San Carlo/Abbado: La Traviata

Date: March 23, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Production: Ferzan Özpetek
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

If Carmen Giannattasio is not already, or does not soon become, a global superstar, who would? Her courtesan was appropriately coy and collected in public, only willing to unleash her limitless emotional reserve, whether of joy or of despair, in situations alone. Her portrayal of Violetta’s charm in Act I, of emotional destruction in Act II, and of physical dissolution in Act III managed to impress, while the progression, from ebullience to death, was hauntingly real. As a singer, she phrased her lines and placed her notes carefully, as if caring for a new-born child, but never with the kind of flamboyance that tended to draw attention away from lyricism into mechanisms. Her flurry of notes in Sempre libera was an emancipation of fluidity and floral abundance. During her repeated curtain calls, she looked humbled and honestly overwhelmed by the audience’s outpouring of love and warmth.

Jose Bros had a rather forgettable evening as Alfredo. His voice has proven to be effective for bel canto, but, at least for this evening, lacked the sort of searing projection required to do Alfredo, never mind Verdi, justice. His Brindisi was fine, most probably because it had all the trappings of bel canto singing, but problems with his voice surfaced in his big Act II number. In the cavatina, he sounded weary and consumed, even when he was supposed to sing about boiling spirits. As he transitioned to the cabaletta, his voice was still rather lightweight, but, as if backup power renewed him temporarily, at least harbored some fiery sensation. All that collapsed when he attempted the final high C, which was so strained and flat that surprised even Bros himself. As he moved off stage, he looked visibly disturbed, with some in the audience gasping in horror and wondering whether the tenor could continue. He could and did, but sounded restrained, with a constricted top, for the rest of the way.

The dictatorial cruelty of pere Germont was captured through Simone Piazzola’s strong stage presence, except that when standing next to Bros, who is 48 years old, the 28-year-old Piazzola neither looked fatherly nor authoritative, even with heavy makeup. As a singer, Piazzola had projection and heft, but lacked the kind of vocal allure that stamped each unique voice. Giuseppina Bridelli, as Violetta’s friend, brimmed with an ebullient joy and stayed true to her character’s spirit for most of the evening.

Who really needs another Traviata with a primly decorated room laden with fluffy pillows in Act I, or fake greenery crawling over acid-washed village walls in Act II? This Traviata was exactly that, but while the staging looked hackneyed, it was mostly conducive to the flow of the drama. The exception to this boring realism occurred in Act III, when the audience was invited into the mind of Violetta. The stage had nothing but Violetta’s dimly-lit deathbed engulfed in pitch-black darkness. As she recalled the various happy moments of her life, actors would show up under keyed lights and re-enacted her thoughts, including episodes of bullfights and a couple in passionate embrace. That nifty stage feature provided visual activity, even as Violetta contemplated silently, with only a mellow orchestral sound in the background.

Abbado led the San Carlo Orchestra with briskness and purpose. The Chorus exploded with energy and fine vigor. In the first two acts, there seemed to be a problem with the Cultural Centre’s low-key lighting system as it flickered, though intermittently, with such schizophrenic urgency that it could very well represent something, perhaps the diseases that slowly ate away Violetta’s health. There was also a problem with offstage monitors, which caught a cellphone signal and eked out a few seconds of audible, though not ruinous, reverberations.

San Carlo Naples: La Traviata.

Act I in San Carlo Naples’ La Traviata. Copyright: San Carlo Naples.

Opera, Orchestral music

San Carlo/Abbado: Viva Verdi

Date: March 22, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Performer: San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival closes with Viva Verdi, a program highlighting the Italian composer’s outstanding choral music. The choral selections – Gli arredi festivi and the slaves’ chorus from Nabucco, O Signore dal tetto nation from I Lombardi, and the anvil chorus from Il Trovatore – were sung by the San Carlo Chorus, whose nearly eighty voices meshed in perfect unison. Their dynamic control was especially impressive, with pianissimo releasing as if from a distant past, and with forte so roof-shattering that the entire city had to have felt some serious judder of seismic proportions. In Gli arredi festivi, the flood lights in the auditorium were seen vibrating, as if reacting nervously to Verdi’s choral majesty. If describing that the slaves chorus sent a shiver up one’s spine was cliché, it was also quite appropriate and, at least to this reviewer, true. The ebb and flow of musical energy between the chorus and the strings in Va pensiero’s fourth stanza were truly chilling, even in a well-lit concert setting without an opera director’s vision of the slaves’ lamentation.

