Tragic Valentines: Hasse’s “Piramo e Tisbe” at Theater an der Wien

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It’s been a while since this concert, but I still have a few thoughts collected on Hasse’s “Piramo e Tisbe” under the baton of Fabio Biondi, starring Vivica Genaux and Desirée Rancatore in the leads.

The concert was, even back in February, not a new event: Biondi and Europa Galante have toured with this before, with these same three singers, and their work is amply documented (there are clips dating back to Salzburg 2010!).

Initially, I hadn’t planned on attending – I had already booked the Handel “Lucio Cornelio Silla” with Genaux and Europa Galante and there was my budget and I didn’t want to be greedy, but after the Handel, I kept returning to the ticket page, tempted. And I was admittedly charmed by the TADW Valentine’s ad run:

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So… I caved in.
And am happy that I did.

Hasse’s “Piramo e Tisbe” is not an opera, it’s merely an intermezzo (a spruced-up serenade, if you will: short and glibly scenic). It’s just three roles. It was a concert performance.
But on the plus side: it was not an opera, it was an intimate serenade. Of merely three roles, two got most of the singing time, and those two were a mezzo and a soprano, who, in the plot, are doomed lovers. Both were sung by female singers, who walked on stage like Disney Rusalka (Desire Rancatore as Tisbe in a turquoise mermaid gown and flowing locks) and Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Drusilla as her soft-goth girlfriend boyfriend (Vivica Genaux as Piramo).

Yes, it was a good Valentine’s Day concert for an audience like me.

First pertinent question of the evening: How does Genaux even sing in these heels?

Europa Galante started out with a spotlight on the horns and low strings, hinting at the supple SOUND body they’re capable of. Since I was still hung up on the Rusalka image, it drew up an atmosphere of water and sea creatures at the bottom of the sea (which might make Biondi Sebastian The Crab, for which I am not sure I would have to apologize).

The sound was not a glossy kind of polished, but more breathy and structured, with the slower parts – like the B part of the overture – coming across very galante indeed, including a catchy little minor segue that was accentuated, but not overtly so. Gallant.

The interplay between a very good period band and the score drew most of my focus this evening. It is a late Hasse score – premiered in 1768 – which I wasn’t aware of while I was sitting in the concert (prep time: 0). I kept thinking back to Hasse as a Handel contemporary and was constantly baffled by how much Gluck, how much accompagnato rich in orchestral coloring, there was to be found, with romantic allusions all the way to Donizetti and Weber. It is a peculiar mix, baroque at times, and jumping across classicism right into romantic notions at others. The more matte acoustics of the TADW might have played a part in my perception, but not that much.

In comparison to the Konzerthaus event shortly before, where I had first heard Europa Galante from the very back row, I was probably at a tenth of the distance to the band (in a parterre box) in comparison and much better equipped to catch small shifts in atmosphere and details like the bow work.

The intermezzo plot is condensed enough: Tisbe and Piramo are in love, her father opposes, the couple decides to run away. That goes awry with Tisbe being scared off by a lion in the night, Piramo then finding her torn veil at the meeting point and presuming her dead, so of course he stabs himself instead of getting a flashlight and calling 911, and also of course he is still alive and singing when Tisbe finds him and likewise stabs herself. Cue farewell duet. When her father thendiscovers the bodies, he also stabs himself, so the entire cast is dead in the end (which might be a record).

The intermezzo starts with a solo scene for Tisbe, who is ensconed home alone and waiting for Piramo who is digging a tunnel to get to her (I am not making this up).
I hadn’t heard Rancatore before, whose color and vibrato amplitude are very similar to Genaux’s. Her tone is a clear kind of round, with a sound projection that isn’t front-placed in an Early Music sense. It was audible that she doesn’t come from an Baroque education background, but from the general romantic school. In that, her sound is old-fashioned in a rather becoming way: a timbre with a bit of a Helen Donath shine.
Rancatore has a beautiful, ever-so-slightly plummy color palette across her middle and lower range. Her middle register vowels  have a bit of that ‘garbled’ against-the-grain grit that is so good for affect sculpture and which is one of the idiosyncacies that, much to my chagrin, I find so arresting in Myrtò Papatanasiu: particularly the slanted, throatier back shades on ‘a’ and ‘i’. Rancatore has an eerily similar color production here, wiht an at times more inward projection. Especially at the aria beginnings, it seems as if she needs a moment to unfurl her voice. The similarities made me wonder whether they both are lyrics that stem from a specific Italiante school? Is that kind of vowel treatment part of a teaching tradition that lyric voices in 19th-century-repertory get trained in?

