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…

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alcina at the wiener staatsoper (2016)

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Almost exactly 6 years after the premiere, and after some unexpected (personal schedule) delay, Alcina has finally arrived. Unlike in the original run where I was alone at the queue and sending reports out, this round was extra special with Anik‘s accompaniment. To say we were a tad anxious was about perhaps not quite descriptive enough ;-). Already the night before at Armide I was searching up and down for (what i expected full-wall-sized) announcement of Alcina. We arrived rather early in the standing room ticket queue anxiously going through the various scenarios of bad dreams, Anik’s being “kicked to the back of the queue, show canceled, show replaced..” while mine was more a big paste over of the main singer’s name with a REPLACEMENT.. Thank goodness, nothing happened (yet) as we rushed up the stairs to another door, with tickets in hands, only to wait another half hour as Les Musiciens du Louvre (lMdL) tuned their instruments and ran through the first bit of the overture and finale chorus. Yes, dear readers, to say I have a photographic memory of this staging as well as an imprinted-in-head replay of every character’s music + aria (led by Minkowski and lMdL) is an understatement. Since my discovery of Händel in 2010, this has been _the_ Alcina for me, starting from the bell ringing to the opening overture. I have heard countless other Alcinas, however, if your first ever *three* live performances were that of the Alcina run in 2010, it is simply a part of your life 🙂 .

By the time we finished putting on the scarf to mark our spots, only meekly 15min remained to take care of any last minute needs. The anxious wait has ended. Here I was again, stehplatz parterre, just 3 spots to the left of where I was in 20.Nov.2010, looking into the pit with theorbo arriving. As the curtain raised to the familiar scene, the memory has come full circle. My reasons for coming to _this_ Alcina are very specific. I was trying to rank them, and through impossible as it is, it has to be: Alcina with Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre, AND Myrtò Papatanasiu as Alcina. Yes, I would say if it’s only the first two, I might not have gone completely out of my way to get here. And to put into perspective, these combinations, for example, would prompt me to immediately clear schedule: Harteros as Alcina, Antonacci (!!) as *any* character, Kasarova as Ruggiero, Sara Mingardo as Bradamante, Nathalie Stutzmann or E.Haïm or R.Jacobs and their orchestras in the pit, or Minkowski+lMdL+Papatanasiu. On the flight over I was debating a bit why I was quite drawn to Papatanasiu’s singing, especially because of all the singers I love listening to, her voice is the most difficult for me. Well, let’s proceed with Alcina shall we!

squealing (stealing photo from Anik's)

squealing (stealing photo from Anik’s)

Just as the overture start, Alcina is already on scene to greet her various friends and family. Yes, perhaps when we do enjoy seeing/hearing a performer, there is a certain level “obsession” as to why we can not take our eyes/ears off of them? But let us flip the question around: why does a certain singer/performer demand your attention? In general, and for Papatanasiu’s case, I have to mention her subtlety and intensity in body angle and gesture and foremost facial expression and eye angles: The key to “less is more”. The moment she’s on scene she demands our attention, and this is even before she sings a note.

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At this point perhaps I should warn you, dear readers, that the post might get quite long and I might not get around to talk about any other singers :-). As I’m so used to hearing Minkowski’s take of the overture, it was simply time well-spent to enjoy the body gestures and movements on stage. We will come back to Bradamante and Morgana in a bit, but let’s start with the ballet! Even during my flight, while pondering if the main singer might need to cancel, I concluded I would still have a great time basking myself in the ballet music and dancing (more ballet music below). As much as I tried, there was inevitably always going to be some comparison to the 2010 run, namely the two main singers then and now. Perhaps on this coming Wednesday I’ll try to keep a more open mind, but the contrast of “slowly building of the momentum” and “sensual movements from the core” between Harteros and Kasarova and the sometimes rather abrupt movements between Papatanasiu and Frenkel were rather strong, and as my brain has always processed this aria in the sensual-approach, it took a bit of time to adjust to. Hearing live, vocally, Papatanasiu’s voice is quite bigger than I had expected, with none of the tightness I experienced hearing via recording (except when she has to sing very fast some recitative parts), but rather with an edge which I do enjoy very much. The voice is quite rich, expressive, and her phrasing really makes sense to my brain. Again, I have talked about this before, I have no idea how it works, but I would compare her phrasing to Antonacci’s phrasing when it comes to “making sense”. I do think there is a universal way humans communicate aurally to deliver the phrase. For lack of vocabulary, I’d categorize it as via the musical path and the shaping-of-the-language path (to my musically uneducated brain). And in this home-made language, I’d put Kasarova and Harteros in the intense shaping of music regardless of language, and Antonacci, Mingardo, and Papatanasiu in the accentuation of the phrase from the language vantage in parallel with the music.