Listening to a handful of Verdi’s choral music, one after another, without interruption is akin to eating entrees after entrees of meats without so much as a green leaf or two. As such, inserted between choral pieces were various lighter orchestral bits, including Luisa Miller’s Overture, which features a sprightly clarinet solo, the Act III prelude in I Lombardi, with its feisty violin solo, and the prelude to I masnadieri, with its melancholic cello solo. Also included was Libera me in Verdi’s Requiem. Neither too meaty nor leafy, the piece presented a case of what Verdi could achieve in between: powerful yet diligent, blood-boiling yet properly dignified. Monica Tarone, as the Requiem’s expressive cantor, phrased her versicles with a soothing beauty. Her upper registers were clear and well-placed, but her lower registers languished, often submerged by the avalanche of the orchestra and the chorus.

The San Carlo Orchestra was a fine bunch, with their rendition of the I vespri siciliani overture being a case in point: pleasingly lyrical at the beginning, and authoritative and zesty towards the coda. However, they could sometimes get a little too loud, and seemed to have forgotten, especially the lower brasses, that they were no longer playing in the pit.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program. Graphic taken from: Hong Kong Arts Festival’s website.


San Carlo/Rousset: Il marito disperato

Date: March 16, 2013
Conductor: Christophe Rousset
Production: Paolo Rossi
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato (The Desperate Husband) is an opera buffa whose libretto triggers plenty of transitory laughter but whose score, while pleasant, offers very few memorable moments. It is thus not surprising that Amazon lists a grand total of one recording, and that the opera has been sitting in the library archives for as long as anyone can remember until San Carlo, in collaboration with director Paolo Rossi, brought it back on stage in 2011.

This production represents the fruits of a project by the Naples/Campania government aimed at restoring the city’s cultural tradition. The opera has roots in Naples: its premiere occurred there in 1785, and its composer, Domenico Cimarosa, launched his career in the city and is considered to be the finest embodiment of the Neapolitan school of music.

Il marito is rarely performed anywhere, but its subject matter is universal: a story of love and deception that exemplifies aspects of the human condition. Its delivery is rendered through commedia dell’arte, a method of stagecraft that dramatizes fixed social types, such as the funny old men, the scheming servants, and men with an outsized libido. In Il marito, exaggeration of clichés rules the day, in stark contrast to verismo’s naturalism, but as a communication tool of the human condition, the result is no less effective.

The desperate husband is Don Corbolone, who believes that Gismonda, his wife, must be locked at home to avert flirtatious intrusions. The scheming servant is Dorina, who takes the Don’s Machiavellian absolutism so personally that she is determined to avenge Gismonda, her mistress. Dorina first makes up slandering stories about the Don in front of Gismonda’s father (funny old man), and then encourages Gismonda to pretend to be in love with Count Fanfaluchi (the man with an outsized libido) so as to further annoy the Don. Gismonda also conspires with her friend Eugenia in a honey trap to solidify her case against the Don. Valerio, Eugenia’s love interest, represents a powerless spirit of innocence amidst all these trickery. As these archetypes cross paths, various aspects of the human spirit – jealousy, selfishness, and ultimately compassion and forgiveness – are laid bare for all to see.

These themes are so universal that they take place not just in Bourbon times but all times – it is with this premise that Rossi sets the piece in what he calls a contemporary “near future”, complete with dark shades, microphones and Nike headbands. While modern, the production is quite traditional in a sense that dramatic cues are aligned with the libretto. When the libretto calls for rain, weapons and clothing, they were sure to be ready onstage. Paolo Rossi, as a live-in director, breached the stage often, as if he was directing the whole thing as it soldiered on. His stage presence was not intrusive, but rather superfluous as he added very little to the flow of drama other than as a form of concept art. Video projections as well as colorful props on either side of the stage provided some embellishing flavors, but were neither impactful enough nor directly involved in pushing the story forward. The unique and winning concept, however, was the frequent appearance of a male dancer representing onstage the masculine ideal that lived in Gismonda’s psyche. Dressed like an aerobics teacher in those cheesy sports videos in the early 90s, the un-credited dancer would rollick, move about, and flex his muscles onstage just as Gismonda sang about loneliness (in Dove mai, dove si vide) or desire. The dancer became an onstage mental archetype in Rossi’s post-Freudian analysis.

