Review: Polish Count(ers), Greta Garbo. “Gismondo, rè di Polonia” at Theater an der Wien.


[Promo poster for “Gismondo, rè di Polonia” in the hall, Theater an der Wien/Vienna, 2018]

Max Emanuel Cencic and his Parnassus company did a box stop at Theater an der Wien – pretty much home turf to them at this point – last night, as a part of their current tour with “Gismondo, rè di Polonia”, a Leonardi Vinci excavation that originally opened at Teatro delle Dame in Rome in 1727.
True to their policy of “unearth forgotten works & support and promote the falsetto fach”, Cencic arrived with no less than three fellow countertenors in tow and offered a chance to hear (with some cuts) a Vinci usually only know to specialists in early 18th century Neapolitan/Roman opera. This tour might change that.

For the first time at TADW, Cencic teamed up with {oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna, led by concert master Martyna Pastuszka on violin, who led the band most of the time standing and occasionally conducting and was a delightful discovery (as stated on twitter: some people go out to discover new micro brews, others go out to discover new period bands) The score is sizable in orchestration, counting with horns, trumpets, percussion, recorders, oboes and bassoons and allowed the band to show off from the start, with a brassy, boisterous fanfare.

There sound has the fashionable period band crunch, but also some warmth, enough structure and an overall matte tint – a sort of paler shade of blue. The communication within the band was smooth and affable, with reaction to the singing, the stage and each other (possibly related side note: the band has pretty balanced gender representation and a female leader, plus a few ALS haircuts among the group).  – As apt in Vinci, there was a lot of not-theorbo-but-chitarra, and the theorbist, whose name I could not find in the listings, was definitely getting the Neapolitan groove on. {oh!} didn’t shy away from acutal thunder rolls and the occasional dramatic flourish, but found a clean line for the quieter arias, too. Tasked with four countertenors and their lower-range projection, there were relatively few moments when the lower middle registers got swallowed up by a pit who set up a good drive and reveled in the colors Vinci offers. I hope they will be back at TADW, or in Vienna and surroundings at large!

Let’s rewind a bit. While an evening with four countertenors is a typical Cencic opera night, it’s a steep quota a overall and as someone whose first thought at seeing four counters is “now imagine that this could have been four mezzos or contraltos!”, I wasn’t sure how I would like the rather sweet and melodic Vinci material paired with the generally paler falsetto approach.

Of course, when the four of them walked in, they didn’t really register, because there were three sopranos, too, one of them in a suit and white shirt to take on the part of Hothead King With Anger Issues, Primislao. Well!

The plot is “War and Peace” meets “Family Matters”: Polish King Gismondo (Cencic) is tired of the ongoing war with hothead rival leader, Primislao (Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk). And since his son Ottone (Yuriy Mynenko) is in love with Primislao’s daughter Cunegonda (Sophie Junker) anyway, he tries for a peace treaty, which gets thwarted by his four-star general Ermanno (Nicholas Tamagna), who wants to avenge an old family feud. Cunegonda, clearly having inherited her father’s temper, blows off poor pining Ottone, who is then having a heart-to-heart with his sister Giuditta (Dilyara Idrisova).
Giuditta herself is smitten with Primislao ever since they met at a masked ball, but Primislao has no idea who she actually is and keeps seething and threatening murder. Some Prince Ernesto (Jake Arditti), part of Gismondo’s court, runs around trying for peace, too. In the end, Giuditta saves the day because both Ermanno and Ernesto have a crush on her, which allows her to step in and stop Ermanno from killing Primislao, who then turns into the third guy with a crush on her. So she can marry her conqueror beau and Cunegonda gets back together with Ottone, although her temper does not quite seem to be his kind of kink, which is a waste, if you ask me. No report on whether Gismondo settles down with Ernesto, but since they were both really into the peace treaty, perhaps they found common ground and set up a zen garden together.


The first short recitative scene is literally four countertenors (imagine this could have been found mezzos *weeping*) and I was happier with all four of them that I was with comparative values in last week’s “Alcina”.

In reverse order, the perhaps shortest stick of the evening had gone to Jake Arditti, whose Ernesto flaundered between the other parts, with his arias being more on the contemplative side, which didn’t allow him to draw on his stage athleticism and that slightly bratty air that made him fun to watch in “Agrippina”. His voice remains on the smaller side, with a bright piercing color on top and a considerably flatter lower register; agile, but not with a large range of color, which his final, more languid aria showcased.

Nicholas Tamagna as the evil Ermanno had stage energy that was a little over the top, but very engaged (I think he is still quite young, so experience will likely even out the slightly nervous edge there): He kept turning towards his stage partners, stayed in character for walks on and off the stage, and tried to give as much variance as possible to every recit phrase. He kept getting covered by the band as of lower middler register, but while his range of ideal projection might be narrow, he does produce a clear, well-carrying tone there that sounds free and balanced, with not shrillness at all. He also made up for Cencic’s surprising sobriety of dress, appearing in a double-breasted suit jacket with a shirt underneath that might have been forged from black kryptonite.

