meier (although those two could sell pretty much anything) because it captured that energy of completely focusing on one other person so very well, down to minute physical details.


          1. (i listened 5x to her Elvira, we should talk a bit more about that clip! and was searching fir more.. and ended up with Verdi… i was so hopeful for the contessa because it seems to be mentioned in the description, but sadly no trace.., so fine, i will listen in to Verdi )

            Liked by 1 person

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