[Fading Out: the final Vienna “Alcina” of 2016, featuring Myrtò Papatanasiu in the lead. Vienna/Staatsoper, 2016]
How much of a role does the audience play in the energy of an opera evening?
I was reminded of that question (and the answer to it: a big one) last night, when a good performance, which needed time to build momentum and touch magic, was hindered, and hindered again, by a disengaged crowd. It wasn’t even that much the coughing, but an overall palpable disinterest – an impression confirmed in the intermission where the coat rack saw a lot of traffic since many people left already.
A larger part of the crowd were season ticket holders, who had neither come for Handel, nor for Les Musiciens du Louvre, and it showed.
“I’ve had about enough, it’s just not my kind of music, you know?”
“Ah, well, you know I’ve moved recently – into the 19th, now, far out. I’ve had a summer lounge out there for the past 45 years, and the downtown apartment… well, my children are all taken care of, obviously, but it’s for the grandchildren, really. I also still have my sister’s old place, I suppose one could rent it out, too…”
“Usher? Do you pay attention to people sitting down in spots they have not paid for?”
“Yes, generally we do…”
“That man there up front, he just walked over from the standing room spots and took that free seat!”
(and I kid you not, the tattletale next to me really had the usher go forward and push that young man in question out of a seat that – the lights were already dimming – nobody needed and would that way at least have been used. It was a very unpleasant scene to witness. Fine, if your house policy is not to allow that: your call. But to actively tell on someone? Ugly.)
Scene applause was sparse and lukewarm throughout, as was the curtain call in the end (the interested ones couldn’t make the necessary difference – I clearly wasn’t the only one who saw the entire run, and some faces, I also recognized from the “Armide” audience, mostly of the younger Francophone/Early Music crowd).
How do you make magic under such circumstances? How do you cross the barrier from a good evening to magic, when you have people walking in and out during the most quiet, most intense aria moments?
I could have slugged the lady who waited until “Ah mio cor” started to then rustle, get up, have her seat clap, walk out, and then come back just as the first piano repetition set in. Lady, I am trying to attend mass here, please show some respect.
Same goes for the guy who chose “Mi restano le lagrime” to get up and walk out with very squeaky shoes. And for that entire gaggle of standing room people who apparently had come on a whim of “Ah well, we’ve got 90 minutes until our tourist bus leaves, how about we catch a bit of opera, and then we’ll just walk out?”, who all marched out in the middle of the first part, of course when it was quiet.
In that light, it is unsurprising that this night – in comparison to the previous three – needed a while to have sparks, and never fully took flight.
The first, timid scene applause happened after Bradamante’s “È gelosia”, and I have to repeat that Gritskova is growing on me scenically. The action may be a little rough around the edges and there are still moments that remain void, but I had the impression that throughout this run, she was notably improving. Last night was the first time I actually took note of Bradamante’s fainting when Ruggiero is all over Alcina in front of her. The embarrassment faced with Morgana’s ouvertures was more consistent, and there was a nice pull of focus at the end as she had to draw Ruggiero forcibly away from Alcina in “Non è amor, n’è gelosia”, another move I never took note of before last night.
Last night, I was once more on the balcony and have to say that both Bruns and Reiss carry very well and consistently, no matter where you are seated, and bring a reliable quality to the parts they’re tasked with (I don’t think I’ve ever hear Reiss give a bad performance. Her acting style may not click with me, but that’s another thing. And this last night’s “Credete al mio dolore” was beautifully done). Gritskova and Frenkel both did not carry up as well at times, but their take on things was fresher in turn in its unpolishedness.
The acting was not quite as charged as it had been on Wednesday, which largely hinged on Papatanasiu, who seemed somewhat under the weather to me and notably paced herself in her first two arias.
If you’re used to the 120% performances she usually gives, the difference is palpable. Of course she still gave a very good performance (wasn’t it Kasarova who said “Professionalism is when you do it and transmit something no matter the condition you’re in?”), but the vocal demands did shift the scenic intensity to the back burner at times: the Tribadic Ballet (to borrow from Oskar Schlemmer) in the beginning was nearly all mechanics, apart from a few well-placed looks, and that way, there was no spark to carry over to Ruggiero and even to Bradamante. Likewise, a rather tentative “Dì, cor mio” didn’t measure up to the 3rd performance. The cues were all there, and I got the impression that the singer was trying to emote as much as she could, but really had to look out for her material.