Cencic himself continues to age well into the Distinguished Fathers & Kings repertory, though I find myself missing his flamboyant days a little. He wore a black suit with a black tee underneath (excellent cut!) and as if to match it, his singing was more subdued than bedazzling. He is smart enough to know what he can do, and what has perhaps moved out of reach. He still has the ability to do well-supported, quick runs and can throw in an acuto here and there, with somewhat more nervous pressure, but the more interesting moments in his performance was in his work in lower middle range. His voice has usually taken off in a somewhat piercing top, with an ample dose of dramatic vibrato, but he barely drew on that here, opting instead for giving his lower range a smoky and round hue: there is no swaggering core to it, the sound not being substantial, yet he fashions a frame to it that gives it warmth.
Among his arias, there was no real showstopper. The first one was a a gentle 6/8 number, very Neapolitan in coloring (compelte with chitarra and tambourine!), the second a slower setting with solo violin that allowed Cencic to work that lower-middle range hue, the same went for the second act number “Sta l’alma pensosa”, which sat a little low for him, in my impression. He got some flowing lines in the upper middle range there, but they are not the dramatic outbursts that his idiosyncratic colors have worked so well in previous years. He got a bit of that in a classic bravura aria with horn and a classic, racing revenge piece where his coloratura was very well executed, but didn’t really ping. He did seem somewhat more subdued overall, so perhaps there were factors beyond the stage at play here.

Yuriy Mynenko seems to have grown in stage confidence since last year’s last-minute Zingarelli Romeo and had more presence than in previous years, though the casting as the pining Ottone also played to his foremost vocal qualities. He has a small comfort range where he can producing a beautiful, resonant and rounded tone that has no or little audible strain, but that didn’t always take off and is too easily toppled. He does have some produced acuti that he can unpack, which to me are not the interesting thing about his singing. He does have a sound that is reminiscent of a choir boy, genuinely ingénue  with a gleam that gives it enough of a body to feel satisfying and not too thin. In appearance he also has that choirboy ingenuity going on, packed into a physique reminiscent of Ferdinand The Bull, with the somewhat calfly gentleness to go with it – every time I see him, I think his back cannot have gotten any broader in the meantime, but he proves me wrong time and again.
Slow numbers with an even flow showcase his singing style best, while the booming heroic showpieces (something that would have been very much a Cencic piece) give a bit the impression of an ill-fitting suit: it does its job, but it is not genuinely comfortable to wear (or look at).
On this evening, he left the strongest impresison of all four men, which was likely also due to smart casting. Ottone’s arias (and a farewell duet witl Cunegonda that closes out Act Two) are mostly slow, with winding lines and no excessive range display (and those baritone dips are really best reserved for contraltos who can actually tie them in). The focus on sweetness and melody (Vinci is very Neapolitan in this score, despite this being a work for Rome) suited Mynenko very well and he got to sing the showstopper of the evening, a nightingale aria with solo recorder, beautifully supported by the continuo cello, that was positively bedazzling. Could it have used some more color variance? Sure, but I don’t think that was something he could have changed because it’s not how his singing works. His second strong showing was another pining aria with two (!) bassoons providing a matte, murmuring background, which also worked very well for his approach.

Sophie Junker as Ottone’s similarly pining, but more rebellious lover Cunegonda was a new entry for me. She was a distractingly dead ringer for Anne Hathaway in “Oceans’ 8”, too, down to the sparkling ballgown (very pink, but very becoming), so it took me a bit to focus on her voice. From the score, Cunegonda gets the biggest emotional range, from sensitive lover to proud princess to rebellious daughter and back again. Her voice is a basically lyric soprano with some weight to it, and a beautiful gleam in both top and middle range. Her strongest work was in the accompagnato recitatives Cunegonda got handed more frequently than anyone else, she had a good sense of timing affect there. She also reacted well off her stage partners, particularly in the father-daughter scenes with Kubas-Kruk’s Primislao and when pushin around the hapless Ottone.
Her arias were well-spun, the tone easily full and noble, sort of Pamina-ish, though at times I would  have wished for a wider array of colors, or  an different employ, as she did in the accompagnati. Something where she got to play a bit more with delivery was a grooving Third Act aria (again, with chitarra) that was apparently so good that my notes are illegible now.

