Don Giovanni at Théâtre des Champs Elysées, 5/Dec/2016

Reporting from the white-shirt flat on 6th floor in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, with Dehggi writing from the other bed. After an excursion to chinatown to my favorite Vietnamese food joint*** and getting stuck in the touristic pre-Noël’s madness near the Ferris wheel, we barely made it to Théâtre des Champs Elysées 4 minutes before lights out. Upon running upstairs huffing and puffing, the usher, to our delight and MUCH more relaxed than the stiff-neck counterpart at the Wiener Staatsoper, were all smiling and telling us we still had time.

I actually don’t know Don Giovanni well at all! and have only recently (as in starting this past May) listening to it, after discovering Myrtò Papatanasiu and sorting out the difference between Donna Elvira and Donna Anna.. Since then I have listened to primarily two live performances to get things started: one for the very intriguing staging from Amsterdam with Papatanasiu as Donna Anna and one with the exceptional singing from the entire cast and of Antonacci as Donna Elvira in the Wien 1999 production. So this “review” will be heavily based on these two roles, and a little bit on Zerlina, whose music I discovered via Kasarova’s existing radio broadcasts. Our seats were up on the 3rd balcony directly above the orchestra for optimal view into the pit and sound from the singers (?). The first impression was the massive sound coming up during the overture and well into the first part of the singing. For me the whole show didn’t settle musically until the scene of in the morgue with Donna Anna in (goooooorgeous) suit recognizing DonG as her father killer and recounting the faithful night

“Non dubitate più: gli ultimi accenti che l’empio proferì tutta la voce richiamar nel cor mio di quell’indegno che nel mio appartamento…”

If I wasn’t a fan of Papatanasiu’s singing before, I would have become one last night. I’m extremely prone to detailed recitative phrasing (and low notes), and to my ears she was *the* star last night in phrasing, starting from every recit. She was already phrasing when on the floor clutching to DonnaA’s father’s dead body, but at that time the orchestra was way too loud and not leaving her space to express. During this passage, however, it was exquisite to hear: Each single sentence was expressed with full dynamics. I really think she was the only one using a full range of soft to loud and shaping/sculpting each sentence to draw us in, regardless of whether we understand Italian (or french surtitle) or not. The voice, again hearing live, this time from way above, I have to say it clicks with my ears very well: quite voluminous and distinctive from everyone else on stage such that it provides very nice contrast in trio/duet or solo (to not so loud orchestration). I would not categorize her voice as “beautiful”, and that’s not what I look for. Rather it’s the texture that works with vocal expression. Her voice, however, seems to not click well for Dehggi’s ears, but that is all good, each of us hear different things🙂. Her “Non mi dir” was a show-stopper for me. Not in a “fancy” over decorated way, but in a time-stopping hold-your-breath while transitioning along in time with Donna Anna’s thought and pain. As I said, if I was not a fan before, definitely would become one last night. Also, whoever put her in a suit, that is simply BRILIANT! We’ll discuss how it fits in the staging in a bit.. but JA! (Also, since sitting there, with the orchestra fully visible, i did wish for a time-reversal machine back to February with Emmanuelle Haïm in the pit and Sifare and Aspasia on stage..)

Just an example then, on exactly what I hear when it comes to phrasing of recitative. This is purely a 2 minute passage, but through it, you feel every little note, pain, anguish, defiance in Donna Elvira. I think when recitative are not done in this way, it is “rushed” through and you will simply hear it being “said”, prior to the singer launching or easing into the main aria. By then, one would need to try to sort through what the aria is about, in addition to the musical lines. That is also a summary of what I heard from Donna Elvira last night, that it was singing, though Dehggi said she was very good. The other bit of music i GREATLY enjoyed was the orchestration to “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto”. Absolutely gorgeous flute and cello lines! And the finale trio “Don Giovanni! a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto…” with moments when ALL woodwinds and brass (and all strings) were playing, quite goose-bump inducing.