Genaux – when Piramo finally breaks through the wall – in comparison has a slimmer sound, with a much more Early Music tone production. Her color range in the middle register is more supple and shaded, with just enough warmth. When she moves up, the tone turns more oval and bright, as if someone used a reverse dimmer, to the characteristic point of her vibrato becoming sharper and quicker, like an image that has been set to sharpen instead of to blur. And then she can produce those open vowels, even in a high range, and pull off that disembodied, floating, slightly melancholy sound that is so uniquely hers.
Genaux, in that, remains endlessly fascinating to me on a sheer technical level. Usually, when I look at singers, I can more or less see and feel where the sound is produced, but with her, I cannot tell. I sit there, stupefied, thinking “How does she do that? Where?!”

The voices of both Genaux and Rancatore sync perfectly well in their amplitudes which becomes apparent already during their first duet bit of “Dunque son giunti in cielo / alfine i voti miei”.

Going in, I had no idea of the finer plot points, but it was fairly easy to follow Genaux through the recits without a program book. Another core quality that Genaux has in spades is Operatic Pining, not just vocally, but also in glancing at stage partners and, I wager, at flora and furniture, too. She could trademark #PiningEyes.

The Hasse score, overall, is not as strutting as Handel. It has more of the pearling noblesse of Porpora in its more Baroque moments, and a lot of to-the-future moments in the orchestration. It helps that large parts of the dialogue are not set as arias, but more as accompagnato scenes, with lots of mood-painting through orchestral coloring (which, apropos, goes very well with intense pining). It gives the singers a background of already outlined emotional scopes and both Genaux and Rancatore use this very well, aided by the fact that they are cleary familiar with the score. E.g. Rancatore’s delivery of “e fausti auspici” in that first shared scene, over a strong accent in the orchestra, already points forwards the very much infausto ending in a motion far beyond Baroque.

Emanuele d’Aguanno as the unyielding tenor father had a rather ungrateful role to fulfill. While he had some aria bits to sing and was working well and precisely with the rush and tremble or larger affects,  especially in his final scene, his recits didn’t stand out for a particularly supple or color-intense delivery. Likewise, his lower range didn’t come across as very powerful in the selection he was given here.

As soon as the tenor walks off, the orchestra sets the mood to High Angst and the lovers plot their flight (Summary in my notes at this point: So this whole piece is basically Rusalka and Drusilla in love with each other, very PWP Angst with Major Character Death, but they do get some eternal vows in beforehand.)

And apropos affect-painting: Genaux is really good with that. Also with adding a yearning look at her stage partner just when there is a little lute ornament to close out the recit. Guuuh.
The following “Run away with me!” aria of Piramo (“Fuggiam dove sicura)” comes with another wonderful array of colors – strings con sordo, I believe, flutes and bassoon? Would build a hut in the wilderness for this aria: 10/10. And really, Genaux and pining arias are a match made in heaven, including, in this case, triadic up- and downward waves that were effortlessly balanced across her registers.

The expressive range carries into the next recit, where Rancatore gets to display some more of that SexilySlanted Middle Range(tm), and Genaux, in evoking Piramo’s fear of having Tisbe roaming through the night on her own (which, newsflash, buddy, but she survives out there longer than you do in the end) details “in notte oscura” over a chromatic cembalo scale – DARN. And Rancatore’s “Non conosce spaventi un vero amore” that follows (again, helloooo, continuo wizards!) certainly is no slouch, either, heart eyes included.

And to close out the first act, there is then Duetted Pining, culimating in a blissful “a così bella fede”. It comes complete with a classic exchange of “Vanne. – Ti lascio – Oh Dio!” (really, it’s all pining and sighing and hashing out one’s feelings. That’s the plot. It’s like fanfic in operatic form.) Rancatore got in some nice bronze-bell moments here, with a tone that was the perfect kind of filling without being too much or too removed from the text. I was somewhat disappointed when the intermission applause cut into the mood (and the nicely shared glance that Rancatore picked up and held) at the end of this.

I listenend to the earlier recorded version with the same cast afterwards, but what happens there, especially in the continuo work, is not half of what went on in affect painting in the concert I attended.

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Part Two picked up right where Part One left of: Tisbe, pining (now in the woods). It is a lengthy scene of accompagnati and arioso parts in fluid change (a bit like the Act II “Crudeli, fermate” Sandrina scene in “Finta Giardiniera”), and especially the “Infelice in tanto orrore” arioso gets the kind of string support that I can only liken to a muscle car not exactly roaring, but being audible just enough to make clear that it has the power to roar off at any moment.

