To close out January, I managed to catch the final concert of this year’s “Resonanzen” (the Early Music festival at Konzerthaus Wien). Others do ball season at this time of year, I do Baroque. On the menu: “Lucio Cornelio Silla”, a Handel I was not familiar with. I initially booked it (and thanks again to Agathe for pointing it out to me) for Biondi and L’Europa Galante, but the cast was plenty swoon-inducing: Sonia Prina! Vivica Genaux! Roberta Invernizzi!
The evening is, as I write this, still available as stream-on-demand over at OE1. Get it while you can (though it does not quite capture the live atmosphere), and don’t miss the introduction that tries to find five different polite ways in describing the volatile womanizing character of Silla (Prina) as “trying to approach *cough* this and that lady”. It also loses the gender overview when it comes to the female-studded cast: “As Claudia, Martina Belli. Oh, sorry, that should be Claudio, Martina Belli.”
(I would have accepted ‘Claudia’, too. Wouldn’t we all.)
Entering the Konzerthaus – once more a welcoming space on a night of freezing cold – did, of course, entail walking past this again on my way up to the gallery, which was, as the entire house, packed:
“Harold…” (aka my favorite piece of the entire Konzerthaus foyer).
And this is one of my favorite views, from the old gallery double-windows down onto to ice rink next door, seemingly anticipating the musical magic to come:
So, what’s the plot of this “Silla”?
There were six female singers and Luca Tittolo, who appeared for one (fantastically sung) deux-ex-machina bass aria as the God of War. The rest is, basically, an episode of The L Word, but with much better music (I tried to sum it up on Twitter).
The opera starts with Silla (Sonia Prina) swaggering into town and taking over (this happened quite literally), his wife Metella (Sunhae Im) in tow, who is just about the only woman he is not trying to bed over the course of the next two and a half hours. Silla is more interested in Flavia (Roberta Invernizzi), who is married to his old friend
Legaspi Lepido (Vivica Genaux). When she tells him off, he orders her to divorce Lepido, and when she still says no, he jails them both and tries to kill Lepido.
On the side, Silla is also trying to seduce Celia (Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli), daughter of an old ally of his. She’s loyal to him because patriarchy, but she is drawing the line when it comes to grubby hands on her underpants. Also, she secretly likes Claudio (Martina Belli), the Mezzo Puppy In Love, whom she has to reject in public because he opposes Silla’s politics.
At some point, Tittolo appears as God of War and sings a breathtaking coloratura aria, though I didn’t really understand why. Still, great aria. Flawless runs!
Eventually, the long-suffering Metella has had it and begins to help out Flavia and Lepido, even though she just can’t get over Prina.
Silla feigns sadness at having to leave the Mrs. behind when he wants to skip town for a while until things calm down, but he immediately shipwrecks and Metella sets out in a rowboat to save him (#StandByYourMan). Of course she succeeds. That seems to impress him eventually because just as everyone else is ready to murder him, and also Celia – who has admitted her feelings to Claudio – has joined the Justice League, Silla say
he’s sorry, renounces public office (I’d have a few suggestions for people who could follow this example right now) and retires to a stately seaside mansion with Metella.
Pre-concert jitters as the hall is filling up at Konzerthaus Wien.
Very first glimpse of Europa Galante: it’s tailcoats and black dresses for the entire orchestra. Looking sharp!
And apropos outfits, the singers: The only one in an actual suit (Marina of TdU called: she wants her velvet jacket back!) was Martina Belli, cutting a nice mezzo silhouette. Sonia Prina was being classic #DramaGlamPunkFemme, somewhere close to The Last Fauxhawk, complete with cleavage, warpaint and heels to her pants. Vivica Genaux wore a black outfit that was “If you don’t squint very closely when I walk, you’ll never know I’m not really a dress”.
Sunhae Im wore a long-sleeved gown in bright red, fit for a first lady, Invernizzi had opted for forest green, and Lombardi Mazzulli for black with a bit of white. On a side note, my three favorites going in were the ones that came out sleeveless (#ForeverTeamDelts).
Biondi led the evening from the first violin and the first impression was that of the light in the hall going up a notch. There is a serene warmth just short of brilliance to the tone of Europa Galante, a roundness that is not not tyical of Early Music ensembles per se. What had me listen up most was the near constant adaption of tempi, the feeling for the dance-like rhythms and then having them ebb away again, but never in a way that interrupted the overall flow of the music. If you think of the score as a tissue, it was an expert handling of this particular Handel tissue, nestling it together at some points, stretching it at others, but never breaking it. If there was a single most bewitching thing about this take, it was the shaping of small accents: sculpted triplets with just enough drive. Or a weaving cello figure with the perfect amount of verve to reel you in.