On the subject of the orchestra, it started very loud to our ears. I was quite worried because throughout the first part, Donna Anna’s voice was quite masked out, DonG and Leporello were singing very loud, and Donna Elvira, with a quite large voice, was the only one making it above the orchestra to our ears unscathed. It was a huge relief for me when suddenly the orchestra quiet down as Leporello started “Madamina, il catalogo è questo”, and completely was cleared out for Donna Anna’s phrasing. Al told us that the orchestra is entirely composed of baroque instruments (the woodwinds and brass we could see, but violins we were not sure until being informed). This the the largest orchestra I have seen of my 3 times here (2x Tancredi, then N.Stutzmann’s own orchestra). I can’t remember if they were using baroque bows in 2014 because at that time i thought the orchestra was great with fine details. Last night they were using modern bows, which we assume because they needed a more robust sound for Don Giovanni ? In any case, it was blasting at the start and took a bit of time to let the singers express freely.

Some quick notes on the staging. The opening scene already featured 2 young women in very short skirts draping themselves over DonG and Leporello. As the stage rotated, we were first provided a visual of Donna Anna expressing pleasure while receiving oral treatment from DonG. She then “woke” up and being coerced by him in various poses on the bed… This theme continues with Donna Elvira touching self in bed to “Ah! chi mi dice mai” . Leporello then revealed a doll puppet to which he undressed and fantasizing over. This continued onto the next Masetto & Zerlina wedding scene with full draping of the female chorus in wedding gown on their male counterparts. Yes, the opera is disturbing. On top of it, I think much of the staging is feasting on it to provide eye-candies and further treat female bodies as fantasizing tools being put on display. Perhaps that’s why the whole show also didn’t settle for me until Donna Anna appeared in a black (very fine) suit! It’s an unusual move, and actually put into perspective the independence of Donna Anna’s. Al also mentioned it captures her entrapment in formality (or something like that, I did not get this point though and would love to hear more). What I do like is that she is often discussing and keeping herself balanced, and Don Ottavio is often seen as the one approaching her space and constantly wanting to keep the pair “appearance”. I’m still trying to understand Donna Elvira’s mindset. We first saw her fantasizing on bed, while often I had the vision of Cecilia Bartoli’s fist clenching and seething approach. Either is fine I think as long as we could see how she evolves.. in this case I can not quite tell anything about her. She is seen smoking through the windows while DonG is scheming and switching with Leporello during “Deh, vieni alla finestra” (the mandolin is sooooo cute!!!), then proceeded to sleep with DonG double without even knowing so.. She can been seen defiant at times, such as during the trio with DonnaA and DonO, or when pointing fingers at Leporello after “Mi tradì, quell’alma ingrata” , or when she arrived to snatch Zerlina away from DonG, or intruding into his conversation with DonnaA+DonO (which led to the trio). Surprisingly her duet with DonnaA at the end was omitted! But all in all, I am not sure what personality or resolve she has, and whether she’s simply running after DonG for the flesh. Even Leporello is a bit quick to switch, so he’s as much enjoying doing what DonG does when given the chance, given how quickly he embodied the seducer’s move without any hint of conflict/struggle. I really enjoyed Zerlina’s last aria, something neither Dehggi nor I have ever heard before! She was in a scene with only Leporello (and with a shaving knife), but her phrasing to start was just gorgeous. I did get her confused at that point with DonnaE simply because of the context (even though their voices are quite different). DonO is really seen as a needy guy constantly trying to close the space between him and DonnaA. Finally, the Commendatore, I’m sorry, but we really need a bass! His clear “high” notes in the final showdown “Don Giovanni” was floating ABOVE the orchestra! (while i was expecting it to line the base and providing rumble). His thin voice was completely masked out when the orchestra went full strength during the final passage, so the famous duet/trio because a solo with DonG singing to the orchestra prior to being pushed into the furnace.

Staging-wise, aside from all the eye-candies and not quite developed characters above, I really like the usage of the stage space, to narrow things, efficiently shifts between scenes, and the use of the morgue bed. To me Papatanasiu’s singing (and subtle body balance) stood out because she gave a layer to DonnaA’s character. We had glimpses into her mindset, her struggle with her father’s loss, and perhaps what appeared to be her independence. She made decision on her own, using her own head, and body angles / postures / gestures. Interestingly Al made a note that her body gestures are quite similar to Anja Harteros’! Which got me thinking when i first saw her coming up on the grass field in Alcina half of the time i had the image of Harteros’ in head!

