Review: From Vulcan With Love? “Alcina” at Theater an der Wien


[Disconnections among ashes: David Hansen (Ruggiero), Katarina Bradić (Bradamante), Florian Köfler (Melisso), Mirella Hagen (Morgana) and Marlis Petersen (Alcina) in Handel’s “Alcina” at Theater an der Wien, Vienna 2018 – Photo Credit: Herwig Prammer.]

A volcano island landscape: past explosive passion hinted at by hardened stone. Who ever stalks through here has been set out to dry under the cool, dissecting lights turned onto that social formation called affection.

Tatjana Gürbaca’s new reading of Handel’s “Alcina” has nothing warm, nothing nostalgic or messily passionate, nothing of the sensuous, shifting ambiguity that seem so central to the opera. But does it work without it?

Seeing this was an interesting experiment. I tend to get invested in “Alcina” performances and don’t look at them from an analytic viewpoint first. So what happens when a director like Gürbaca – supported by a cast who could vocally and scenically follow this cool, analytic approach – , whose gaze can maybe be described as that of a lab researcher, turns on bright lights and searches for states to translate into images while eliminating the suggestive shadowed corners where projections lay?

I was barely moved at any point (and an emotional oomph was, I suspect, not the aim of this evening), but I am not sure I have had new clarity of thoughts on “Alcina”, either. Part of it may be that the set-up of “Alcina” cannot live without the twilight of ambiguous wishes and nostalgia after all. Or can it?

From my vantage point in the hall, I could see, before everything started, more women than men in the pit. The Concentus Musicus, now under Stefan Gottfried, received a very warm welcome from the audience (they would then mostly refrain from clapping for the following three hours) and they were wonderful – from the first bar, they have both the clarity the staging seemed to angle for, but also the transparency, the drive and the presence that it lacked.

The Concentus does not try to be French here, in that fragrant elegance and weight of Minkowski or Christie. Rather, in single, audible, visible brush strokes, one can look down to the very bottom of the well instead of watching the swirls shimmering on its surface.

The set is a barren volcano landscape with a drying pond somewhere in its middle, ashes and uneven ground on a revolving stage, lined by a round horizon prospect in whites and grays and blacks.

Onto this stage comes the Alcina of Marlis Petersen – who made me scream my lungs out in the best possible way over her Maria Stuarda back last season on this same stage -, dressed in billowing parachute silk skirts that in design, if not in brighness, seem to copy Ginevra in the Stuttgart “Ariodante” by Wieler/Morabito, with reddish hair curling onto her shoulders. Who turned Petersen, who has the technique and the stage smarts to do anything but meek girly girl, into a mollified version of Red Phase Simone Kermes?

Lots of extras crowd the scene at most points, preventing, just like the lights, any notion of intimacy and connection between specific characters. Alcina first walks out with a gaggle of women in various shades of red with golden headbands: Me and my sirens, just wrecking us a few sailors for dinner! The choreography around a toy ship works well with the second movement of the ouverture.

Morgana (Mirella Hagen), walking in, looks like a Charlotte pin-up for a conventionally thirsty Werther: round-necked white dress falling below her knees, hair brushed back, black sash around her middle. All that’s missing are the saddle shoes.

In from their wrecked ship stumble a besuited Melisso (Florian Köfler) and Bradamante (Katarina Bradić), who starts out by throwing her sword half across the stage – Lässt man in einer Dame Schlafzimmer seinen Degen herumliegen? – and who also does not look bad at all in her white shirt.


[WS Poetry: righthand corner. – Handel’s “Alcina” at Theater an der Wien, Vienna 2018 – Photo Credit: Herwig Prammer. There is a full photo gallery online and interestingly enough, the majority of pictures feature Bradamante, or Bradamante/Morgana, which was – I am not unduly biased here, I swear, just duly – the one combination where something like a connection happened]

While the overall direction might have left me with a shiver not of sensuality, but of the chill the evening carried, there are very lucid images scattered throughout that cut through. Two good moments occur right here in the beginning: Bradamante and Melisso, like a pair of entitled colonizers landing on an indigenous island, immediately threaten Morgana, who couldn’t look any meeker or more harmless, with weapons (Bradamante with a sword in minute #1. Yes, we may have to take a moment here). Morgana, slowly, unfurls her handkerchief – it is white – and waves it like a flag: sober, never flirtatious.

The only sensual swing that “O s’apre il riso” gets is a large actual swing lowering itself from the ceiling, and Morgana and Bradamante get to float over the volcanic landscape in a tiny bout of hypnotic movement, after another striking image: When Morgana starts singing (and, really, there is nothing come-hither about it here – which also makes a point: women are dangerous as soon as they open their mouths, even if scared into submission), Melisso scrambles for earplugs, takes a pair, pushes a second pair onto Bradamante: A siren! We need to protect ourselves! Regardless of gender!

Of course, Bradamante takes hers out again after ten seconds and ends up on the swing wiht Morgana until Melisso pulls her away.

Hagen’s sound is clear, focused and even in projection, technically very good in managing all required agility with ease, but there wasn’t any particular stance recognizable at this point. As if in accordance, Morgana does not really put any moves on Bradamante, and Bradamante also remains reserved.

The volcanos erupt briefly in a shower of sparkles and fireworks, which was about Alcina snagging Ruggiero, I presume, but it could have been all Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” (I *wish* there were that kind of tension going around) with Morgana and Bradamante framed by the swing.


[Enjoy these sparks, they’re the only ones we’ll be getting all night: Mirella Hagen (Morgana) and Katarina Bradić (Bradamante) in Handel’s “Alcina” at Theater an der Wien, Vienna 2018 – Photo Credit: Herwig Prammer]

Queue “Dì, cor mio”: Alcina is transforming men into bird creatures as a sort of panem and circenses for the island party crowd, and in another interesting twist, the men are lining up to be bewitched, begging for it, and every act of magic is met with oohs and ahhhs and applause: this is no punishment, this is a thrill to be sought out.