Not all of Rancatore’s notes open easily here (e.g. for “freddo il sangue in ogni vena”), but her work with soft, mellow vowels is evoctive. Her ‘i’ does at times not connect to the overtone spectrum, and when she has to end phrases in lower middle range, the support seems to slip at times, but her dramatic delivery was gripping. Also, as someone who is not, by vocation, an Early Music singer, I found her to fit in very well with her approach (and it was downright endearing to see her sway along with the flow of the music at times).

Europa Galante then pulls off a gripping 3D tremolo for the lion appearance over “chi scuote la selva?”, sounding like a case of the goosebumps in raises at that moment, but in truth, that was just one more example of a night overallrich in color details in the pit that have me return to this even nearly three months later.

Piramo then reemerges, with Tisbe having run away from the lion, and gets another lengthy scene of languid pining starting with “Grazie al ciel,” and we can only nod in agreement at a number that sports, among others, sustained lenghtly trills. There is a lot of lovelorn metaphorical fawning – “Il puro ciel!” – and I may have possible melted into the plush lining of the box during this. Deep down, Piramo is an emo ray of sunshine. Who also sings complex upward leaping runs.
Of course, the sunshine dims out in the accompagnato when he believes Tisbe to be dead and slowly pieces together the story. Genaux is riveting here, employing her quicksilver tone to go from disbelief to despair in one seamless motion. On paper, it is simply one very long accompagnato, but in concert, it is something that pushes all the arias aside in between the vivid detailing of both the strings and Genaux, at times illustrating each other, at times in direct dialog.

Of course, Piramo also almost-dies like a ray of sunshine, with lots of flute lines, and lots of beseeching Tisbe, and then, suddenly, some unexpected edge of brass and arching grief in string tenuto strokes, and it is glorious.
The whole sene is a gift in dramatic scope for everyone involved and my notes after this read, “Bayreuth go home. We have all the colors already.”

This segues without missing a bit into Tisbe’s final appearace – the flutes hover in the background like an echo of Piramo – and while the orchestra depicts Tisbe’s nerves (did I already mention this sounds like fanfic?), Piramo gets to cut in with a “Tisbe, Tisbe, idolo mio” and Genux presents it as a triple build-up of shallow gasps, trying to catch and hold onto the tone. Great theatre. And then, in a downright Capuleti opera move, there is a farewell scene (mostly accompagnato, seguing in and out of showing vs. telling) with duet.

Confession: my favorite guilty opera pleasure may be dying mezzos pleading with their sopranos to go on living, and the sopranos refusing. And at the point where they got to “Ferma crudel!” –  “Lasciami!” – “Oh Stelle!” (another staple dialog classic), there was pin drop silence in the hall.

And yes, there is even some “Stringimi al seno” in languid, perfect thirds at the end. Sigh. Which then, interestingly, gets dropped quietly and the voices fade out. The duet, with a few slants to minor, literally ebbs away into string movemnt only to have, without a pause, a dramatic tempo switch with Daddy Dearest storming onto the scene unhinged. Hasse is pretty close to pre-Belcanto here and if the tenor were a coloratura soprano, I would dub him “Lucia” at this point.

He is suitably horrified and gets some magnificent orchestra background for his rage and suicide, but my attention, at that point, was still stuck on the tragic end of Retro Rusalka and her Goth Girlfriend.

Either way, a highly enjoyable evening and, at least in the Europa Galante interpretation, a piece worth more than just a fleeting rediscovery.

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5 thoughts on “Tragic Valentines: Hasse’s “Piramo e Tisbe” at Theater an der Wien”

  1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Drusilla
    hm, never thought about VG that way before. You’re on to something. Have you done a Buffy cast with opera singers yet?

    btw, the plot is hilarious and 100% proto-belcanto. It’s quite interesting to see how the roots started to sprout that early on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t done that!

      true, sounds like something I should do – I didn’t realize that was two Buffy Genaux rerefereces in one week. I need to think about this!

      (the Walter Scott level is impressive in this one. I mean LION!)

      Like

      1. I always imagine these works are set in some semi-tropical faraway land (just based on the characters’ names) so when the lion shows up it feels natural 😉

        but my fave bit is him digging the tunnel. Reminded me of how I usually think old Capuleti should’ve walled up the secret passage,

        Liked by 1 person

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