Andrea Concetti, as the Don, exhibited a prominent Italianate baritone with full control of his vocal goods, especially in legato. Concetti is the kind of singer who does not fuss with embellishments, and more specifically tends to keep his vowel endings short but clear. This trait works to Concetti’s favor in the role because the Don’s spirit cannot appear too brash and ornate in the midst of a grand scheme against him. Maria Grazia Schiavo sang Gismonda, who as the outsider under house arrest early in the opera lamented wasted life in Dove mai, where her voice effused with hints of melancholy and youthful nervousness. As her participation in Dorina’s scheme became more pronounced, her vocal dispatch adjusted. In Da mille furie sono agitate, her big number in Act III, Schiavo’s Gismonda, now an insider with full knowledge of the scheme, exploded with full abandon. Here, her lines had conspicuously more support and clarity, with a fast, steady vibrato and a vocal top made of solid gold. Elena Belfiore seemed to thoroughly enjoy her stage time as the anything-goes Dorina. Her voice was buttery and smooth, but often times lacked projection whether paired with Gismonda or in ensemble singing. Filippo Morace, as the outlandish Count, had some of the best comedic moments of the evening, often by interacting directly with the audience and revealing him as the real butt of the joke. Alfonso Antoniozzi, as the father, sang well but impressed further with his acting and animated facial expressions. Patrizia Biccirè, as Eugenia, was a reliable singer and a savvy actress who naturally commanded the stage through her exaggerated body movements. Shi Yijie, as Valerio, polished his phrases with a gentle diligence and a fine metallic top. The promising young singer should find a bright future ahead of him.

The music in Il marito may not be truly memorable, but there are beautiful snippets, especially in ensemble efforts. The quartet at the end of Act I, where the avengers are about to begin their exploits, and the septet in Act III, where the schemers relish their scheme against the Don, are good examples of Cimarosa at his finest; this ensemble cast happily obliged, resulting in enjoyable, syrupy delight. Christophe Rousset, baroque expert with few peers, had the reliable San Carlo Naples orchestra in complete control. His tight leash provided the necessary law and order to rein in the overflowing comedic abundance onstage.

Il marito disperato, in Hong Kong.

Il marito disperato production still. Bruno Praticò (left), did not make it to Hong Kong, and was replaced by Andrea Concetti, who allegedly had to learn the entire role in a few weeks. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.


Il marito disperato production still. Photo credit: San Carlo and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Ballet and dance

HK Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

Date: March 15, 2013
Location: Shatin Town Hall, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Ballet

Sleeping Beauty, an opulent ballet-féerie, is not easy to stage. When executed well, however, it not only fills a company’s coffers but enlivens an evening with its lavish parade of choreographed dances, especially in Act III. The effort is spread fairly evenly throughout the company, but the spotlight is on the eponymous Aurora princess. Jin Yao, Hong Kong Ballet’s principal dancer, began her Aurora steps with some tentativeness, and did not look comfortably in control during her attitude derriere handshakes. This tentativeness could appear confusing dramatically, as if she was more apprehensive than coquettish while meeting her suitors, but proved more ominous as she would, in the piqué sequence in her subsequent variation, find her hands on the floor. The blemish, however, did not fluster her at all, as she picked herself up without losing a fleeting moment and marched on, finishing the variation with renewed urgency and dynamism. Her Act III was a revelation altogether. The briskness of her movements was matched with a beaming confidence and re-born conviction. Her four fish dives (including the picture-perfect end) in the adage was definitive and articulate. On her side, Friedemann Vogel leaped over mountains and found sturdy landings in a reliable display as Florimund. Vogel and Jin’s fluid partnership was all the more remarkable because Vogel is a guest dancer from Stuttgart and does not routinely collaborate with the Hong Kong Ballet. Perhaps he should. As Lilac Fairy, Zhang Siyuan was generous in presenting a graceful figurine and an adorable countenance. Wu Feifei was triumphant, displaying both impeccable technical prowess and a vivacious, almost prankish playfulness as Princess Florine. Li Jiabo did not find a lot of elevation as the fluttering blue bird, but nailed the monumental brisés voles with no hesitation. The rest of the company should find much to savor about their performance, as the sweet fruits of their rehearsals were evident in plain sight. The Garland dance could sometimes be stale to watch, but the dancers’ steps tonight impressed with crisp accuracy, and projected a high level of energy and sophistication that lifted the entire audience.