So that’s a wrap up, in extreme rambling fashion, of an opera I don’t know much about, but highlighting what draws my attention the most. Here’s the curtain call of the opening night, and more chance to see that fine fine suit! Off to Antonacci we go for my last night here!

first impression, sancta susanna at opéra Bastille, 3/dec/2016

Yesterday I met up with the charming Al at Jardin du Luxembourg for a nice stroll in the sun-shinining early afternoon. After an initial kiss and greet (we haven’t seen each other in nearly 2 years!) we immediately were drawn to “what was your impression of last night at Opéra Bastille?”, Al’s being on the opening night and mine on the 3rd of December’s performance.

thadieu: the first piece is too long!
Al: and the 2nd piece is too short?!
thadieu: YES!!!

And that pretty much summarized our impression of the opera night(s). Apparently the two pieces have similar duration(?)***. That the first made me edgy, a tad angry, bored, feeling my jetlag, amongst other things should say something. Very briefly: I find the music and especially the story not particularly interesting (girl loves boy who loves other girl who was married, big drama scene (in the music) and apparently boy died at the end, not sure who killed him, likely other girl’s husband.). Likely due to the size of the hall, the tension is peaked in the music right from the start, along with the “show-down” in the opening scene in the church on who gets to sit where. Given the set up (and perhaps all the adrenaline in anticipation of finally hearing ACA for the first time, in Hindemith), the body and brain are ready for some life-altering event.. Things quickly fizzled as soon as the story unfolded, all via very loud singing and big posturing (to keep up with the drama in the music, and) to fill up the gigantic stage. As to why this piece is revolutionary/famous I am quite puzzled. As for the lead singers, my only impression is that I’d like to hear Elina Garanca singing Romeo in this huge hall and perhaps I’d have more interesting observations🙂. Her character slowly revealed that she has been shunned by the town, but we don’t know why or how. In the initial showdown she was already seen as an outcast, and yet still talking to the boy’s mother. Is she responsible for him not talking to his mother? All this we don’t know, except that the tension is very highly built in the music, and yet reduced to “you love me?”, “you don’t love me?”, “how dare you?”, “no you lie to me”. This is the 4th time I have “accidentally” seen Yonghoon Lee live, I think he is singing louder than ever before, which I heard is what’s required for this piece, while the acting remains “do this to appear over-macho, do this to appear sad”, similar to in Il Trovatore in Munich. Oh, the chorus has some nice sections and the overture was interesting though! Let us leave it at that. Perhaps this is also the feeling when you come for Hindemith and its compelling storyline and intriguing music and got greeted by 1 hour of something totally its opposite.

Onto Hindemith! criminally too short! we need more time! more time to hear Anna Caterina Antonacci sing, and definitely more time to hear the music!

The first welcoming sight was the influx of woodwinds to the orchestra pit as the Cavallieri Rusticana’s cast taking a bow. As the curtain opened, it’s a also a huge relief that the infinite stage was reduced to 1/20th of its depth and approximately 1/16th of its cross-sectional area, with Susanna’s chamber at the center just above the orchestra pit. The first bar of music and one is ready to grab on the the seat preparing for the journey. This will be a first impression on the entire show how everything fits. I find the staging quite effective: a dark and simple room with a small-sized cross and tiny window above-head level where moon light comes through. The scene gives the feeling of entrapment in a tight and defined (regularized) space with freedom in the form of flower scent, moon light, and breezes traverse unconstrained on the outside. The burying ground underneath reveals the existence of condemned desire. When Susanna finally undressed herself to feel the flesh, a larger than life cross descended from “heaven”. She descended with it into the underground, hugging the human-sized figure of Jesus on the cross as the “mob” arrived for condemnation and shutting the tomb sealing her on the inside, the same way they had done forty years ago. Musically it remained intriguing and engaging and tense throughout, and before you could breath a sigh, any sign, it was over! ARGH!!
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Singing-wise, ACA’s voice is everything I’ve anticipating. My first impression: omg, i would like to hear her singing non-stop for the next 3 hours. My second impression: she can not be thinking of retiring any time soon!!! not with this voice, must keep track of what she’s singing for the next few years!! For this piece, I will have to admit Susanna is part of a “whole” in the music. She sings about equal amount as Klementia, so one would have to give equal credit to both in the ability to carry along the narrative. The acting is highly compelling (and offered a good contrast to that during the first piece). That said, I strongly believe Opera Bastille is too big for this piece, such that it loses its intimacy in the communication between these two characters. Some part of the conversation can even be “heard” as internalized process and as such the ability to sing softer would be welcomed. However, because the orchestra (modern) was quite loud, likely to fill the entire house, the singers can not really afford to reduce the volume. I had a very good seat on the first balcony, and all sound came without any hinderance. Thus I wonder if the orchestra played softer one could ever achieve a more intimate feeling; likely not because I am told this is probably one of the biggest houses if not the biggest in France, and perhaps even Europe? It draws comparison only to the MET (the MET is bigger, but if you’re in the same conversation… I’d also mention LA opera, or San Diego auditorium.. *huge*..) . From a recent interview ACA mentions she might also sing Sancta Susanna in New York (Carnegie hall? isnt’ that also very big? but I’ll come to that for a more “chamber-like” feeling). We are coming back tomorrow for another round, this time I’ll be on the 2nd balcony. Will report how sound will come from there.