Petersen brings a clean, clear-cut and focused sound to the table that matches Morgana and the mood of the staging well – she is less opaque, less sizzling lava and more a cool diamond in timbre, the voice not weighty, structuring more via accent than via longer line coloring.
It is one of the puzzles of the evening that Petersen doesn’t burn down the house in this role, despite having all the singing and acting chops for it. Perhaps it is not her kind of repertory, perhaps it was the staging that didn’t give her the kind of odds and vulnerability, the stakes that stack up to fling herself from them in her trademark fearless manner. This isn’t resolved by the absolute lack of chemistry with Ruggiero, which I would not put on Petersen, who could have made me believe the revolving stage was datable as Maria Stuarda.

Alcina and Ruggiero share no palpable backstory here, there is no need or passion to the way they float past each other through the crowd. There is one moment where I perked up, gripped by a phrasing, and it was the way Petersen shaped the “sospiravi” with pushing the weight forward and then having it crumble into an actual sigh.
Alcina then freezes the entire party into couples and since there are more sirens than men, there are suddenly straight couples, quite a few lesbian couples (though ‘lesbian’ in the most cishet sense of the word, but points for trying), and even a gay male one.

Ruggiero (David Hansen) seems to just have recently stumbled into this scenery and has now become part of the casual pan party (I would say “orgy”, but there really is nothing orgiastic happening here – there is a reason why lights are dimmed in backrooms and not as bright as they shine here) and Bradamante, who sees this, sits down in a corner and sulks because she cannot get over exclusive heteronormativity. In a related twist, she early on zooms in on Oberto (Christian Ziemski/Moritz Strutzenberger – sorry, I don’t know which cast it was and I do not find it appropriate to google tween boys to set the name straight here), taking him away from Alcina, acting parental towards him.

When Oberto – who was only given his first aria – walks with Alcina, flowers blossom from the ground and a tree suddenly grows out of the volcano ashes, sporting green leaves. He walks on, accepting magic easily, while Melisso and Bradamante in the background are fascinated and move to examine: what civilization does to us. What Ruggiero basically does is rip off his white shirt and suit trousers and run around in bare feet, a tanktop and boxers all night, much like a 1920s swim suit sans the cap.

Ruggiero’s very first recitative note made me think of Rossini talking about tenors. David Hansen may be the Angela Gheorghiu of countertenors in that 95% of the time, I think “slancio shenanigans!”, but then there are 5% where it gets to you and you are chagrined at having to admit that.

His singing and I are, overall, simply not a match, I which is fine – no one can click with everybody.  He does hit every note and even makes it through the fastest “Sta nell’Ircana” I have ever heard. With all the notes. That is commendable athleticism, as is his moving about stage. If you want speed and agility and the occasional piercing top note – yes, look no further, all that is there.

But if you look at hit from a point of Baroque style, of beauty of tone, of unstrained flow – then the projection is uneven across the range, the singing has much pressure throughout, sharpening the sound, to the point of vowels distorting and coming out garbled, which was even more the issue in the recitatives than in the arias. From those, the endings of “Mi lusinga” and “Mio bel tesoro” worked best towards a flow, also the start of “Verdi prati”. Then again, a flow might not be the aim here.

Ruggiero on the swing brattily denounces Bradamante and when – yes, we have all seen the epic Stuttgart production – she and Melisso hand him his shoes, to turn him back into a civilized man,  he tosses them away. He plucks an apple from the tree and hands it to Bradamante, she eats it: paradise reversed.

Oronte (Rainer Trost) walks in – why does he look like Thor Hemsworth having stepped through an aging portal? Trost’s singing does, as the last few times I have heard him – need a little while to open up: there is more roughhewn core than gleamy top polish now, less sweetness and more men’s aftershave, but a classy one. It is very becoming. That said, he is a luxury Oronte. Plus he is a seasoned singer who does bring all the weight of that fact to the table – he has all the suave breath control, the flow and the long phrasing ability here that Ruggiero does not.

Bradamante immediately takes to a duel with Oronte and wins, Morgana tries to pick up a sword to intervene, but then drops it again; there are poses, but no connections happen. The characters seem to remain within themselves: insects pierced onto vocal shards in their own glass cases, harshly lit to the exclusion of all ambiguities.


[Mirella Hagen (Morgana), Katarina Bradić (Bradamante) and Rainer Trost (Oronte) in Handel’s “Alcina” at Theater an der Wien, Vienna 2018 – Photo Credit: Herwig Prammer]

Bradić’s “È gelosia” shows off the dark tinge to her timbre (92% cocoa!) beautifully, and it is a joy to hear a Bradamante for whom the part does not sit too low. Her timbre interweaves appealingy with a slightly scratchy continuo bass, yet in comparison to the expressiveness of her Penelope under Jacobs in the same house, this Bradamante is more tempered, smoother, the staging perhaps inducing a chill into this portrayal as well.

“Semplicetta in donna credi” goes a little Stuttgart again, with Oronte leaning against Ruggiero’s shoulder, and there might, for a moment, have been a connection? Two men jealous of Bradamante stealing their lovers? (which, after hearing a sword-wielding, shirt-wearing Bradić’s take on this, is entirely plausible, if you ask me)

“Sì, son quella” had, as many of the arias, the Da Capo cut (the evening came in, with generous intermission, at just over three hours — some ballet music was missing, a few arias, but most of all many Da Capo parts, which, for me, goes against the very grain of the opera, and which also robbed us of a lot of great music and a lot of variation the singers could have brought to the table, which might have added some more spark to this lab line dance) and it followed the cool vein of the evening: Alcina ambling through the volcano landscape, flirting in passing with one birdman or the other.  Oh yes, Ruggiero was there, too. Again, Petersen sang very well – a given in her league -, but there were no sparks, no despair, no fear.

“Bradamante così parla a Ruggiero”: this is where Bradamante copies Ruggiero’s own move and rips off her white shirt to reveal a similar blank tank top underneath. (Guess who does it better. Yes, I am biased.) He still rejects her. – “La bocca vaga”, with mocking and physically denigrating Bradamante, does not sit well in tessitura for DH.

