[…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)