The soundscape of the score is early, Roman Handel (it’s numbered HWV 10!) – opulence and sparkling joy. The orchestrations comes with kettledrums and trumpet, and both of those get ample use. The grand gesture inherent in the score also works well with the sizable hall that the Konzerthaus is, never once sounding lost.
Of the voices, Prina – who got the first aria – carried extremely well. Some of the characteristic flattened or lost middle range notes couldn’t put a dent in that; her performance displayed presence and power right from the start.
It was the first time I heard Prina live, and her voice transports well into recording: the confident coloratura, and the refusal to pussyfoot around color or register changes, were instantly familiar, as was the tinge of metal to her tone.
As Silla’s wife Metella, Sunhae Im surprised me. I haven’t heard her in a while, but I got the impression that it is not just a case of her voice having matured nicely out of the somewhat thinner soubretta shine. It also seems a case of transmitting much better in a live setting. Some runs lacked a clear handle, but overall, I was impressed.
The person in the hall – with Tittolo a close contender – who aced coloratura at breakneck speed was Vivica Genaux. Her first aria (“Se ben tuona il cielo irato”) smacks of Il trionfo’s “Come nembo”. In the insanely fast runs, her characteristic bright, brilliant sound (and the flicker to it in the upper register) were barely discernible any longer as she raced through it – and Biondi was certainly taking no prisoners – in an insane display of dazzle. Here, have a visual:
That’s the Konzerthaus ceiling. That’s also the Genaux Dazzle Level. (the Staatsoper can put their ball season Swarowksi Tiara back in the drawer, we got this covered!)
In comparison, Invernizzi’s first aria – “Un sol raggio di speranza” – is a measured, lamento-ish piece that shows off the impressive state of her voice at this point: The tone opens up easily and rounded and she can keep it devoid of vibrato. Yet she can then tie it back in, without abruptness, into a mezzopiano or piano, with an organic ripple to it, as if you wrapped a gift with a little bowtie. Invernizzi sounds like a warm, almost bronzen, bell, spinning perfectly balanced yarn. And that is just in the recits, don’t get me started on the aria work.
Europa Galante supplies her, in this first one, with triplets in the introduction that have just the right amount of spring to their step (like that perfectly sitting tie that is so perfect because it is every so slightly askew). It draws attention to the orchestral body throughout, nicely governing the tide of the music.
God, Invernizzi is turning into a situation for me.
Up next was Belli with a tone like a heady Amarone, but served at two degrees off. Hers is an interesting, darkish tone, but it sounded a tad too uniform at first in its density, with the vowels a bit distorted by the color.
Her Claudio gets a stunner of a first aria, “Senti bell’idol mio” a beautiful chamber piece starting off with nothing but continuo (in this case, harp, lute and, for this aria, a beautifully weaving cello line). It’s very much #PiningMezzoPuppyInLove, and Belli opens notes evenly and lets them sink back gently. In Celia’s place, I’d have folded right then and there already.
Celia – Claudio’s love interest – says no, but follows up with “Se la speranza nudrisce”, at which point I dubbed Lombardi Mazzulli “Baroque GingerSpice” for the night. Her tone is light, open and relaxed, but she also gets fury across. In the upper register, she shows a Sophie-ish gleam, which dovetailed nicely into the coloring of the woodwinds with their tiny rubati here (#I’mTooSexyForMyReed).
I wasn’t kidding about the opulence of the score because the audience is treated right away to a second aria by The Mezzo In A Velvet Jacket, aka Claudio. It’s an aria di bravura with trumpet (called “Con tromba guerriera”; Claudio is a little on the obvious side), and the delivery definitely came with a side of tall, dark and handsome. From my very back row spot (no kidding, I sat against the back wall of the gallery), the orchestra overpowered the voice at times. Overall, Belli’s tone gained more shape here – a bit more dramatic, with more patterning to it.
That marked the end of Act I, and while there was very little scene applause – perhaps everyone was suitably intimidated by the amount of mics? – the clapping went on for more than one curtain, and it was only Act I of three.
(If you’re listening to the broadcast, there’s an interview with Genaux (in German) in the intermission. You will have to tune out the mansplaining interviewer (and have a drink, for he actually poses the “What does it feel like to sing a man, isn’t that odd?” question, EGADS!) and focus on her answers, which are a delight.)
Act II opens with a very suave Silla trying to seduce Invernizzi’s Flavia, and Prina has this one recit phrase that is just about the smoothest thing ever – in styling “vago sembiante” with a near-casual ornamentation. It’s kind of inconceivable Flavia says ‘no’ at that point.