The most memorable thing of that entire sequence, by the way: a casual hand-on-knee-graze that bespoke the familiarity that the entire studied choreography of now-I-kiss-here-and-touch-there never managed to get across. Last night, there was neither the energy, nor did the audience offer the focus, to improve on that.
Likewise, “Sì, son quella” seemed dimmed, with Papatanasiu only giving free rein as the B part came to a close, to then pull off a more involved reprise where she could work with technical command. You could hear that it took more effort – and one has to commend her for powering through the evening like that regardless – and e.g. the top note in the da capo (on the final “non mi vuoi“), was there, but the downwards jump afterwards was not as smooth. It was still good, of course, yet the audience did not know to appreciate neither the effort, nor its results. (can you tell I was miffed that there was no scene applause? Yes I was!)
Rachel Frenkel gave her most dramatic, heavy take on the Ring Sequence so far, yet she stayed short of pushing – a very good moment for her. I keep wondering in what I would like to hear her next, but in either case, I do want to hear her again.
The magic finally set in – and of course it started in the strings, in a pit that has played 9 out of the past 15 nights – over “Vorrei vendicarmi”, with flickers here and there, and finally took off during a dreamy “Mi lusinga”. The floor suddenly opened up and things began to sparkle and move.
I had promised thadieu to be on the lookout for The Look, namely the one that a desperate, yearning Alcina gives Ruggiero as she slowly moves towards the scene from the very back in the da capo of “Mi lusinga” (yes, we live for this stuff). It was more quietly desperate last night, but what really worked very well and had good stage energy was the scene afterwards, with Morgana’s “Ama, sospira” and then Ruggiero’s “Mio bel tesoro”.
The way Alcina tried to draw Ruggiero’s attention as Morgana went on and on about ‘Ricciardo’ (Morgana: Three’s a crowd. Just saying.) absolutely got me – the wounded confusion, and the small details used to transport that: leaning over to catch his eye, for example. (the notes say “Dying!!”, so, yes, that bit was well-delivered and gripping and involved) It’s also in how she pulled Ruggiero towards her, in two different moments, which really showcased the axis/balance work, and the intensity carried over into that heartbroken little slow dance that I already singled out for its impact in my first set of notes, and it stayed all the way through Morgana’s scene applause after her aria.
The undercurrents of that scene are deliciously complex either way: Alcina realizes that, somehow, she is being played, but she cannot figure out how. She wants to get rid off Ricciardo/Bradamante to prove her love to Ruggiero, whom she desperately wants to connect with again. Ruggiero wants to appease Alcina to save Bradamante, and is not quite sure how far he is willing or able to go to reach that goal. Morgana wants Ricciardo, and has to plead with her mightier sister, and she also has an interest in bringing Ruggiero and Alcina back together because that means neither of them will pay attention to Ricciardo any longer.
And then “Mio bel tesoro”! The scene energy was just about perfect, which goes to say that this Alcina/Ruggiero combination works best when fighting and/or pining. It was at once seductive and utterly heartbreaking – the way Alcina leaned back against Ruggiero and reached for him (his hand, then his thigh) the way he got caught up in the moment and seemed unsure about whom his “ma non per te” talks about: things between characters happening believably. That’s what I’m here for. (and, yes, it is nice when it’s two female singers, but that’s just an added bonus. I’m here for storytelling I can believe in.)
And yes, on a note of “I’m sorry, but I am just a little queerling with a pulse and a penchant for stage energy”: that settling back against the chaise at the end of the A part of “Mio bel tesor” that Alcina does — HOLY SMOKE. Also, the look she sends after Ruggiero as he walks out might easily have powered a small village community from here on out into into 2017.
Oberto had a very good rapport with the hall last night – it seems many of the season ticket holders are parents or approaching grandparent territory – and it has been a delight throughout this run to see the easy stage chemistry Papatanasiu had with the boy singer (though don’t take my word for it, I’m a parent, too).
Do you remember my mentioning above that it seemed Papatanasiu had to pace herself early on? Now we’re coming to the reason why: “Ah, mio cor”.
I already mentioned on Twitter that the time I’ll be over this particular take will be pretty much never. I kind of imagine the divine beings (be they celestial or infernal) welcoming me to the fold in the afterlife with some Alcina, and I’ll probably say “You know, that’s a lovely version, but I still like Papatanasiu’s take better.” (and they better have a recording at hand!)
