NCPA/Chen: La Traviata

Date: February 16, 2011
Conductor: Zuohuang Chen
Production: Henning Brockhaus
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The NCPA’s opera season began with a revival of director Henning Brockhaus’s La Traviata, premiered last year during the second annual NCPA’s Opera Festival.

Brockhaus’s stage, designed by Benito Leonori, featured a semi-reflective scrim that, at an angle towards the audience, reflected various carpeted patterns and action on stage. The scrim, when lit from behind, also revealed a secondary space in which some of the contemporaneous actions, including the bull-fighting in Act II, would occur. The carpeted patterns allowed colorings of the scenes, including that of a Parisian salon in Act I, of the facade of a country house, of a floral garden and of Flora’s mansion in Act II. The reflection of a dark stage in Act III seemed to foretell the imminent and sad departure of Violetta. Costume designer Giancarlo Colis gave hints to the setting, which seemed closer to the librettist’s intended Belle Epoque setting than the pre-revolutionary years of monarchic decay as preferred by the royal authorities during the piece’s premiere. The morbid, almost clinical simplicity of Violetta’s white night gown contrasted powerfully with the primly cut suits of the Germonts in Act III, while the gypsy’s dresses imparted seduction without suggesting material voyeurism.

Following the success of the Salzburg Traviata in 2005, the casting for this Verdi opera remains problematic. The performance of Anna Netrebko in that Willy Decker production set such a high standard that any subsequent casting of Violetta seemed inadequate by comparison. It was therefore remarkable that Zhang Liping, previously the go-to soprano for Cio-Cio San in Covent Garden, not only held her own, but delivered a passionate performance with plenty of musical and dramatic intensity. Her Violetta was fragile but poignant, and the frailty she portrayed, especially in that TB-infested final act, begged for sympathy from the audience, as if we were all pères Germont. She navigated Verdi’s difficult lines with ease, especially the myriad of lower registers in Act III that would challenge the most skillful sopranos. Leonardo Caimi’s Alfredo had a boyish visage and a charming quality, though for much of the evening it wasn’t clear where that charm was directed to. There seemed to be a severe lack of chemistry between Zhang and Caimi, and when they finally physically embraced, Caimi looked like he was locked in an embrace with his mother. His voice, slightly more leggiero than desired for the lyrical role, was disastrous when out of control – he visibly strained while delivering the long, high notes in his Quando interchange with Violetta – but caringly delicious when warmed up and projecting, especially in his Act III duet. Juan Pons provided the dramatic tour de force of the evening, delivering a highly subdued but emotionally convincing père Germont. Pons’s voice was no longer as flexible and far-reaching as it used to be, perhaps due to age (he would be 65 this year), but he showed why opera was not merely about singing as he delivered a dramatically mesmerizing and heart-felt reminder to Alfredo, in Di Provenza, about their duty in Provence, and took care to tear himself emotionally apart by how the ridiculousness of the Germonts’ social redemption contrasted pitifully with the eternal presence of human’s frail sensibility.

Chen was in perfect charge of the score: rendering Verdi’s luscious lines with excitement and faithfulness but without drowning out the singers. The chorus, especially in the Act II gambling scene, was in fine form, just as a pair of gypsy girls frolicked with Alfredo’s winnings on the gambler’s table and other guests cuddled in an asphyxiating night of physical abandon. The only slight blemish was a slightly off-key clarinet solo in Violetta’s letter scene in Act II, but that hardly an evening broke.

Act I, Henning Brockhaus' La Traviata. The NCPA, Beijing.

Act I, Henning Brockhaus's La Traviata. The NCPA, Beijing.

Pop, jazz and rap

Yamapi Asia Tour 2011

Date: January 29, 2011
Location: Star Hall @ The HITEC, Hong Kong.

Tomohisa Yamashita (山下智久), better known as Yamapi (“Yama P”), is an actor, solo artist and a member of the Japanese boyband NEWS. He is best known as Dr. Aizawa Kousaku in Code Blue, Fuji TV’s ratings champ modeled loosely after Michael Crichton’s ER. Yamapi’s no non-sense character has won him plenty of fans, especially teenage girls who would probably trust this fictional doctor more than their real-life ones. But Yamapi the TV heartthrob may soon give way to Yamapi the solo superstar. Last Saturday’s gig at Star Hall kicked off Yamapi’s first-ever solo tour throughout Asia, and if it becomes the big hit that it has been hyped to be, and with a dearth of superstars who could sell out wherever they show, Yamapi would stand a good chance of becoming the next superstar in the mold of Takuya Kimura, the reigning dual-mode (i.e. TV and singing) big wig. Like most of the concert productions for artists of Johnny & Associates (Kimura-san is also under Johnny’s far-reaching media empire), this one featured plenty of pyrotechnics, Star Wars sabre-like lasers, and a long aerial platform that revealed itself from a catwalk protruding from the center proscenium. This platform would bring Yamapi aerially over and closer towards his fans during the show. Yamapi’s musical style is varied, with high-energy electric rock interspersed with mellower, more contemplative ballades. His first solo album, “Supergood, Superbad“, was released on January 26 and sported a hip-hop sound with a heavy dance beat. His live-show delivery style includes a mixture of choreographed dance moves and the occasional eye contact that would instantly melt the young girls’ heart. The audience, mostly young, fashionable and still in high school, would beat in mid air their glow sticks in unison, with the music as the rhythmic backdrop and Yamapi as the chief conductor. They would scream at such moment when the chief conductor would make eye contact or draw closer to them by traversing along the catwalk. The 8-strong band (keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and a string quartet), two brass players (saxophone and trumpet) and three backing vocalists ran the musical end of the show. ABCZ, an accompanying act with 5 boys, provided some moments of acrobatic sensation and comic relief, but otherwise wasn’t impressive enough to stand out on their own.

Tomohisa Yamashita, Asia Tour 2011.

Tomohisa Yamashita, Asia Tour 2011. Image by: http://www.johnnys-net.jp