[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?