Dilyara Idrisova is a mainstay in Cencic’s productions and tours (now I wish I had gotten around to finishing that “Germanico in Germania” review last season, which I feel I also owe to Nesi’s moving performance somehow? I need more coffee and more hours in a day and hope to still post that!) and she had the meatier role opposite Cunegonda as the princess who schemes and rages and now and then swoons over that handsome warlord in a suit. She has a very characteristic tone, close to a bronzed boy soprano: bright and clear, with a bell-like timbre, and a more silvery, very agile head register. In describing her overall sound last year, I got stuck on “as much woman as a gay (CT-schooled) man can wrap his head around”. Do you recall the Sybilla paintings of Michelangelo? And others? The women’s figures who are basically male bodies with two half-oranges put somewhere (too high, always too high) at approximate breast height? That is the dynamic I am reminded of here. Idrisova sounds – and the sound in itself is beautiful, she is technically well-versed, even throughout her range, and that bronze bell ring is a catchy, distinctive feature – as if someone had taken a countertenor as a blueprint and tried to find a soprano to match it.
As Giuditta, Idrisova had a chance to play up moods and show range, and it may have been my favorite delivery of her yet, eschewing the sometimes a bit uniform timbre. In particular, a lengthy secco recitative stood out where Giuditta – this Giuditta is marrying the enemy warlords with a temper instead of beheading them, also a viable tactic – recounts how she first met Primislao at a masked ball, and Idrisova kept me listening attentively through it all. Among her arias, she had both more lyrical and more defiant pieces – lighter, jauntier paces and fast, coloratura-loaded numbers are the best fits for her, though her standout delivery of this evening was a number on being in love, with pearling violin and dotted bassoon, and an infectuous, continuo-driven groove that Idrisova took up perfectly.

Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk rounded out the cast as someone whose mainstay repertoire is Gilda and Traviata, but who was slated here in a trouser role as hothead warmonger Primislao, who’d fit right in with any Honor & Sword plot, and who also is a father challenged by a rebellious daughter prone to emo fits. Kubas-Kruk and Junker, who shared various plot-driving recitative scenes with twists and turns, struck up an easy rapport that transported well. Despite the roles listed in her bio, Kubas-Kruk didn’t come across as a standard lyric coloratura; she had an a bit more palatal and gritter approach in her middle register (her Violetta should be interesting, come to think of!) and wasn’t afraid to give gum when required. She had a very satisfying crunch to her tone, plus a solid lower register, especially given her fach, that never came across as flat or brittle. She gets through across her range, which was perhaps most evident in her obligatory military bravura rage aria (“Vendetta, o ciel, vendetta”?) that also had the pit – who didn’t have to hold back much for fear of covering her up – going wild, with mad brush stroke energy. All’armi, indeed. And with chitarra napoletana to boot.
Kubas-Kruk got in some nice accents overall, next lots of (also rather nice) righteous scowling, also in smaller moments, for example the walking out before her revenge aria opening Act Three nodding to the sound of her own fanfare, or later, when defeated by Ermanno, with a breathy, dark-colored “Sento di morte il gelo”. – Also, did I mention that she was a very becoming sight in a suit (and heels) in this role?

Something I wholeheartedly approve of was the trouser soprano getting the last say before the final chorus, tying together an evening that made a strong case for “Gismondo” being played more often again, so that both countertenors and mezzos aplenty get a chance sink their vocal teeth into these roles.

Sidenote: I am trying to be more diligent about my reviewing this season – last season, I took many notes, but never got around to posting anything and these things still glare at me from the draft folder. And I keep calling them ‘reviews’ because I don’t really have another term, but actually they’re more ‘engagements with performances’.
I am struggling with reviewing as an overall concept at the moment because I don’t want to credit myself with an objective perspective. Of course there are codes I have learned, and that I have learned to recognize, but so much is so personal, and I am overall annoyed by reviewers who basically perform their own knowledge instead of honestly engaging with a show and questioning their own views. So that is going to be a work in progress for me, too.

(One day, I shall open a Twitter account called “Alternative Lifestyle Haircut in (period) bands” and it will be nothing but grainy mobile photos of great hairstyles in the pits I travel to)

(Another day, I shall open another account called “favorite seria pick-up lines”. Winner last night: “Alta donzella, vero nume tu sei”. You’ve got to applaud a warmongering king with anger issues who is immediately able to admit his defeat and recognize he has been saved by someone else)

Most WS-fashionable hair: the continuo cello, whose name I could not find in the musicians’ listings with a close follow up in the violin ranges (Violetta Szopa-Tomczyk).

Favorite seria pick-up line: “Alta donzella, vero nume tu sei” (Primislao upon being saved by Giuditta: zero chill)

11 thoughts on “Review: Polish Count(ers), Greta Garbo. “Gismondo, rè di Polonia” at Theater an der Wien.”

    1. Hehee, I try to be fair. But Hallenberg could do wonders with Ottone. And the pining might be right up Bridelli Alley.


      1. Bridelli Alley

        for some odd reason I always read “Bridelli” with an American accent (Br-eye- d’alley).

        oh, yes, Hallenberg as Ottone would be very smooth. More Hallenberg in general would be good.


  1. The women’s figures who are basically male bodies with two half-oranges put somewhere (too high, always too high) at approximate breast height?

    haha, very good simile! Unsurprisingly I do remember those works well! As I do other “oranges placed too high” paintings from the period – and thinking like you did, that they look like they were painted by someone who hasn’t been in the same town as pair of breasts in the past decade 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like your new accounts 😀 (next time with pictures on the hairdos?)
    Tamagna, interesting, I found his Siroe quite stiff and listless, but, that could have been the characterization in that production (the mezzo was shining in comparison), but from what you write now he maybe was just acting well 🙂


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