Bradamante, when Ruggiero walks off, is heartbroken and crying – when Morgana propositions her, her answers are mechanic, uninvested, without even looking at Morgana, whose “Oh me beata” is accordingly subdued. There is nothing of e.g. Petibon’s giddy, breathless exuberance in “Tornami a vagheggiar”. It is, again, very well sung by Hagen, with an easy flow and even sound even in the coloratura parts, but it does not break the glass case. Yet there is a small moment of connection here, in this scene: Morgana sings of attraction (though there is no vibe of it), while Bradamante tries to impale herself on her sword, which is the most divisive set-up imaginable. But then Morgana sees it, takes away the sword. She picks up Bradamante’s discarded shirt and gently puts it back on her, then leads her by the hand to the small pool of water, washes her hand, comforts her. And they sit by the well. It is a tender moment, not a sexual one. But perhaps there is a tiny spark – Bradamante finally looks up again, and when Morgana splashes water at her and then walks away, she hesitantly follows after her after a moment, a bit of breathless possibility written into her pose in a shared, playful moment.

(Who would have thought Morgana would be the emotional center of an “Alcina”?! Yet here we go).


[Mirella Hagen (Morgana) and Katarina Bradić (Bradamante) in Handel’s “Alcina” at Theater an der Wien, Vienna 2018 – Photo Credit: Herwig Prammer]

Not all Ruggieros reach a sudden moment of clarity, mental or vocal, at the beginning of Act II. Ah well.

There is a woman with a supersized dove head (“Es ist ein Zahnrad mit zwei Tauben, die in ihren Schnäbeln das Zahnrad der Industrie tragen…”) and there is also a 19th century old white man with sick sideburns and a Manet-style top hat, French bourgeois dress complete with pocket watch, bent over the 3D paper model of a factory which… yes, I was about as lost as this sounds (but dehggi may have sorted this out in the comments below!).

Melisso’s tone remains monotonous in the recitative, though his aria is evenly sung, pleasant in tone and without pressure, but it remains pale, lacking, for my taste, in weight (the singer is very young, which might play a part here).
Bradamante is standing around in a wedding dress complete with flower bouquet, but gets to deliver an unchallenged “Vorrei vendicarmi” – again, even sound and very good technique, working form a more specific Early Music angle (focused, agile, smaller-sized, clear) and then some moments of more expressive magic where the atmosphere in the house suddenly shifted, where Bradić can use her colors to maximum effect: here, for “se vuoi anche il mio sangue” – the aria got the first notable scene applause of the evening.

Gürbaca, I got the impression, looks at states that she can distill into poignant images that may not really connect to one another. Relationships (or lack thereof) do not seem her focal point, she does take’s more of a bird’s eye perspective from above? — There is a beautiful image for “Mi lusinga”: Ruggiero sings, and the tree in the background is, bit by bit, losing its leaves that sail down into the ashes. But just an image is too little here, the tree is meager, and it tries to evoke a nostalgia that can never bloom in a set-up that looks at emotion only as something to dissect.

In another moment that seems lifted out of the Stuttgart production, Bradamante moves past Ruggiero to hug Alcina here, and then they both turn to look at him (look, we all know *that* production, and we know that it is the best production there is of it). And somewhere in the background, Oronte is dancing his name in eurythmy , but I didn’t get why.

Stuttgart continued: Alcina – and with the recitative leading up to “Ama, sospira”, Petersen finally gets some emotional leverage to work with – prepares to curse Bradamante, who drops on all fours and moves around like a cat, past Ruggiero again, and curls unto Morgana instead (can you tell I am enjoying this? You bet I am). And Morgana, with “Ama, sospira”, turns into the emotional center of the evening. Ms. Hagen has arrived on the scene, thank you all very much. And we were *robbed* by that cut da capo.

I could only see about two thirds of the stage, so I am unclear about what happened – at some point, while Alcina struggles, insecurities cracking her prior veneer, Morgana finds her footing and at some point she bends down and slowly kisses Bradamante, who is kneeling in front of her, still half-bewitched, half-animal. Someone utters a gasp at that on stage, and in the same moment, the lights – they had dimmed, for this aria, as I notice now, finally allowing some twilight? – flare up.

Sudden clarity or broken spell? I could not see who left with whom, only that Bradamante moves away and leaves, as does Morgana. With how the evening went overall, I am guessing broken spell (but when was it cast?).

For “Mio bel tesoro”, Ruggiero blindfolds Alcina, which enables him both to sing openly to Bradamante past Alcina’s head, and to leave Alcina vulnerable. It feels icky because this Ruggiero’s masculinity felt toxic – not because he was sung by a man (Jaroussky would have given off a completely different vibe), but in this set-up, with no investment, with prior manhandling, it painted implicit violence quite starkly.

“Ah, mio cor” wasn’t the second coming (as that already happened in 2016 you know where with you know whom), though it was notable that Petersen finally had some scope to work with – again, there is a Stuttgart reference easily readable into the very start of the aria, in Alcina’s stumble. She is not alone in this scene – Morgana sweeps the fallen leaves together, Bradamante embroiders her bridal veil, Ruggiero plays with his pocket watch, Oronte sharpens his sword, Melisso examines the tree.

Petersen picked up the faster speed from the pit – which worked very well – without problems, never once lagging, but not particularly moving, either (which, again, I do not blame on her, we all know what she can do), but there is a notably warmth seeping into the “t’amo tanto”, a vulnerability that gives it weight. As far as size goes, Petersen cannot throw around the sheer volume of a larger lyric soprano, but she works again with accents again here, with a suffocated whisper towards the end, with color shifts for the raging B part where she fells all the others with a hand gesture.

It was curious to not be moved to tears here. Is Petersen’s technique too good, I wondered, her sound too clean to get to the anguish here, just as Ruggiero’s is too garbled to move me?

The orchestral intro to the second part was a Concentus masterclass in distributing weight without breaking the line, but making it utterly compelling nonetheless, using a great dynamic range without making anything jump out unduly in color.

