Last Saturday, I returned for another round of Alcina (here’s the program), this time with four friends, three of whom had never seen an opera live before. (not sure if they had sat through a taped version either…) During dinner time, we discussed when to nap in case of needs ;-). The evening verdict: everyone was awake and greatly enjoyed the show, with two asking for more future excursions! I’m aware that taking newbies to operas can be a hit or miss, especially in repertoire that is so non-mainstream. But I think it depends on one’s judgement. For example, for me, Händel’s Alcina is a GREAT opera to get started (so is Agrippina..), especially if you have a good orchestra (conductor) and engaging staging. I can’t say if good singing helps unless it is absolutely earth shattering, because, according to friends they can’t tell at all… (more later!) In any case, in addition to them, I also had a really great time, and would have come for the 3rd round if i was still in town. On all front it was a superb night of music and with effective staging to engage both newbies and old-bies. And I realize it’s always a great performance when you start asking questions about the actual meaning of the tempo and phrasing choices to check-mark the long list of puzzles you’ve pocketed, and to be able to compare them rather than worrying about the various issues such as dragging and being disengaged due to dusty + stuffy interpretations.
Oberto, Oronte, Morgana, conductor, Alcina, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Melisso
On that note, below is then a short report of my impressions with more detailed questions on choice of phrasing/tempo, as well as how to bring in new audience.
First up, the singing. The cast was entirely new compared to Friday night’s. And after experiencing various Alcinas, I have it now *almost* figured out! Remember I questioned the effectiveness of the B-section in “Ah, mio cor” and the aria “Ma quando tornerai” on Friday? Isabelle Zeledón completely solved it! First, she has the gaze: very immobile in the body, but the air along line of sight is sizzling and steaming! And she solved the long split-dress and how to move well in it. The singing bit: for these, along with “Ombre pallide”, there needs to be some level of “anger”, “rage”, “disappointment”, just about anything but “coolness” I believe, and Zeledón excelled in that. The recitative leading up to “Ombre pallide” was absolutely riveting! Actually anytime she showed up at the edge of the scene, one could feel the lid is about to come off.. In this staging, “Alcina” can be viewed as somewhat unpredictable, which is also great! why not. But, back to the rest of “Ah mio cor” a little bit (as well as in “Sì, son quella”): here, i thought she could make use of much more piano (she rarely used it, everything was almost in the volume range 5-11 on the 0-10 scale). There were 2 things that occasionally disrupts the flow (in my brain): singing/ascending to ff at times when I don’t quite understand why, and non-shaping at the end of the phrase where the (music) line was simply dropped rather than giving it “shaping”. Overall, for the arias/sections that require soft singing, it would work wonderfully if there’s a merge between how Bizhou Chang employed in the previous night and Zeledón’s approach this night. Oh, i should also mention, both her voice and Bizhou Chang’s, i’d put them on the heavier side, which works great for me! But I had the idea perhaps it’s a conscious choice of casting to go with this type of voice for Alcina, and a much lighter version for Morgana.
Next up is Ruggiero, sung by Abigail Dock. Overall, i really like her color! It’s on the bright side, but with enough heft, and a “ping” to it to carry above in any kind of duet/trio, as well as being warmer and less thin than CT’s Giron the night before. On phrasing, my favorite was “Col celarvi a chi v’ama un momento” to start Act 2. She suddenly got very soulful and reallly brought out the uncertainty in this “recitative” part, even my newbie friends noticed it. “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” was quite heart breaking, though it felt there were too much movements at times. Indeed it was insightful to see the contrast between her movements and Giron’s the night before. Prior to this aria, Bradamante was frustrated with Ruggiero’s blindness in not even recognizing his own fiancé and launched into “Vorrei vendicarmi”. Scenically, Bradamante had picked up all the hunting arrows, symbolically plunging them (as a group) into her chest, then dumped all except the last one which she broke in half and sent down at Ruggiero’s feet while stomping out. This left Ruggiero hurt and confused.. and the opening music set in, and one (audience) is already feeling teary. Ruggiero then kneeled down, flanked by Alcina’s toy-girls and boys, picking up slowly the broken arrow, trying to put it back together, before handing it off in waves into the air (during “che m’inganni, amando ancor”). I interpreted the flying away of the single arrow as carrying hope. Here I find the picking of the arrows from the ground to be quite distracting: we can see the symbolic gesture with just one of two attempts to patch up the arrows instead of 20 times: this is a very slow and soul-searching aria, and too much motion takes away that effect/focus (and even the focus on phrasing). In contrast, Giron did just the opposite: he picked up the arrows only twice or so, and in simple gestures we understood what he wanted to do, and the rest of the time was spend caressing the phrase, to a higher level of effectiveness (at least for me).