My discussion with Al did evolve around the point of what Susanna is expressing desire to (I am still unsure), whether it is spiritually offering both her flesh body and soul to the higher divine, or whether it is a deviation from her devoted spirit and unwavering physical desire of the flesh. In addition, we are still pondering the symbolic meaning of Jesus on the cross, whether it is a relation to the divine figure or a male figure or both..

Also, similar to Dehggi’s and her “enter-the-shrine” feeling in Munich, Opéra Bastille is that glorious hall for me where V.Kasarova debuted her Roméo. All these years, and finally here we are🙂. Oh, Al also informed me C.Bartoli is singing the title role of “Ariodante” in Händel’s opera this 2/Jun and the Salzburg festival!! I better sort out my schedule.

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This is a report of the double-billed of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna on Saturday 3/Dec/2016. For a less biased opinion on the first piece, please check this review out. If that is true that Sancta Susanna was only ***20min long, i’m indeed *very* miffed!

Alcina at Boston Conservatory, round 2

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

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.

Alcina

Alcina

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).

Ruggiero

Ruggiero

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).

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Bradamante

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!

a highly enjoyable “Alcina” at Boston Conservatory

This is a brief write-up of the performance on Friday night with cast #2. On Saturday i’m coming back with a group of friends/new-comers to operas for cast #1, with a mezzo Ruggiero. First, a link to Sta nell’ircana to listen along as I continue to type:

Having just come back from the Alcina in Wien, the first 10-20 minutes were a little bit of adjustments in the head to the difference between full professional and a *very good* student-based production. That being said, I’m most happy to report the orchestra, under the direction of Andrew Altenbach (musical director of Opera for the Boston Conservatory), was superb! For such a production one could say the conductor is the most important person: his precise direction in the orchestra as well as care for the singers were a great joy to listen/watch. Several of the tempo choices, I wonder, were perhaps adapted to put the singers in the best situations to shine. For about 3/5 of the arias, part B & A-repeat were omitted. I think this is justified considering the (a) duration, (b) high level + focus on singing, and (c) non full-professional acting. The staging is minimal and made sense, and almost reminded me of the Carsen’s Alcina in several scenes. I will write more about the staging perhaps after tomorrow. Here is more a focus on the singing.

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Bizhou Chang sang a very convincing Alcina. Her voice is quite warm and large (Verdi?!) which allows her to vary quite a bit in intensity and even shades/colors, even during the recitative part! The only part that didn’t quite work for me was the B-section in “Ah mio cor”, where it was a bit too “smooth” (almost swinging) in the tempo! I’d have liked it a bit more “vicious” or “faster” and delivered with more emotion, which I think she could do, but for some reason the tempo was just a bit too much “in harmony”. Perhaps there is a point there, sarcastic?, which I might have missed.. “Mi restano le lagrime” was skipped! as well as the B+A part for “Ma quando tornerai”. Actually, for “Ma quando tornerai”, i think a certain amount of “shaking” in the body is a requisite!🙂 . No, really, either that, or more vocal expressions are needed (in general, from any singers I’ve heard), otherwise it’s a bit too smooth and doesn’t quite express the mood. Having been listening a lot to Alcina lately, I have also now a theory for “Sì, son quella”: the most important work required for this aria is in the recitative leading up to it! otherwise it will not set the mood correctly, e.g., if Alcina rushes through the recit for example, or if the Ruggiero/Alcina dynamics are not set properly, and thus will result in a “jump” from rush to a sudden huge drop in emotion. I remember liking her “Sì, son quella” but enjoying also her “Di, cor mio”. This one, being an “interactive” aria of simultaneous acting between Alcina and Ruggiero (as it seems to be the case for many stagings?) and musical phrasing of Alcina, it works well if the acting is not “hindering” the phrasing. Here the only minor quibble I had was with Ruggiero’s (lack of) facial expression..