And Flavia says ‘no’ with unpacking her best Fiordiligi – “Qual scoglio in mezzo all’onde”. Invernizzi gets some coloratura in this one, and at this point I’m pretty much saying, “Sigh, Invernizzi!” to anything she sings in this. And even in the middle of coloratura, her tone is most of the time still something that could keep people from freezing on this winter night. This warmth was echoed in particular in the strings here, handling the Handel tissue with a noble shine.
Less noble is Silla, but without knowing the plot, you really wouldn’t guess it. Up next, Prina gets a gentle number with plucky lute and recoders, “Dolce nome”, which is slow and smooth, with lots of extended arcs, and it seems to echo the much later “Ombra mai fù” (also given the plot, with the unhinged ruler trying some contemplation).
In the story, Silla falls asleep and has a dream of Mars, who is actually telling him off, but Silla reads it as an encouragement. This set-up has the lone bass aria of the evening, and Luca Tittolo, in case I didn’t mention it enough, knocked his coloratura out of the park. It’s a fabulous number with some nice shading by Europa Galante, who, if we were to play liken-this-sound-to-a-painter again, would perhaps be Gentileschi.
Right after this, a waking Silla picks up one of the run figures a cappella and, yes, Prina can do runs, too. Her actual next aria is “È tempo, o luci belle, a consolarmi”, and it’s very “Deh, vieni alla finestra”, with only continuo at first, and then a nicely studded B part.
Flavia still says no to Silla, though, which leads to a lengthy, enchanting farewell duet (“Sol per te, bell’idol mio”) between Flavia and
Legaspi Lepido. Invernizzi and Genaux already match their tones in dizzyingly smooth lines during the preceding recit, blending very well, and then the duet is sheer glory, with Genaux adding patterned highlights to Invernizzi’s even warmth. It is cloud of bliss with cascades of only continuo-supported thirds that absolutely qualifies as a down comforter.
After that, there’s a bit of recit with Silla – probably about who is or isn’t going to sleep with whom -, but my memory is a little fuzzy at that point because Genaux turned to look at the harpsichordist and my brain took about ten seconds to come up with the phrase “wait. that. dress. has. no. back.”
The next pair of lovers isn’t as doomed yet, and Celia – Baroque GingerSpice – gets support from an effective little ornamentation in the continuo cello to finally buy her mezzo a clue. Claudio then rejoices in an aptly serene number with recorders, titled “Mi brilla nel seno”. Belli pulls off a confident command of style here that I would call ‘studly’.
A little less happy is the suffering First Lady, Metella, who cannot quite get over her contralto – again, I wondered over this “Hai due vaghe pupillette” whether this part is simply an exceptionally good fit for Im? Only the very top came out somewhat soubrettish, and she got the affect across nicely.
Then, because it was that kind of a Handel night, Flavia and Lepido got an additional duettino –
ancora una volta, addio: “Ti lascio, idolo mio” (you could have played vocabulary bingo with nothing but ‘idolo mio’ here). More swooning.
Silla is not impressed, hwoever, and segues into a defiant “La vendetta è un cibo al core” à la Bad Boy and His String Posse, which was the point where I sighed to myself about despising toxic masculinity in all forms — with the possible exception of ‘if sung by Prina’, because hot damn.
The strings were again outstanding here, perfectly in sync with Prina, not just in tempo, but also in energy. There was another noteworthy number in the following “Se’l mio mal da voi dipende” for Claudio, who is the Pine King of “Silla”. It’s an aria with a catchy ostinato rhythm, and in the singing, there were bits where I thought simultaneously, “this may be a bit too darkened” and “but this is niiiiice” (particularly a line that seemed to be, “il mio volto tu difendi”, or something similar. It might also have been another iteration of “idolo mio” because that was Claudio’s go-to line throughout the evening). Here, the strings added a brighter color (it may have been con sordino?): not louder, but shifting the color suddenly to ice. Very nice effect.
To close out Act II, which was the musically most beguiling, Metella has an “I’ve had it!” aria that reminded me of the Entrance of the Queen of Sheba in the accompaniment. Again, a bit of the coloratura carried up fudged to the gallery and the very top had a somewhat different, more silverish color. But the atmosphere carried well, and the orchestra added some neat chiaroscuro accents.
In the intermission between Act II and III, The Classic Conversation happened two rows over:
“So… When all these women sing all these men, then.. that’s… well…”
“I find that odd. Isn’t it odd?”
“Yes. You barely know who is whom!”
No. Actually, they were very easy to tell apart because a) they were seated in a way that reflected their relationship status (the married couples together, the Mezzo Puppy and Ginger Spice on opposite ends to make eyes at each other), b) they wore dresses that made it easy to tell them apart, with all trouser roles at least being somewhere in the vicinity of pants, and c) if you didn’t get after 10 bars that Prina was the evil emperor, you really need to have your ears and eyes checked out.