This same level of movements also seems to work better (for me) with Giron following Bradamante’s footstep and raising the sword during “Sta nell’ircana”, as opposed to “playfully” imitating the sword level in Dock’s case. I get it that the staging is asking them to do X and Y, but I think the small details on how one carries out the movements play into how the character is portrayed. And for Sta nell’ircana, I would assume Ruggiero should be flexing a bit rather than pulling out the marbles and running behind Bradamante playfully. Overall, this set of Ruggiero/Bradamante seemed to be doing a bit more play-acting than facing with the real danger, which the cast from the previous night displayed.
On the same note of comparison, the first Act, Dock was more effective because she actually moved and phrased “Di te mi rido semplice stolto” and “la bocca vaga” much more. I still am very puzzled by the chosen tempo for “Di te mi rido”. Enough that I ended up searching through the tube for some 8 versions as well as reading up on the translation. Here’s Vivica Genaux’ take as I continue to type, with recit for the flow:
The only one that approached the tempo and phrasing here was with S.Graham, (she has something that i believe is even smoother in the recording with W.Christie), which I must admit somehow gave me the feeling Ruggiero is taking a stroll in the park … The other samples have faster tempo as well as being delivered with an “edge”: Ruggiero is edgy at this point afterall, so I anticipate to see him mocking + being a bit irritated rather than taking a light nap in the hammock while sending out words (that’s how it felt the 1st night, the 2nd night was an improvement but still way too smooth in singing and slow and “jolly” in tempo). In any case, after being bugged for 1,5day, i’m satisfied now with my (perhaps biased) findings. (for disclosure, i listened to: M.Beaumont, V.Kasarova 2004, V.Kasarova 2010 (she’s approaching heckling level, jeah!), A.Hallenberg, V.Genaux (see above), T.Berganza, and J.Larmore).
Next up: Bradamante! sung by Ann Fogler. She was great! Technically I would even say she has the most flexible voice of the entire 2 casts, as well as very warm and pleasantly dark color (similar in color to Wolz from the night before). Stance-wise I’d take them both, which implies it was good directing in combination with good acting. For “E gelosia”, i particularly like her acting and the soft singing of the B-section. It’s actually the first time i realized soft singing for Bradamante is effective here instead of needing to send off all sorts of fireworks. As both Bradamante carried so well the pose and the acting, it made me wonder whether it is the director’s choice to contrast them as strongly to Ruggiero’s more “internalized” (the night before) or “light-feet”. Ah, also another important note: Because of the cut in Alcina’s arias (B+A gone in “Sì, son quella” and “Ma quando tornerai”, and complete stripping of her last aria, Alcina the character became much less developed and we had Bradamante on equal footing in stage-time and even stronger than all in strength.
Morgana was sung by Jennifer Soloway. I really have a feeling they (the casting) were aiming for “near identical” voice types in the 2 sets! Even the vibrato was similar, though I’d put Soloway in the lesser polished phrasing compared to N.Logan. She has a rather large voice, I was even thinking whether her focus was more 19th century but was simply casted for this “lighter” role. There were (quite often) times she went fff and masked out the solo instruments that accompanied during “Ama sospira”. However, it was an absolute delight to hear the sensitive phrasing in “Credete al mio dolore”. Her extra “grunt” after discovering Ruggiero and Bradamante walking hand in hand was priceless!! In fact it seems Morgana was given more room to build as a character compared to the “strong, powerful” but not well developed Alcina (due to cuts). The switch from ditching Oronte to suddenly being extremely soulful in “Credete al mio dolore” was a bit too sharp though and left the audience (me) not quite understanding if Morgana being so-quick-to-switch-to-deep-emotion is a true trait or a tear show (in the staging).