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the chorus

Ruggiero was sung by counter-tenor Rudy Giron. I was quite puzzled by the tempo set for “Di te mi rido” , again being strangely “swingy” and “smooth” and on the slow side, enough for me to be confused about the flow and needing to read up the translation. On that same note, “la bocca vaga” was a bit “too nice”. Need stalking! After the first intermission, I moved up to row B (from row F, in a very intimate 325-seat theater and caught up with Giron’s facial expression. He seemed to finally expressed the torment in Ruggiero in his face and thus one can make connection to the phrasing. “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” was quite beautifully delivered. And this is the first time *ever* i actually understand “verdi prati” !! the staging finally made sense for this, with a bit of “reflection” as Ruggiero stood in an empty spot looking at a small now-stripped flower-branch reminiscing his time with Alcina. I’ll make more notes and report next time… “Mio ben tesoro” was skipped.. and we were delighted to hear the horns to start Sta nell’ircana. His delivery of this aria was great! I particularly liked how he treated the coloratura run. And the voice somehow fits this aria very well: not light, not smooth, but with a nice texture + color. As we have discussed before, just like for Alcina, Ruggiero’s various arias call for a range of colors and flexibility and sensitivity, and some voices fit certain arias better than others. His acting, though on the minimal side, was actually a delight starting in Act 2, in that Ruggiero was not swaggering across (Bradamante took charge instead!) but was more on the internalizing of the conflict and guilt. He even spent some time by Alcina’s side after all was set and done.. and it was Bradamante who return during “Sta nell’ircana” with 2 swords in hand taking charge. Thus Ruggiero’s internal conflict was more on display and at times one forgets whether it was a male or female singer who was delivering. Regarding the clip above, I’m quite amazed to re-listen to Vivica Genaux and realizing how much “heft” and superb low-notes she has! (Side note: could we also have her as Ruggiero for one of Papatanasiu’s future Alcina?)

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Oberto, Oronto, Morgana, Alcina, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Melisso

The best acting of the night went to Natalie Logan’s Morgana. Her timing for acting + phrasing is quite spot on. And the absolute best comedy moment as well: just before “Tornami a vagheggiar” when she flipped her magic to close the doors and trapped Bradamante in the room. This aria was very well delivered, and was the first time I noticed she started phrasing and using different colors. The rest of the evening follows with increasingly more delightful phrasing. She had the two highly sensitive arias with solo viola da gamba and violin, and W.O.W. the soloists in the pit!!! SUPERB phrasing (and conducting). Back to Logan, her voice is a bit on the “getting used to” for my ears.. not sure if i could ever get used to it, but she was right behind Alcina in vocal expression. The sisters ruled! (and they stick together at the end when everyone else abandoning the island!)

Bradamante was sung by Michaela Wolz. She might take over Ruggiero sometimes with the nice stance! Her acting contrasts quite nicely with Ruggiero’s sensitive version. It’s a bit hard to comment on Bradamante’s arias: they are fast and furious, and unless they set the theater on fire you will simply go with them as are.. I quite like the tempo for “All’alma fedel”, and in parallel with the acting, showing how Bradamante was the stabilizer of all relationships and possibly the only one with a head to think properly. In fact this might be the first staging I’ve seen (and perhaps having to do with Wolz’s acting) where Bradamante seems to fully take control, knowing what she wants and how to get it.