A beautiful image, again: Oronte and Morgana, under an umbrella in the rain. They fight, but they stil share the umbrella. When Morgana walks off, Oronte literally cuts out his heart and squirts blood from it all over stage in a move that was rather on the Jeff Koons side for “È un folle, è un vil affetto”. It got him the only actual laugh of the evening, but again: there was no chance to feel for him, or for anyone. The same happens for “Verdi prati”, which contrasts the aria’s elegic tone with a very conventional interieur – extras carry in two fluffed up pillows, two nightstand lamps, a blanket. And in this bourgeois bedroom, Bradamante in bed reads the newspaper and then she falls asleep on Ruggiero’s shoulder, and it’s a bit of a parody, but it has nothing of the nostalgia that “Verdi prati” is about.

But then, there is another moment, in the afterlude: with Bradamante and Ruggiero asleep, Morgana and Alcina walk in and lay down next to their respective dream lovers, who strain towards them in sleep: Bradamante curling up to Morgana, Ruggiero wrapping around Alcina.

The recitative to start off “Ombre pallide” happens against this backdrop – Ruggiero embracing Brademante embracing Morgana are a sandwich peacefully asleep under the blanket while Alcina desperately tries to call up her powers. Hello, Ms. Petersen, where have you been all evening? Here is the kind of crazy tragic height that she thrives on and the recit is fabulous. In the aria, Alcina conjures up three doubles of herself: one is killing Ruggiero, one is smothering Bradamante with a pillow, the third one I couldn’t see, but she was likely doing something to Morgana. And Petersen gets the da capo here, making it work with very freestyle variations, at the threshold of breaking the beat at times. Again, she did not throw around size, but turned to interpolated high, desperate cries, and the entire thing suddenly came alive.

And another scene where a glass case disappears and someone connects to another: Gürbaca tells Morgana’s sudden change of heart back to Oronte (nothing against Thor Trostworth, but have you seen Bradamante in her suit?) over a pivotal moment where Morgana sees that Oronto has ripped out his heart over her: there is immediate empathy and again it is Hagen who displays the most emotion, the least disjointed arc here.

She start “Credete al mio dolore” from a place of incredible piano, for long, long, seconds, congenially joined by the continuo cello – so quiet that the casually chatting ushers outside were an audible disturbance.

Morgana then buries Oronte’s heart that he hands to her – wrapped in a white handkerchief – in the volcano ashes. Shouldn’t she put it back in? Is this burying past pain? Is this preparing to not feel anything any longer? Hard to believe when “Un momento di contento” is too beautiful to deny the flow and warmth and gleam of it. Yep, Trost still has it. My notes say ‘hello, Ferrando’.

The scornful recit moving up to “Ma quando tornerai” – with Alcina now in a sleek black dress – was right up Petersen’s ally, down to maniac laughter and hissed insults. “Ma quando tornerai” pitted that rage against Alcina trying to move close to Ruggiero, to curl around him and hug him in her lap. It was a reverse take that tried to build layers – good call.

Then you will excuse me because Bradamante walked out in a suit jacket and you do not seriously expect me to pay attention to “Sta nell’Ircana” at breakneck speed, which was a nice illustration of my quickened pulse, when there is a TDH mezzo with a ponytail in a suit playing miniature zen garden sea battles with the bass. My notes: “a crate of beer for the horns!” (who had just one tiny color slip, and no misses at all. Concentus: fabulous!) and “What if Bradamante sang this aria…?” She did sing “All’alma fedele”, beautifully so, but we were robbed of this da capo, too. The cuts took so much chance to get into the groove away from both singers and audience – where does the variation, the individuality happen? In the da capo. But not in this evening.

“Mi restano le lagrime” was clear, without any larmoyance: Gleaming sadness and cold light. It rang of “Che farò senz’Euridice” in its best moments of simple, bright sadness, but of course it is hard to convey the fall of heartbreak if Alcina has never been in love in the first place (not that we have seen, anyway).

The Schönberg choir, spot-on and alert as always, and heard far too little in this opera, returned for a brief interlude, and Alcina prepares some sort of last supper (a bit Jeff Koons again) on the floor, breaking bread and filling up a chalice for her underlings. Oberto suddenly reappears, just to watch Oronte, at Alcina’s orders, slit the throat of the lion who is his father and whom he could not kill when Alcina asked him to. He never learns about this, and he does not get to sing “Barbara”; I think he is only there so that Bradamante and Ruggiero get a little boy to complete their image of heternormative little nuclear family. “Non è amor, ne gelosia” is then, unsurprisingly, an utterly unsexy and flat affair (of course without any kind of da capo), which is not surprising: you cannot have people struggle passionately with how they relate to each other when they have not related to each other at all during the previous three hours. (Could this also work as a duet for soprano and contralto? Asking for a friend.)

When the curse is lifted, Oberto watches the crowd tear into the remaining bird people whose feathers are plucked out, half detached from it like Marie’s boy in “Wozzeck” at the end. Then there are reunion scenes which I didn’t quite get, but there was a cute scene of a half-tree and his boyfried. Go, twigsy, get your twunk back!

Then Alcina wears the lion’s head (which, I guess, is why the lion had to be beheaded in the first place?) and is hazed by the crowd, stumbling back and forth and it is Bradamante, walking in with a shovel, who sets out to bury the magic, but she hesitates when Morgana asks her stop – a fleeting, tiny detail, but a nice one (yes, especially for me).
Then Ruggiero steps in and apparently shoveling ash into the well kills the magic – he does not hesitate and then he walks out front, ducks unerneath the newly set-up crime scene/construction site tape and looks out into the audience: someone who is returning to reality and facing it. Meanwhile, I could not make out Morgana or Alcina any longer among the choir, but Bradamante, to the side, argues with  Melisso until she finally bunches up her bridal dress and throws it to the floor to then storm off (still wearing her suit. Because it bears mentioning again).