(more ballet)

This is a long way of saying as soon as Papatanasiu started singing “Di cor mio”, i was thinking perhaps I should rearrange my flight to stay until the last performance next sunday. Right, then some stuff happening on stage, and Alcina made her return to the stopping-breathing “Si son quella”. Tear-inducing dear readers, such an honesty, raw emotion, combining with very subtle acting and movement. It is simply very hard (for me) to understand in this staging how this sympathetic Alcina can be a sorceress. But we already knew that from 2010 when I openly questioned how anyone can abandon Alcina. As she slowly drifted out of sight, I was left thinking again of the psychological build-up of Alcina. (Perhaps this is the right spot to mention Papatansiu is quite effective in portraying troubled powerful female character. She left me thinking for months about Semiramide!) Some more singing went on and finally “ah mio cor” was upon us. The recitative leading into both this and “Si son quella”…, riiiight, Please, dear Ms. Papatanasiu, if you ever chance upon reading this, please sing some Monteverdi!! Emotionally filled recitative, how I *ADORE* ❤ ❤ . While i was intensively drawn to the military drive from the pit (<– do click on the link), Alcina had collapsed to the floor, from which an internalized “ah! mio cor..” rose. For a brief moment, I was thinking perhaps she was pushing a bit too hard. But if there is a moment for an all-out, this is it: the wheels just came off Alcina’s wagon. And for every fff “traditore! t’amotanto“, she always pulled back to a piano “puoi lascarmi sola in pianto“. As detailed in Anik’s post of her take on Lungi da te, I would put this down as a very specific choice of how she wants to phrase the music to draw in internally this question in the text.

The contrast with Harteros' take is stark: Harteros' Alcina is an imposing figure raging the stage in the B-section claiming vengence and stood defiantly to the end. Papatanasiu's take is a devastating one, both in her phrasing and the physical portrayal: from the stumbling collapse, to slowly coming off the chair falling by the sideway. Even in her defiant moment grabbing the bystander by the collar as she abruptly declared "Ma! (che fà gemendo Alcina?)“, Alcina’s vulnerability is still fully on display. Unlike Harteros’, I am unsure if Papatanasiu’s Alcina is capable of being vindictive. This is not a statement that one is better than the other, but rather an analysis of how both are devastatingly effective. Slowly, Alcina rising to her feet, stars (and time) slowly coming down, train of (baroque) strings plunging into the abyss, curtain coming close.. and I (we), left frozen in space and time, drifted to the floor in exhaustion.
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Given that I was unable to move for the next 10min dear readers, we settled on the spot to discuss “things”. There were questions to me regarding how I managed to block out the live performances I have experienced in 2010 when it comes to this new cast + take. To summarize, with Alcina, it worked for me from the start. Papatanasiu’s portrayal was simply real, raw, emotional, and much more importantly, musically intense, such that one does not need to revert to any previous experience for comparison. And i only mentioned Harteros often above to simply point out how the characters were portrayed and why they were so effective. (But to be very honest, I think it is much more difficult to cast Ruggiero, and yes, it’s a curse if your first ever Ruggiero is Kasarova and you are into that type of vocal expression…)

After intermission, I was wondering how one can recover from “ah mio cor”.. “ombre pallide” came a bit too soon. And again, i immensely enjoyed her recitative take before waving the magic wand. Let me listen once more on Wednesday before commenting on this, as I admit to being a bit distracted by the arms wand 😉 , as well as her lovely low notes. Yes, she did some lovely plunging into the chest register. Those low notes are quite distracting. “Ma quando tornerai” was taken *quite* faster than what I’m used to! Let me work again on Wednesday to sort out how it fits. By now, of course, Alcina has almost resigned to the fact Ruggiero is a goner, any last minute attempt to rekindle is long gone. The trio “non e amor e gelosia” was taken even faster than my brain could digest, really need a couple more days to sort out how this fits in. As the dust settle in the Lioness’ den, the dim light has returned to “mi restano le lagrime”, with Alcina reminiscing her good time with Ruggiero, a timid hand-hug, a polite bow, a soft smile.. heart break.. sniff… yes, that sitting in on the chair, candle flickering, pouring self a scotch. Poor poor Alcina. (side track: this scene somehow brings back memory of Kasarova’s soft smile in the tomb in Capuleti, sniff..)

(yes, even more ballet, to hope)

Dear readers, I think I might just end here, too heart broken to go on. There needs to be a radio recording of Papatanasiu singing this role, with a baroque specialist in the pit who cares for her phrasing and work together to make such music possible for us the audience to enjoy. We left rather slowly while recovering from the evening. But yes, we did attempt to swing by the stage door aftward. Similar to the lack of any kind of promotion posters for Alcina in the Metro, I was surprised to see not too many waiting there to talk to her. I guess that is the norm here at Wiener Staatsoper to only promote premiere and bury all others under some rugs. I’m unsure how aware Papatanasiu is of her more expanded fanbase in western europe and even the US in response to the recent broadcasts of her Mitridate. I will be on the look out for her performances, especially if she’s singing with these fantastic orchestras and conductors and in early music. And as usual, we all hope singers keep an updated schedule far enough in advance on their sites for fans to manage schedule/flight to attend. I’d say for me, she’s a very unique performer with the capability to transport the music (early?) and in combination with her acting, leaving a very strong impression, enough for one to travel 1/2 way around the globe to hear.

here’s a short curtain call. i missed the roar she received on the first walk out, too busy clapping! please excuse the lack of discussion for the orchestra, but with enough music excerpts of the ballets + overture, i hope to convince you of my obsession for M.Minkowski’s take with lMdL of this Alcina.

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(ps- I might return at some point to write about the rest of the performance and singers in a separate post…)