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Oberto, Oronto, Morgana, conductor, Alcina, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Melisso

Of the minor roles, I quite enjoy the singing of Haichen Peng as Oberto. I must emphasize though the superb job Altenbach did in leading the orchestra to highlight the music, lead the story, and fully paying attention to all his singers. The acting took a bit to warm up but everything fell into places as the night went on, and with the superb music and Händel, it ended up a highly enjoyable evening! Fingers crossed the orchestra and conductor keeping up the high energy tomorrow; everything comes from the pit! and I’m ready for a mezzo Ruggiero!

boston musicians’ “songs for syria”

programLast week a group of established Boston musicians gathered at a church in Brookline for a concert to help raise money to support the Syrian refugees. Given the election outcome, it also felt like a much needed get-together to understand human goodness and compassion as still being alive and strong. Many of us dealt with the election result in various way. A lesson I learned during our “sea survival” course was somehow playing in my head: in the event the ship goes down and we find ourselves on a tiny raft drifting in the open ocean, it is essential to define immediate tasks to keep the moral and to move forward. In addition to reading up on how to deal with / help those in case of being discriminated p1030749aagainst or witnessing discrimination, in a bigger picture, I constantly have in the back of my mind the former hausmate’s comment on the lost of the young generation in Syria due to the war. Many of us Vietnamese can relate to several generations being on the run, dying at sea, languishing in refugee camps, and missing out on education. So while we have been discussing extensively within my circle of friends about the lack of science and art education in the the US as a contribution to the current political situation, I also, perhaps naïvely, believe that accessibility to education is the key to engaging young minds and reducing conflicts. So yes, post election, the assessment of the situation involves putting things into local/global perspectives and focusing on doing positive things at however small scale we can.

The concert itself restored some of my hopes. Of the many memorable things, one that really struck me was a song, sung by Nizar Fares, about the memory of the left-behind “home” on the top of the hill behind the fog in Lebanon, followed by a “prayer” for the ones who were left behind. Below are some photos from the concert and the full program. It was an emotional evening with everyone gathering for a good cause. The hope of course is to continue with the help and fight.

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video stream alert — sara mingardo

Now, Sunday, 13/Nov/2016, at 18CET, 12 East coast US time,
Händel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno
Berlin Staatsoper
Disinganno: Sara Mingardo
Belezza: Hélène Le Corre
Piacere: Inga Kalna
Tempo: Charles Workman

Video Stream via Staatsoper-berlin.de/ (Many thanks to Anik for the alert.).
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Edit: Running commentary
– the capturing machine encountering some hiccups , grrr
– the sound is always damped while captured..
– ohhhh, i love her hair (S.Mingardo’s. and she’s got some quite nice boots, and smirks, and tie)
– here comes Disinggano’s first aria
– that bar counter is too tall! Disinganno is having trouble reaching😀
– the pace is significantly less of a rush than the February version at La Scala (though i’ll need to rewatch because the capture machine always reduces sound to way too low)
– somehow it seems a bit too rehearsed. The singing is a bit too under-controlled? (might also be my faulty sound during capturing). But perhaps it’s the tempo, all very under-controlled and a bit regular.. Of course we don’t need a big rush leaving the singers behind like back in February…
– or perhaps it’s also the production? it’s got tons of actions. S.Mingardo is of quite familiar with it. I do like her phrasing a lot, and the finger pointing that goes with the phrase.
– ah i get it now, i think they (Disinganno and Tempo staged the dead drug user — putting on cross-like position) to guilt-trip Belezza.
– Who was it to first mentioned Kalka’s singing as “controlled” ? I think it was Eyes, on that Alcina trip to London..
– yes, i think that’s what it is, the tempo is “too regular” (and perhaps it’s the orchestra? we’re so used to hearing this with baroque bands, the last being E.Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée!)
– heheh, Disinganno was staring down her glasses and i thought (s)he was playing with the jphone.
– oh, interview at intermission with Inga Kalna (in German! she must have worked in Germany for a very long time? *very* clear pronunciation)