Overall, an interesting set-up that delivered some poignant images, but didn’t manage to engage scenically (in part because the set-up didn’t allow for it to develop in the first place), but was musically excellent in the pit. The voices matched the cool, dissecting staging approach – Petersen convinced technically, but could not play up to her usual stage intensity, perhaps also owed to a lack of chemistry with her stage partner. Trost was a rock (a smooth one. Gradually) in an at times uneven setting, while Hagen took the crown of the evening with her final two arias, with Bradić as a wonderfully colored runner-up, who didn’t get to show her entire range of expression: but perhaps it is not a coincidence that the connection was, however fleeting, the most present between the two roles who also convinced me most in their performances overall?

146 thoughts on “Review: From Vulcan With Love? “Alcina” at Theater an der Wien”

  1. a 19th century old white male with sick sideburns and a Manet-style top hat French brougeois dress complete with pocket watch bent over the architectorial paper model of a factory

    maybe volcano = factory from the beginning of industrialisation? More pollution and exploitation than pizzazz and passion?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oh, yes! That might be the missing ling – industrialization as a corner or civilization embodied in toxic masculinity… and he was there more than once, and only after the ring scene. I am still not sure why French (or was that just me?) but me thinking Manet, which boils down to perfectly dressed guys with top hats next to naked women who don’t need a brain anyway, is a point about the gendered conception of civilization, and link that to the kind of man that Ruggiero escaped from being with Alcina, and that he refuses to turn back into for Melisso/Bradamante, and in the end he frees himself of it and does his own thing…?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. it tries to evoke a nostalgia that can never bloom in a set-up that looks at emotion only as something to dissect.

    sounds too me too much like certain directors stage productions more as a way of clarifying the work for themselves rather than to communicate with a public that knows the work enough to have developed their own ideas about it.


    1. It’s a brainy take for sure – but I think that’s her general brand. Audience knowledges is an interesting point because I guess there are few audiences out there who are as much into Alcina as we are ( both in knowledge and affect).


      1. re audiences: still, Handel isn’t a novelty anymore and Alcina is nowadays one of the more performed works of his, so I think people who enjoy Baroque are fairly up to date with it and have seen it at least once before by now.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the write-up! What you describe reminds me a bit of that Geneva Alcina by Bösch, offering a detached view, not connecting with characters, making fun of the story (I wouldn’t even mind that as long as characters are granted their emotions). That earplug thing in example, it is an idea I would probably grin about, but it’s a fun moment for the price of not taking Morgana seriously from the start.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. and that would even have worked without giving up Morgana – she might, by all means, have siren powers and bewitch Bradamante (and Melisso, had be not put in his earplugs). I think the thing I am still trying to wrap my mind around is that there was – although it was all finely observed – so little connection between characters because nobody ever seemed in love, or even in lust. Then again, I was in the 2nd balcony, so who knows what it looked like from the parterre?


      1. Probably hard to say how it would have worked with a different cast. Would be interesting because some of the images you describe really don’t sound so bad. (But the blindfolding just sounds bah)


        1. that would be really interesting to see with someone like Jaroussky, or Sabata, or Bridelli, or (more macho) Haller – to see whether it would change. But it also would be very different, I think, if there had been a prior connection palpable. Not blindfolding a stranger.


          1. Yes, Haller, please! But I also wonder how fans of the singers in question might perceive it, something like chemistry between singers must be subject to a lot of projection.


            1. something like chemistry between singers must be subject to a lot of projection

              I want to test this! perhaps in order for this to work “chemistry” may mean different things to different people? are we supposed to be fans of both singers or does it still work if we start off as fans of one and at least neutral to the other?

              Liked by 1 person

            2. I think it also works when it is singers I personally don’t like, or even clearly dislike: I still recognize and appreciate that they react well off each other. And then there can be singers whose singing I really like, but I can still separate that from how they play off others on stage or not, in single instances or overall.


            3. The question is, if you can appreciate it in singers you clearly dislike, isn’t that more an intellectual sort of appreciation, not something you respond to emotionally?

              Liked by 1 person

            4. But I do not need to respond to them, I am merely responding to the connection they strike with another.
              The way I respond to an individual singer and how that may increase or decrease my perception or my viewing pleasure is another issue entirely. I think?


            5. Definitely, although I really work from an idea of chemistry that is more something measurable beyond myself and does not hinge on me personally appreciating a singer.


            6. I think you still respond to it emotionally, because whatever is happening on stage is supposed to work at an emotional level if it works at all, no? I came up with one example of my own: Netrebko! I don’t warm up to her singing, I dislike whatever personality I gleaned she has off stage (she used to do those JDD inspired youtube videos and I’ve seen a couple of interviews, so granted, it’s not exactly her-her but as close as a non-friend, non-coworker, non-fan can get) but I still respond to her acting, even beyond intellectual level.

              Liked by 1 person

            7. Hihi, you both came up with Netrebko with regard to response to acting / acting in relation to a stage partner, even if the (picture of) the private person does not seem likeable. I agree that it still at least partly is an emotional response, so I guess we react to what ever qualities of that person (in relation to another person or situation) we can personally connect to, even if those qualities are not apparent in the person off-stage.

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            8. I think I simply appreciate if there is anything happening at all, as far as chemistry goes? But beyond that – what Dehggi said with emotional response – of course I react more strongly to things I can personally relate to, be it situations or qualities?


            9. I am a dyke raised in cishetopia, I am long-term trained in appreciating interactions that I do not connect to on a personal emotional level. 😉

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            10. no kidding! As a gay man once said about a beautiful woman: I can appreciate her as I would a beautiful statue. If anything, it’s stimulating the imagination, as one needs to do a bit of mental hoping around for het stuff to make sense personally.

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            11. There is a level on which it is fairly easy, I would say, to recognize chemistry beyond gender – the way I can get the grace and the delts of a male ballet dancer, or get the appeal of Dumaux singing Polinesso. I would say it moves beyond “beautiful statue” because so much of it is about interaction and reactivity?
              But there is another level entirely, also in impact, when it concerns more, uh, relatable people.