Act III has the First Lady take action: Metella helps out Flavia and Lepido, but she is still shying away from openly opposing her husband. #StandByYourContralto. Her “Io non ti chiedo più, o sposo amato” has a subtly dancing undercurrent to it that had me think “They are called Europa GALANTE for a reason”. There was poignant rhythm, but also some melting warmth, with the mood more relegated to the orchestra than to the voice.
Overall, most arias felt short. They are still on this side of the later, extensive Da Capo numbers, which also made up for the overall short length of the opera. I wouldn’t have minded to listen to most arias for longer! But it is not just the arias in length one would crave: the orchestra often started out with just the continuo group and did wizardry in setting an ambience. Case in point, among others, the following “Già respira in petto il core” by Lepido, which starts out just with the continuo cello, if I remember correctly
(and my notes also say here, “So it is like an episode of the L Word with much better music and also, Dana lives”).
My next line, and I quote verbatim here, reads, “Prina f***ing rocks. That’s all.”
If I try to reconstruct what went on at that point, it is Silla recit fighting with a spunky Celia, who will not succumb to Silla’s threats and innuendos. Silla then, in an attempt to unsettle her, tells her that Claudio is dead – and how Prina delivers that mean, calculated “è morto”, and how then Lombardi Mazzulli picks it up in a shocked echo of “È morto?” is one of these moments where you really didn’t need any kind of additional staging to get the point across. They were both playing off each other very well here, tying half-sighs and half-growls into the recit lines.
Celia then gets to lament Claudio (I mean, who will now call her ‘idolo mio’?) and Lombardi Mazzulli conjures up a very pure, touching tone for this “Sei giá morto, idolo io” (oh, the lute here!!), but I wouldn’t call it plain. The dynamic levels in the strings, even in this overall quiet piece, were impressive, and Claudio himself chimes at some point as a very becoming ombra echo. It worked like a charm with the darkish sound, sung very softly, near ephemerally.
Of course then they get to make up because Claudio is not dead. And we will never tire of mezzos singing “ah, mia bella, son io, stringimi al sen”. *siiigh*
And, fine, Claudio may basically only have this one pick-up line, but it works (would work on me, too).
Belli gets another number of gentle rejoicing at this point (“Luci belle, serene stelle”), with recorders and a nicely burnished sound. This one was my favorite of her aria takes, with her sound seeming less purposefully dark-leaning-on-guttural, but with clean coloratura and some swoonworthy piani.
And because Handel loves us, there is another Flavia aria: “Stelle rubelle” Here, L’Europa Galante unpacks the entire magic box once more, with dynamic ripples that move like waves through the orchestra sound, with smooth pizzicati thrown in, and of course there is Invernizzi – *siiigh*, Invernizzi.
And she gets to do a reprise, too, after a brief recit exchange with Silla, and it comes with the quietest, most bewitching string accompaniment. And I know I am repeating myself, but: *siiigh*, Invernizzi.
Basically, all that Invernizzi and Genaux get to do all night is pine away for each other, that’s basically their parts, and it’s beautiful.
At this point, though I am not sure why, there is some Bach Christmas Oratorio level pastorale chill in the orchestra, and then Silla says he’s sorry to leave Metella behind because he is about to set out on a cruise (an actual one, this time). And Prina makes him a very convincing liar, with the softest apologies, and, yes, I would probably fall for that, too.
So, the cruise. Next: “Rossini is still nearly a century into the future, but don’t worry, Handel has got you covered for a classic instrumental sea storm”, the best part of which are very precise strings and rocking timpani.
To tie up the plot, Metella saves her husband from the storm and then it’s #MezzosStartARevolution. But before there can be an open revolt against the contralto, Silla resigns: “Risolvo tutto”.
This final recit has a lot of back and forth and it seemed to me as if Biondi had a clear idea of how to pace it, not giving it much room, but it was kind of hard to handle.
So Flavia and Lepido are reunited, Silla retires with Metella to the Naples seaside mansion (#TwistMyArm) and, as a last act, he okays the the marriage between Baroque GingerSpice and MezzoPuppy. And, I kid you not, Claudio’s last phrase is literally, “Al sen ti stringo”. Well, if it works, why change a winning line?
In contrast to the shorter arias throughout, the final tutti choir is more lengthy than Handel’s usual fare (he could have kept that habit post-HWV 10, it’s an awfully nice bit of music). Happy end.
Another great night at the Konzerthaus, and I hope there’s an added happy end in the making, in form of a recording because this was definitely a Handel I would listen to again. And again. And again.
[Curtain Calls: Martina Belli, Sunhae Im, Sonia Prina, Roberta Invernizzi, Viviva Genaux, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli and L’Europa Galante]