Oronte is sung by Quinn Bernegger. I quite like his approach more than the version from the previous night! The direction seems to be: be brute at the beginning, scheming during “Semplicetto! A donna credi?”, and soulful during “un momento di contento..” . I don’t know whether it was a choice or simply a general approach, but Bernegger’s more passive approach made Oronte appeared more thoughtful as he search for “what is right”, “when is right”, “who should i trust”, “how should I approach”. In particular, he delivered a *very* soft “un momento di contento…” . While i wonder if in a bigger theater he could be heard if that’s the way he sings, here it really worked as almost a self-assuring therapy (and I always have Marc Minkowski’s voice in head : “give it hope”) . Oberto was sung by Brianna Meese. It depends on how you want to develop this character perhaps? Anik just linked a post to Josy Santos who sang Oberto this month in Stuttgart, where you can see from a different angle Oberto’s mindset. The version staged here was of a very young Oberto, I’d say around 8-10 year old and still playing with his toy boat. As such I think a level of “lightness” in the voice to carry the “innocence” is welcomed, and both Meese and especially Peng from the night before kept it light. Any anguish he has, however, was cut short with a trimmed “Chi mi insegna il caro padre”. For his joyous aria, i’d have loved to hear the extended version, simply because it is such pleasure to the ears, one can tap the feet the whole night.
So, that’s quite a bit of rambling. But onto to some notes on the staging! As two of my friends (newbies) mentioned: they really enjoyed because it’s engaging and modern. To that, I’d also add it had an arc rooted in deep thinking on how to bring out the characters’ mindset and fit to the flow/storyline. The power Bradamante is provided for example, or the soulful thoughts of Ruggiero as (s)he sat on the column during “Col celarvi a chi v’ama un momento”, or the reflection during “verdi prati”, or the sending up of hope in the shape of the arrows in “mi lusinga..” . The comedy was built in naturally to the flow rather than forced. The tension in Alcina is again built in with clear movements or positions on stage. Even the extras were well used to illustrate the support Alcina had and lost through time, or the heart-beat to start “Ah mio cor”. The use of the opaque (symbolic) mirror is a nice touch, though I’d like to read up a little more on its meaning as well as the meaning of the mirror-holder who repeated after Alcina in “Ah mio cor”. An ambiguity which I quite like is the reversal of the music at the end (at least when comparing to Vienna): First the curse was dispelled, the finale choir rejoined. THEN, the instrument line (this line here, the first part) is played out as Alcina sat in her chair, with Morgana holding a broken mirror as her sole company as the light dimmed on an empty island. Ah, and during the chorus, we also saw a hint that Ruggiero was standing close to Alcina. With Giron I had the feeling Ruggiero was really still torn from leaving Alcina.. whereas with Dock, one had the thought (as my friend said: I thought she was going to be killed!). And we left the theater with “what happened to Alcina?” by one of the newbies. Which is a really good indication that the staging is so engaging they are now talking about the storyline! And that, in addition to all my questions and self-answers on phrasing and characters, really highlight this excellent production. My friends asked how many times I’ve seen “Alcina” live, and were surprised to hear that including this evening it was only “7”. This is to show how rare we get to see it here in the US (the other 5 were of course of the same staging spanning 6 years apart in Wien…). I would mention also that it was engaging because we sat in row F of a very intimate 325-seat theater. This of course is one of the great ways to bring in new audience, and why I chose Händel as the intro to this group of friends in this theater.
One final thought then. This past month, seeing Alcina 4 times live really gave me a great exposure to “phrasing” and how to bring out the emotion in the music. And I will end the post with Myrtò Papatanasiu’s “Ah mio cor” again. I heard her live just 3 weeks ago and was very captivated by her delivery, though perhaps at that time not knowing exactly why. One always wonders if one has a “fixated” way of thinking/hearing how a particular aria “must” be delivered in order to make sense. But my recent experience has confirmed that no, it’s not the case (at least not 95\% of the time). Sitting through “Ah mio cor” in particular, I realized there is no limit to how one can phrase it since you have to repeat the lines quite a few times and it is all within your reach to express it the way you intend! Thus, however subjective it can be, the only thing is to “make sense” of the emotion. Here, “make sense” or not is a case of whether when a line is delivered, be it the actual written music or the theme-and-variation type, the only reference we have is whether a “loud” or “soft” or “arc” reflects an intended emotion instead of being simply done for the decorative effect. I’d say this is why I can easily “switch” quickly between hearing different singers, and that the only time i start questioning is when the music is “not quite” making sense. On that note, a toast to great music and Händel, and to the great production from the Boston Conservatory. They have made 4 new fans of operas!