            12. both? there can be chemistry which isn’t romantic, no? or perhaps there is a bit of attraction going on in all kinds of chemistry but not the sort that would go smoothly or the kind which then turns into other types of relationship. I mean when any two people meet and they like each other for any kind of reason, there is something akin to chemistry going on there, isn’t it? – even when it’s friendship or a very good working relationship.

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            13. Yes, this, and also people meeting and their being sparks, be they good or bad, and that you’ve got that “from hate to love trope” of romcoms that would back your ‘a bit of attraction in any chemistry’.


            14. So true, (though can there be a kind of chemistry that would go smoothly? Maybe for the duration of a performance it could work, but the non-smoothly is what makes it interesting)

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            15. Smooth chemistry might translate to people/characters being comfortable around each other, which makes for innate and small-scale reactions?

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            16. I was thinking about smooth in the sense of all being 100% clear, no misunderstandings, no reluctance.. (actually I was only joking). But yes, of course what you describe can be seen as smooth.

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            17. though can there be a kind of chemistry that would go smoothly?

              ha! this is inspiring another post about “how would all the operas go without the main conflict?” Tosca and Cavaradossi fell in love and Scarpia helped them get married and live happily ever after. Pinkerton realised Cio-Cio San’s infatuation would lead to her ruin so he diverted her ardent love towards a beautiful, lifelong lasting friendship that thrived on respectful cultural exchanges. Vitellia was so taken with Sesto’s devotion (and sexiness) that she forgot all about wanting Tito as husband or dead and Tito married his long time lover, Berenice, to the delight of the Roman populace and Vesuvius never happened. Tolomeo was so impressed with Cesare’s red coat that he returned Pompei back to Cornelia in one piece and became best friends with her son Sesto. The Queen of the Night and Sarastro had a beautiful, healthy marriage and their very well adjusted daughter married an equally well adjusted man without issues. The wedding was a blast! Papageno and Papagena provided the entertainment. Hansel and Gretel were taken on a trip to the (not very dark 😉 ) forest aka national park by their parents and they met an elderly park ranger who had built a house of ginger bread which became the main attraction for both children and grownups. Everyone had a great time! Taking Seneca’s wise advice, Poppea realised it would be immoral and totally unfeminist towards Ottavia to start an illicit affair with Nerone, so she set him down and they have a serious, grownup chat about the subject, Nerone agreed it would be a bad idea and publically praised Seneca for being the moral backbone of Roman society. He recalled Ottone from exile and they became best friends and ruled the empire wisely together. Turandot had a riddle for Calaf: what do you call a woman who’s not erotically interested in men? Calaf correctly guessed and left Turandot and Liu (it’s Liu, right?) to enjoy each other’s company like the decent man would.

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            18. Ahahaha, reading the first sentence I thought, right, how boring would that be, but hey, not at all, I want to see all that on stage, chuckle, let me read through this again.

              Liked by 1 person

            19. Great, the music would be all tralala, no minor key allowed.


              CTs… in the interest of consistency (of PCness), I’m tempted to have two versions of everything, one with CTs in every role, the other one with CTs only where needed to underline the cis-ness of it all.


            20. Where are bridesmaids, other than in Freischütz? Which will, of course, be a piece on the peaceful life of a wood-based vegan community…

              Liked by 1 person

            21. and the hunters chorus = environmentalists’ chorus! Singing about interspecies respect and equality in a world without global warming.

              I figure with so many weddings there have to be bridesmaids – also, Figaro! We need to do Figaro, who is not a servant, but an advisor to the not Count, who does not lust after Figaro’s wife but appreciates her intelligence and inventiveness (and the very long role she has to sing).


            22. …and who does of course not cheat on his wife? Or do they get an agreeabe divorce and Countess, who is of course not an aristocrat, embraces the cougar label and realizes there is no shame in dating someone ten years her junior as long as it makes them both happy.

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            23. yes, there is no cheating but when she tells him honestly that she found dressing Cherubino up, especially in Susanna’s company, highly enjoyable, he agrees to a mutually respectful un-coupling, so that Rosina can pursue her fluid sexuality.

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            24. haha, you Europeans just don’t understand British style 😉 the funny thing is, you can’t walk 100m in London without running into a hair salon/barber’s.


            25. don’t tell me Johnson’s mop is in any way tolerable.

              (and, of course, no barbers at PC opera that reject service based on gender. short hair is short hair!)


            26. don’t tell me Johnson is in any way tolerable.

              he most certainly is not! haha.

              no barbers at PC opera that reject service based on gender. short hair is sexy!


              Liked by 1 person

            27. haha, Cherubino writes a song about the strangely tingly feelings short hair on older women gives her! Susanna has a lot of experience working with short haired women, as the business partner of a unisex barber 😀

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            28. there is a reason why Figaro is the most sought after barber in all of Seville! Susanna’s wise management 😉 and his great snipping skills, of course.


            29. He is! Later he is freed of army duty by taking on a voluntary job at an elderly people’s home, where he plays bridge and entertains everyone with his songs. Meanwhile Barbarina has joined Drusilla at college, where both are much admired by classmates for their intellectual achievements.

              Liked by 2 people

            30. ps: I forgot Carmen!

              Carmen and Don Jose met at the pub, where she bought him a beer after she and a co-worker peacefully resolved a misunderstanding. Don Jose appreciated Carmen as a strong, educated, modern woman but as he was already engaged to his childhood sweetheart Michaela, he did not ask her out. This was perfectly fine with Carmen, as buying someone a beer can just be a friendly gesture and does not entitle one to expect erotic satisfaction in return. Anyway, she already had a boyfriend, environmentalist Escamillo, who had dedicated his life to challenging the unnecessary mistreatment of animals. Carmen invited Don Jose to join them for a nature hike but he declined as he had to go home and take care of his elderly mother.

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            31. …who is not dying at the end of Act III, but rather Micaela and José celebrate the letter where they have been granted Pflegestufe II.