alcina 2016, round 2

Back from my 21-hr journey and now have mixing in head a combination of jet-lag + too much caffein + fluid equations + alcina… I regretted not being able to stay until the last performance tomorrow due to a pressing conference.. Ideally I would like a sudden cancelation of conference now.. and a teleport machine to transfer me back to Vienna.. But as it is not the case, here we are, with a report from my 2nd attendance of Alcina, Wednesday, 26.Oct.2016. Please refer to Anik’s wonderful post of the same night’s experience here.
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We are going to start with Alcina🙂. Way back in 2010, someone gave me an Alcina book for this production, with a very nice interview with A.Harteros who discussed about singing this role, about the character, ornamentations, and the six arias (here’s the original text and translation, much much thanks to Smorgy; the post just after that is Minkowski’s interview and translation). Listening to Harteros at the time, then many other Alcinas with “lighter” voices through the years, and now with Papatanasiu over 2 nights, I’m really developing an appreciation for the wide range of heft, sustained emotion, tessitura, and agility these six arias demanded. Last Sunday I was trying to understand M.Papatanasiu’s “Ombre pallide” and “Ma quando tornerai”, and I have them now figured out! Her voice fits this role (and my brain) like a glove! with enough darkness in the tone and an edge to it. Especially the ones which requires long sustained lines and emotion, e.g., “Sì, son quella“, “Ah! mio cor“, and “Mi restano le lagrime” . For “Dì, cor mio” , I know why I’m having difficulty: there is a disconnection between the mood in the text/music and the abrupt physical movements on the stage. It was less abrupt during this night.. Putting the “legendary” (<– I believe this is the right word) take of this scene by Harteros with Kasarova as her stage partner aside and judging this night performance as an independent entity, perhaps *much* less action is needed, if one can not move without disrupting the flow of the music. Here I’m talking entirely of Ruggiero’s movements. Apology for going a bit overboard, but Ruggiero’s “touches” on Alcina reminded me of someone looking for a lost key in the dark.. Another way to say this: perhaps it would have worked better (for the digestion) if I had closed my eyes and let the imagination fills in Alcina’s musical lines. Thus, i have not yet sorted out if this aria truly works for me with MP singing it, and wished I could have a 3rd night to experience. On this night, MP also pushed quite a bit harder (more emotion), but at the expense of less piani and pianissimi. It worked out GREAT for “Ombre pallide” and “Ma quando tornerai” ! These two arias are at times fast and furious, and perhaps requiring a bit of “heft” and “rage” at the expense of control, and the way she did it simply worked! In “Ma quando tornerai”, I was curious how she would maneuver the fast coloratura with the more “weight” she put on: The shake is back!🙂 . With Harteros, as a certain reader might have noticed, i discussed discretely her “shake” in tune with the coloratura: it actually works quite well in transmitting perhaps a certain level of “rage” and emotion (?). MP brought her shoulder shake to the table this time along with more emotion and heft, GREAT! I absolutely loved it! And for “Ombre pallide”, i regret not having made any keep of her wonderful navigation up and down the vocal range and into her chest register! It is an art in itself how she does it, so wonderful for the (my) ears (I should mention her ascending into high notes are *really* wonderful and reveals she’s a soprano, i was hoping she could cover both soprano and mezzo ranges :-D)! I first noticed it during “se viver non degg’io” and more prominently in Semiramide, but this is serious plunging to great effect. Of particular note is the “sorder da me” to end “Ombre pallide”, no short cut, no navigating away, no easy way out, simply a strong presence and punctuation. *love*. For “Mi restano le lagrime”, i missed the piani and quiet (very short) pauses between the phrases, which she brought out more prominently during the Sunday’s performance. This is an aria of reflection, and I think a more internalized take could fit better (?) . But what these two nights have highlighted for me is an artist who is not afraid to bring all she has to the table, to be true to the character, and to adapt night to night the way the emotion flows. On any given night, the portrayal can be different from the last, but the true character is present in full flesh. That is something I search for and truly appreciate / cherish. Alcina is truly hers. Please keep this role in the repertoire!!
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Onto Ruggiero.. I read on Anik’s post’s comment section regarding voice type for this role, heavy versus light.. and through all of that, i think Rachel Frenkel is still on the extreme light side for this role. But then i caught myself thinking “hey, this could have been P.Jarrousky”, and that pretty much re-set the appreciation-o-meter (sorry, i insist a mezzo for Ruggiero!!). But it is true, on this night, her movements and actions are more with purposes, and that simply worked into the portrayal of the character. For “Mi lusinga il dolce affeto”, I’m still having difficulty: it still sounded somehow “too fast”. As I discussed with Anik, “fast” or “slow” is a relative perception: Even for identical tempo, if the singer can delve deeply into the emotional state, through the use of colors and intensity, we the audience almost pause in time to reflect with the character on the true meaning; however if you (the audience) don’t feel this reflection is happening but rather hearing an aria being sung, then it’s rushing by too fast. There, my analogy. Starting with “Verdi prati” i enjoyed her phrasing much more. This scene also has so much sincerity to it thanks to the now quite touching build-up of Ruggiero-Bradamante’s relationship, and I think she also took more time with the phrasing. And “sta nell’ircana” is a tour-de-force! Marc Minkowski and les Musiciens du Louvre marched along with her building up the tension, accentuate the “vocal swagger”, and put forth a highly charged take. Even her stage movements to start the aria are now more spontaneous: Ruggiero is now marching the stage ordering the troupe into form, the arm gestures are shorter but full of intention. As for her vocal heft, you’re welcome to have a glimpse with the trio “non e amor ne gelosia” , which is a good case to hear the contrast in voice heft because Alcina always makes the entrance in the long sustained line, with Ruggiero and Bradamante following suit. This year is the first time I heard Alcina’s line almost as “solo” and realized how much darker MP’s tone is compared to even Gritskova (and thus the reason I hear MP’s voice so well in general).