Jin Yao, in Sleeping Beauty.

Jin Yao, in Sleeping Beauty. Photo credit: Cheung Chi Wai (via Hong Kong Ballet’s website).

Ballet and dance

ABT: Romeo and Juliet

Date: February 27 to March 3, 2013
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 27: Roberto Bolle and Hee Seo
February 28: Marcelo Gomes and Polina Semionova
March 1: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera
March 2 (matinee): Roberto Bolle and Polina Semionova
March 2: Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes
March 3 (matinee): Alexandre Hammoudi and Hee Seo
March 3: Cory Stearns and Paloma Herrera

American Ballet Theatre

Hong Kong Sinfonietta (orchestra)
Charles Barker (all dates except February 28), David LaMarche (February 28) (conductors)

ABT has presented Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for what seems like an eternity. Despite its age, Nicholas Georgiadis’s scenery and costumes remain pictorially perfect, like a fresh Canaletto townscape. While this realism leaves little for the imagination, this Romeo and Juliet aims to shock and awe through scenes after scenes of impressionable visual beauty.

On close up, the props and scenery show signs of age. Visually, the traveling set seems slightly smaller than the one used at the Met, especially in the upstage balcony areas. The stage width also seems slightly narrower than the one at the Met, making the ballroom scene feel a little squeezed, though ABT’s dancers moved, kicked and spun about with no signs of spatial congestion. The costumes, some of which dated back to ABT’s original premiere at the Kennedy Center some three decades ago, do not look its age, thanks in part to ABT’s current program to replace some of these dated wear, but mostly due to the expertise and meticulous upbringing of the Bruce Horowitz-led wardrobe department.

This MacMillan/Georgiadis endeavor focuses as much on dance as it does on acting. Choreography here becomes not just an art of coordinating dance movements but also a craft of managing a monstrous flow of non-ballet dancing actors. In the Act I and II market scenes, characters weave in and out of the stage in a complex array of motion, with traffic always nearby but never in the way of others. In the fight scenes, real épées whisk about in quick fury, with a hovering danger of actually hurting someone. In one evening, Sascha Radetsky, as Tybalt, was bloodied in his Act II fight scene, and, on more than one occasion, the épée simply snapped on stage. In big dance routines, coordination with Prokofiev’s orchestral moments remains paramount. When Prokofiev suggests death and the person is still lingering alive on stage, something becomes disconnected. The intricate tapestry of motion and action is the hallmark of this production. There may be occasional aberrations, but for much of the past thirty years this has been the same, day in and day out, thanks much to the in-house ballet masters and mistresses. ABT’s seven performances in Hong Kong were mostly identical in style and tone, differing only in sentimentality as the two principals offered their own renditions within MacMillan’s interpretative framework.

Five Romeos and four Juliets shared duties over seven performances. In the opening performance, Hee Seo was not even supposed to be there: she replaced Julie Kent, who was injured. Seo’s pinch-hit was remarkable because she just a few nights ago danced the demanding lead role, twice, in The Leaves Are Fading. Seo’s Juliet (Feb. 27; Mar. 3 mat) brimmed with a fountain of youth, whether making music for her friends during the mandolin dance or clowning around with her nurse. Her carefully placed emotions – from an Act I Juliet still reeling from the fresh taste of love to an Act III Juliet resolute in planning her faked death – demonstrated her maturity not just as a dancer but as a serious dramatic actor. A smooth dancer, Seo moved on stage like a marble rolling in melted butter.

What made Polina Semionova a special Juliet (Feb. 28; Mar. 2 mat) was that when she danced, she also presented a master class in the artistry of lines at rest and in motion. The arching of her body was a thing of wonder; her pointe work, always rapid but modest, looked like rain droplets kissing spring meadows. As a dramatic actor, Semionova had a clear sense of where her audience was. Without directly addressing downstage, her young Juliet would frequently start opening up towards her audience, only to recoil in shy humility, as if confessing bits, rather than the entirety, of her coyness.

Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes were two reliable Juliets. Herrera’s Juliet (Mar. 1 and 3) was dramatically eloquent, whether radiating a childish happiness in front of her nurse or emoting horror in front of Paris. Her eyes, full of expressiveness, suggested a Juliet with boundless imagination. Reyes was brisk in movement and measured at rest. Her Juliet (Mar. 2) was characterized with such frailty that made one want to shelter her right away.

Roberto Bolle danced two performances as Romeo (Feb. 27; Mar. 2 mat). Bolle was a strong dancer with sturdy landings; in Bolle’s muscular arms, Seo and Semionova were airy and weightless. Bolle’s Romeo retained an air of gentle innocence even as the weight of Montague nobility consumed him. When Rosaline declined his advances, he responded with a dovish smile, as though nothing so trivial could possibly unnerve him. The Bolle-Semionova pair stood out because they proved to be proficient and naturally at ease with their routines, and when their bodies contacted, they found mutual reliance. Their final pas de deux was properly desperate and committed. The high level of artistry catalyzed the rest of the cast, which responded with a heightened focus and geared-up energy levels.

Gomes started his performance (Feb. 28) with heavy landings and awkward breaths, but recovered soon enough to deliver a serviceable balcony pas de deux. He seemed more at ease from then on, though neither dazzling nor suffocating. Cory Stearns’s boyish good looks undid him: he appeared too readily flummoxed by Rosaline’s rejection, and looked more confused than vengeful in his fight with Tybalt at the end of Act II. At times, Stearns (Mar. 1 and 3) looked like he was more infatuated than in love with Juliet. Dramatics aside, Stearns was a reliable performer, with brisk turns and mind-boggling elevation. His long arms also allowed him to lift Herrera with grace and clarity. Hammoudi (Mar. 3 mat) did not look at ease from the beginning, but calmed down enough to deliver a sultry performance with Seo in their balcony scene. In their respective pas de deux, Gomes’ performance was athletic and buoyant; Stearns’ was clinical and fluid; and Hammoudi’s was beautifully asphyxiating.

Finally, there was Herman Cornejo (Mar. 2). His aerials were superb and effortless, and his steps were steady and clean. Most spectacularly, his pirouettes were always executed with stunning velocity and a crisp finish. The pairing of Cornejo and Reyes, like that of Bolle and Semionova, was a revelation. Delicate and expressive, they didn’t merely dance the steps of Romeo and Juliet, but breathed the two Veronians as if their own. The pair seemed intoxicated by each other in both pas de deux, and when they looked at each other, their eye contact seemed tender and intuitive. Any spontaneous eruption of emotion was readily received and absorbed by the other partner, like two soul-mates in an intimate conversation. These two were also most attuned to Prokofiev’s music, always in fine synchronization.

The rest of the cast was solid. Daniil Simkin nailed his Benvolio steps without breaking a sweat, but always looked like he didn’t care too much for the role. Craig Salstein played a fiendishly fun-loving Mercutio who seemed destined to be betrayed by his wit and provocations. Susan Jones was vastly impressionable as Juliet’s nurse: when Capulet rejected her plea to alleviate Juliet’s circumstances in Act III, her display of dejection and helplessness was poignant and entirely believable. With Prokofiev’s brass raging furiously, it was only appropriate that Stella Abrera, as Lady Capulet bemoaning Tybalt’s death, went dramatically overboard in that short but consequential bit at the end of Act II.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta had little feel for Prokofiev’s score. As the ancient grudge on that fair day in Verona broke into mayhem and Prokofiev’s music was supposed to soar with an apocalyptic urgency, the Sinfonietta barely nudged an impact. Mistakes littered throughout the seven performances, sometimes repeatedly and often deadly, in crucial moments such as the soaring trumpets at Tybalt’s death, the fast trumpet articulations at the beginning of Act II, and the horns at Capulet’s tomb. The mandolin dance, lacking bite, was anemic and unpersuasive. It was understandable that some dancers, already having danced in this production for the umpteenth time, put themselves in cruise-control mode, but it was simply unconscionable that the pit could not raise their game, never mind inspire those on and off stage.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet.

Hee Seo, in Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet. Photo copyright: the American Ballet Theatre.

Chinese opera

The Artistry of Lao Dan

Date: March 8 and 9, 2013
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival has been running a multi-year series on different role types in Beijing opera. This year, they focus on lao dan (老旦), or the old lady.