              Liked by 2 people

            32. HAHAHA. I 100% support the Berenice plot, Tito/Sesto can continue the angsty bromance. The other Sesto gets the intercultural buddy movie with Tolomeo. It is Liù indeed. – But what about Drusilla? Does Poppea stay with Nerone? Will Seneca get even more scenes this way?!


            33. Of course Poppea stays with Ottone! Ottavia and Nerone go to couples therapy which is a total success and Drusilla easily gets over her youthful infatuation and… continues her studies, so she can grow up to be a successful, smart and well balanced woman like Poppea and Ottavia. The nurses are kindly grandmothers who are totally happy with in their dottage and knit socks for all the young people.

              oops, I actually forgot the Tito/Sesto tension, ha! Hm, maybe they can just go fishing and transfer the tension to the fishing line?


            34. they can team up with Farnace for mixed martial arts! (and they can gang up on him for his girl troubles)


            35. yes to three men bromance but no ganging up allowed! They support him emotionally by distracting him with a friendly sparing session 😉 (the three multiculti musketeers of opera!).

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            36. Yeah, as stated above, i think I botched that up. One is reacting off people (e.g. a scale from zero to Petibon), which is the baseline. More specific is characters having sparks, be it good or bad, like two wires who spark when they are held close to one another (and an even more specific subset is portraying attraction with that).
              And another factor then is the audience, in their individual experiences, noticing those reactions (more or less, based on who they are) and then responding to it in relation with personal settings.


            37. (from zero to Petibon :-D)
              Yes, it’s cool what different layers we identify here 🙂 I was just glimpsing into the Madrid Alcina again while listening over breakfast, and concerning Morgana and Bradamante here, I wouldn’t say their relationship is something where I feel sparks flying (I’m trying to focus on Morgana here), but I very much enjoy their excellent feel and timing for movement around each other, so this would maybe be an example for a more measurable kind of chemistry.

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            38. Oh, yes, the Madrid Alcina – they were reacting well off each other, but without romantic sparks, yes.

              “Trying to focus on Morgana”… hihihi.

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            39. And it is not as if it is only about gender – you can have two female singers on stage with none or barely any chemistry and I am just as frustrated with that (perhaps more so).

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            40. It should definitely work for the latter scenario I guess but I’m trying to mentally test cases where I would really dislike the singer (or actor), and it’s very hard to come up with an example. I think for me, when I recognize i.e. unsympathetic characters in a show developing any sort of believable relationship it would bring out their more humane sides to me and that would make them less unlikeable?

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            41. But to they need to be likable for us to recognize the connection they manage to strike with someone else?
              I mean we all know that I am not big on Anna N., but she has excellent stage instincts I fully recognize, and she get even mediocre partners to work with her. I also find PD increasingly problematic, but that does not take away from recognizing his skill to build something on stage and move an audience.


            42. Domingo. But less so than AN, so perhaps gender does factor in for me?

              Still laughing at both of us naming Trebs in the first place.

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            43. aha, yes, he’s a good actor as well. I think there is a gender thing, because I was trying to think about a man and it wasn’t nearly as easy (probably because I don’t think about men all that often…). The first one that came to mind was Esposito, to whom I have a strangely visceral negative reaction, but I think he’s a good actor. If anything, he does get very involved. I really dislike Michael Fabiano’s face but I can’t think I like anything about him enough to put him in this category.

              well, I guess there are good reasons why even Trebs’ “detractors” can’t be fully against her 😉

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            44. oh, Esposito is a good call! He definitely reacts and gets stage partners to react, and I respond to that. (of course, only in the moments I’m nto busy swooning over his state partner in case he is duetting with Barcellona)

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            45. Haha. – Apparently, it works with and without! Either way, they did react really well off one another. Same for a good Tebaldo/Romeo combo in the Capuleti duet (though I cannot think of an example of a CT Romeo here that packed that oomph for me, which may be a voice color thing?)


            46. Maybe that visceral negative reaction has to do with his acting skills, at least he doesn’t seem dull to you. Ooops, though I really have that strong negative reaction to DH, so there goes my theory 😉


            47. hehe… that’s why I used him, because I’m not “immune” to him. I don’t know how I feel about DH, actually, as I have never seen him in action. I also think, for the sake of objectivity, I need to first see CTs in more “neutral” roles (or recitals as gateway), as the fact that a mezzo or a contralto should be there instead immediately strikes them.

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            48. Then it is the wider issue of casting practices – if there were more of a 50/50 split between good mezzos and good CTs in casting, I would probably appreciate CTs more overall – not their individual fault, but a structural one.
              I cannot think of a CT Ruggiero I found fully convincing for me, but take Ottone (though I may personally prefer a contralto, also for range reasons), or Polinesso, or Tolomeo – hm, somehow all these come back to Dumaux… or Mehta or Sabata in Rodelinda. Or Farnace, where both Kasarova and oops Dumaux again are great.

              That said, I will probably always respond more directly to a great portrayal by a woman than a great portrayal by a man, simply because I am gay, but a portrayal is not automatically great or better for me because it is done by a woman.

              Liked by 1 person

            49. yes; men Ruggieros = no. Men Ottones = possibly. Men Serses = possibly, men Arsamenes = no. Men Nerone = NO! Men Polinesso = not for me. Yes to Mehta in Rodelinda. Farnace and Cesare = women only.

              I just don’t like the CT sound in the above mentioned roles.


            50. Before seeing the Munich Semiramide I saw a short video pre-production docu where Esposito came across as really nice and very appreciative of being in this production with those great mezzos, so that made him likeable to me, and that might have influenced my reaction to his Assur, which might have otherwise looked pretty gross I guess.
              “the fact that a mezzo or a contralto should be there”, yes the CTs do have a pretty bad starting position with us!


            51. Esposito came across as really nice and very appreciative of being in this production with those great mezzos,

              awww, I’m feeling a bit warmer towards him now ❤ ❤ maybe I fell for the singer = character thing. Amateur! 😉

              Liked by 1 person

            52. Oh, that is a tricky issue – because chemistry is something near quantifiable, I believe, and it transports because in the end, it is reaction speed and reaction layers? But how willing/able are we to recognize chemistry in relation to how we appreciate specific, voices, performances or singers?