Last night was crying and tearful anguish, in yet another variation of energy. And utterly heartbroken looks over the repeated “sola, sola” that would have sent my entire university gym of burly guys to their knees. Papatanasiu didn’t hold back in intensity there. She also delivered technically, as in a lengthy diminuendo on the first held “perché?” that faded into the canopy of feeble stars above (and I still have murderous thoughts about the lady walking in and out during that section!). The first take on “traditore” was rhetoric, feeling after the word. I got so drawn into the mood – that last drawn out “oh Dei” was spectacular (perhaps also because the work behind it was more palpable, less comfortably safe?), only to then go down into a subito piano “sola, sola” – that I can’t even tell you whether my favorite “perchè? perché?” take was in there last night. I wasn’t a thing to go with the straightforward “Power of Pain” approach.
The pit was picking up on the no holds barred mood and opened up in the da capo in a way that felt like the floor dropping out and the audience (the ones that were actually listening) tumbling downwards into that abyss. That, once more, was magic.
The second part of the evening started off to many empty seats (it was pretty packed in the beginning), but the pit had it covered – that first music of the second part, with its horn figures, is playing non-stop in my brain since last night. I will never be able to unhear this. Also, the Ballet Music of the Dreams! I know I didn’t pay much attention to the ballet on night #1 (there was a passed out soprano that I did barely dare to squint at, and there was so much to look at in the pit! All the energy! Minkowski!), but the sequence has been growing on me.
But back to “Ombre pallide” for a bit: in the preceding accompagnato, it was audible that the voice didn’t move as smoothly. Never that a tone was not there, but that it took more effort to produce and place, perhaps? It fit in with the mood of the aria, and Minkowski opened the aria very gently, once more carrying a singer, and Papatanasiu had – I paid attention to this now, after reading thadieu’s take on the Wednesday show – a few nice glides down into lower range, which she all managed to tie in smoothly: no overt break, color well balanced. And the line work in the da capo was then, in a word, silk.
Other moments that stayed: the last fight between Alcina and Ruggiero before “Ma quando tornerai”. On all three other nights, when Ruggiero calls Bradamante his bride, Alcina first scoffed at that in laughter, and then, with realization dawning, stumbled onto the nearest chair brought to her. Last night – be it with the overall mood or for whatever reasons – there was no laughter, she straight away collapsed, and it worked well with the overall more anguished take. And then, the really most convincing physical exchange between Alcina and Ruggiero in this whole performance, is that slight bit for “ancor placar mi puoi”, with Alcina faltering in admission (#unbreakmyheart). Here Frenkel’s Ruggiero was very attuned to the exchange, already moving towards Alcina in a nice trajectory of that scene energy, and leaning into the moment for so long, that their (past) connection became truly palpable and not just I thought for a moment that they would kiss and the evening would get a different ending. A really good detail.
Frenkel continued to shine throughout a more strongly delivered “Sta nell’Ircana”, though I would still say that her physical presence was the most convincing on Night #3.
“Mi restano le lagrime” had a taste of unmasked hurt, with more focus on the piano sections again. And I have to admit that I only understood last night that Alcina is apparently poisoning herself in that scene?!
I wondered on Wednesday why one would need to stir a Scotch (well, British upper class eccentrics, I thought). But what actually seems to happen is that Alcina draws a vial of poison from her cleavage (the Borgia poison rings seem to be out of fashion these days), drops the contents into her glass and stirs them in. Which of course gives a different weight to the scene. Papatanasiu managed to have the last high “oh ciel” blend away into an amazing ppp nothingness, and once more she nicely tied in all the lower range bits. There was a palpable bit of breathless silence after she finished (and I thought “Yup, she finally got the hall. Ha.”), but then the pit is cued to cut in, so that moment evaporated quickly.
The only thing in this entire take that I find not to work that well for my ears, is Minkowksi’s tempo choice for “Non è amor n’è gelosia”. It is really fast, and I felt last night again as if I was lagging behind in my perception. Once more – and this as a final White Shirt detail – there was a nice bit of tension, also carried by Frenkel, when Alcina pulls Ruggiero back to her once more. They were upright more than sitting, and for one moment, one thought that they would actually give in and get back together, but then the at that instant very present Bradamante of Gritskova cut in and got her mezzo man out of the sparkling danger zone.
I don’t really have a summary at this point – I’ll just toast you with a glass of scotch later tonight – and these notes are mainly things that I wish to remember as time passes.
Right now, about 23 hours later, I am still having the ballet music and the intro to the second part stuck in my ears. Alcina may be the sorceress, but the Musiciens du Louvre really are a bunch of magicians.