Gritskova turned in a very honest Bradamante’s portrayal. Everything was more spontaneous during this performance, and with that, we have Bradamante instead of a singer trying to portray Bradamante. You know Gritskova is fully embodying the character when she plowed over the chair without any concern (Anik mentioned this) or especially during “Verdi prati” when she “forgot” to (follow the routine to) take off her sword before lying down on the “grass” field listening to Ruggiero. Vocally I quite like her darker tone, which sounded natural to my ears. And even for the B-section in “Vorei vendicarmi” where it’s a bit low for her, there is such an honesty in the vocal details and delivery you can feel Bradamante’s pain. Another thing I really enjoyed was when she took off the Richardo’s “mask” in the form of changing into the dress: there’s a little expression of intial self “joy”, then a slight reaction to the surrounded crowd of “this is actually who i am”, then an uplifted subtle “delight” with the vocal delivery filling in the gap. These gestures and reactions are so small, and yet they yielded a wonderful effect that many of the “grand” postures and large gestures can not bring.

With these three singers leading the way, the night was much more rewarding than on Sunday where I thought Papatanasiu carried the show (she still did, but now with Ruggiero and Bradamante participating). I truly wished I could have stayed for the last performance to see how everything fits together once more..

Some very last notes then: Now that I have finally paid attention to the staging, I have a lot of questions. For example, why was there an old guy showing up during Oberto’s aria (can’t remember which one, when he was playing tickling with Alcina, that was a cute scene🙂 ), which prompted Oberto to hide behind Alcina’s back and her given him a glare? Also, who exactly is Ruggiero in this case? The Dutchess’ lady friend? Was she longing for an excursion before reverting back to the norm?

Finally, an amusement.  As “Mi restano le lagrime” ended, I always needed a bit of time to recover. As a result, the sight of Papatanasiu with the javelin took a little bit of time to register! And as we joked the contrast of a “heavy-weight javelin” in Harteros case versus “feather-weight” for MP’s, I wanted to mention again how well she strikes the balance with the javelin. As none of us here are olympic athletes (?), being given a javelin (or sword..) can reveal our imbalance unfavorably.. and Papatanasiu really held it with such great balance you can feel a sense of threat / aim (and indeed it’s so in balance i initially thought it was the ballet dancer who was holding it). This really expanded to a more general case of her stage presence, where a movement or a look is never wasted but has a strong purpose, a case when someone glares at something with such intensity that causes the entire room full of people to trace the back-end of it, as an example. I know I have talked about her quite a bit in this post and the last, but I have come to realize it’s quite rare to find an artist with such high technical level of singing and acting commitment, and an intensed focus to bring truth to the character, and I am very glad to have discovered her.

With that, the Alcina 2016 excitement ended for me, but I will be camping over at Anik‘s for a report on tomorrow’s performance.  Below is the curtain call. please excuse the shaking. Also, some of the zoomings were outside my control (i swear)! As soon as people started moving in front the zoom suddenly took a life of its own…