            53. Hmm, if you define it like that it should work independently from the singer/actor and distance from the stage should not matter that much. And right, even animated characters or puppets can have sort of a chemistry in that regard. Who knows maybe everything else really is a matter personal attraction and projection.

              Liked by 1 person

            54. Exactly, there needs to be someone to give them human emotions to give us something to relate to. And I guess, even if we “dislike” a singer, if we can sense a connection they have with stage partners, they show qualities in that interaction that we don’t dislike but can relate to.

              Liked by 1 person

            55. there can be chemistry – as in interaction, energy, something happening, even if it is something horrid, not necessarily as something positive or romantic – e.g. between a Scarpia and a Tosca (both not types I personally would connect to, but it can make for gripping theater)


            56. Good point! Probably a lot depends on definitions here, yet, I’d say even horrid relationships only seem gripping if we can at least to a small extend relate to at least one of the characters?

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            57. I think i made a bit of a mess of thing with the term chemistry – one thing that got me thinking in this Alcina was how I could not perceive any chemistry between Ruggiero and Alcina and all, and that I would define more narrowly as some sparks (something that stage actors can in most instances produce if not innate), and I would guess that was the plan, to an extent, but then it made the second half of the evening, with the second guessing and doubts and anger, not really work because anger over WHAT?
              Peterson’s Alcina was mad and hurt, but In the interactions with Ruggiero it did not seen to be that much about him? For Ma quando tornerai, there was direction to that extent, and in the end, Bradamante walks in, aghast, sees Ruggiero sitting on the floor in Ruggiero’s lap – but it was very, very different from the desperate sizzle of the (much tamer) hinted-at kiss in the Staatsoper production.

              That was Alcina/Ruggiero, but on an overall level – hence my glass case impression – was a lack, from my perspective, of characters reacting off each other (more process, less images – which from what I have seen of her is simply not Gürbaca’s style?). Not sparks, necessarily, but some kind of reaction? Hagen’s Morgana managed that with both Oronte (at the end, his first entrance, which I forgot to mention above, was him threatening Morgana with a sword) at the end, and with Bradamante at some points. But I found there was little of it, as a person who looks for things happening between characters and not just states of characters?

              “Alcina and Ruggiero just project into each other” is a valid contemporary take, or would be, but it kind of didn’t carry in part 2.

              Liked by 1 person

            58. “Alcina and Ruggiero just project into each other” Yes, reading the scene you described above I thought that she was maybe angry at herself, but still, projecting on someone doesn’t work if you are oblivious to that person. There should be some sort of chemistry going on at least in the beginning, maybe that’s what was missing here for making that aproach work.

              Liked by 1 person

            59. Projecting – so it would take a person (re)acting underneath for another misinterpret/project onto that? Or not? (How does that e.g. relate to the pathological stance of stalking, presuming to react off something that has never been there?)


            60. with the second guessing and doubts and anger, not really work because anger over WHAT?

              maybe she’s mad because the magic isn’t working on him? maybe it’s all about magic.


            61. all about the magic that doesn’t work? He doesn’t end up a particularly engaged lover, that much is true (unless you count being engaged to Bradamante, whom he breezes past just as well).


            62. haha, yes; engagement is not the word of the day. I think this is the Alcina in which Ruggiero is subjugated only by his “gorgeous” self and eveyone else facepalms around him.


            63. but emotions and empathy humanizing characters, so it is like a chain reaction that reaches down until the audience? I need to think about this some more, I cannot put my finger yet to what I would like to it, but it is a good point.

              Liked by 1 person

          2. Not blindfolding a stranger.

            not literally, but isn’t this metaphorically how infatuation works?

            (though, let’s take it literally, too: maybe she wants to imply Alcina’s actions are aggressive as well? those men perhaps don’t really want to be turned into whatever, even as they line up for it – just as women who end up in abusive relationships don’t actually want to be abused, they just don’t have a different frame for their relationships… – so Ruggiero blindfolding her in the end is a sort of turnabout is fair play?)


            1. The scene works, of course, because otherwise I would not have such a reaction to it – in recognizing a woman being made vulnerable, and Petersen transporting that sort of sudden helplessness. And I react to that more strongly from my experiences as a woman opposite male power. Perhaps it was that Ruggiero was painted as so little invested that this came off as so unbalanced in power? Which may have been exactly what Gürbaca was going for?
              Which is a good point, and a good image for it, unrelated to how uncomfortable I may be in watching.
              And they blindfold each other a lot throughout the evening, come to think of it, using the actual blindfold as a metaphor for their relationship aka their never-happening evening *is* smart, I am just not sold on the angle.
              Alcina’s magicking of the men (I think they were all men? Though perhaps not?) in the beginning was different, there was really an enthusiastic interest it and it was celebrated as positive. She does blindfold Ruggiero when she ‘entraps’ him, but he, of course, despite being pushed through a crowd, never seems vulnerable because of it, which is also an interesting point.
              So they never are actually attracted to each other, which makes his heartbreak/struggle harder to tell – I did not see at which point it switches for Alcina. If they only just meet, fleetingly, for Dì, cor mio, what weight can Sì, so quella even have? Which is where I think this isn’t the best choice dramaturgically, if you want to stress that Alcina at some point falls ‘for real’.


        2. some of the images were very good, I thought. But might they have been possible by still allowing more relationships betwen people to happen?


        1. From the first row! Wow!
          The ‘underwear=removed from society and more liberated sexually’ metaphor was ok, I thought, it just could have been a different kind? But I think I simply didn’t click with the costume ideas overall, which clearly is a matter of personal taste, too. Alcina’s second dress worked well, I found.


  4. Maybe projecting works even without any action/reaction from the other ever having been there, but, in a show, it would seem less plausible to the audience? Stalking, good point, yes, that would fall into that category.

    Liked by 1 person

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