Lao dan specializes in the portrayal of middle- to old-aged women, most often facing calamity, injustice, or often both. Lao dans differ from other dan (female) roles in Beijing opera because they typically do not wear elaborate costumes or heavy makeup (except those younger performers who need to look older onstage than they really are). Hand gestures and finger placements, academically crucial in most other dan roles, do not feature prominently here. Lao dans’ dramatic arsenal thus rests primarily with the voice (a full one, as opposed to falsetto in most other dan roles). The appropriation of a full-powered, well-controlled chest voice enables a more layered, nuanced timbre, thereby empowering the performer to emote more profoundly through singing. Whether playing an authoritative empress amid political turmoil or an ageing grandmother wailing for her lost son, the fully glory of lao dan’s artistry cannot simply be registered through visual dramatics and wearable embellishments; it must be done vocally.

This provides a challenge, however, as lao dans have, until recently, been sung by males, whose naturally different timbre requires a slightly different mix of air flow and posture. The dearth of female lao dans to pass on their trade (now most commonly sung by females), and a relatively few plush roles for them, means that the role of lao dan is rarely taken up by volunteering newcomers in the trade. Yet, a Beijing opera without a reliable lao dan is like staging Verdi without a dependable baritone. This year’s Festival is special because it introduces to the Hong Kong audience four of the most talented lao dans in the business today to work on a variety of pieces, from old classics like The Story of a Golden Turtle (金龟记) to rarities like Duel with Spears (对花枪), which features acrobatic display rarely found in the lao dan repertoire. The pieces were performed over two evenings.

The first evening featured a quad-bill of Stabbing Bajie (刺巴杰), Mother Longing for Her Missing Son (望儿楼), excerpts from model opera The Red Lantern (红灯记), and Duel. Stabbing focuses on mother Ma avenging her prodigal son’s death, only to find ample resistance along the way. Ma was portrayed by Bai Weichen (白玮琛), whose training as a fighting dan (刀马旦) was deliciously evident as she handled her weaponry with an unfazed briskness and clarity. Her sword movements, weaving through a myriad of attackers, were swift but relentless. The precision of her sword trajectories would make the choreographers in last week’s Romeo and Juliet drool with jealousy. Although her character is that of a passionately angry mother, its inclusion in the lao dan series is interesting, as the role dresses and vocalizes more like a regular dan than that of a lao dan. In Mother, Zhang Lan (张兰) portrayed a mother who, overlooking from a tower, longs for the return of her son, who has been leading troops in far-away lands. Zhang moved about onstage with gravitas, and as she moved from a downstage center position to the tower upstage, she hauled her body with the sort of stagnating viscosity that plainly revealed the heaviness of her maternal worries. One could feel her pain merely by watching her tense body movements and forlorn facial expressions. Her voice, however, could not match her acting, and she tended to draw out her phrases so much that she lost synchronization with the music in a bothersome manner — something that is usually dreaded in lao dan artistry.

In Red Lantern, the part of Grandma Li — a symbolic guardian of the nascent Communist Party’s future — that Tan Xiaoling (谭晓令) had to play would baffle even the top Hollywood actors. In the span of less than twenty minutes, the part has to dramatize fury, melancholy and distress, all the while singing some of the most difficult passages in all of Chinese opera. Tan’s vocals displayed a wide range of  emotions as she deftly moved between top and lower registers and along the entire dynamic range. She was also careful with her phrasing and diction (all-important in model opera, as its primary intention is to propagandize through sung prose). However, she was comparatively weak dramatically, and the makeup department did her no favors by not covering up her porcelain baby face, which was not exactly the proper yardstick for a serious guardian of the Party. In Duel, Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴) played Jiang Guizhi (姜桂芝), a wife disowned by her husband. A Plummie Winner, Yuan is well-known across the land due to her frequent appearances on CCTV’s music and Chinese opera channels. Her legendary portrayal of the matriarch in Female Warriors of the Yangs was so fiery that the last time I saw it I thought she was going to fly across the audience to give me a good smackin’. In Duel, she practically carried the entire cast with her fearless portrayal of the disowned wife and her determination to clear her name. Her voice was measured and her phrasal placing deliberate. Her timbre carried the kind of regal weight and certainty that instantly settled the question of who was ultimately in charge.

Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴), as Jiang Guizhi.

The second evening began with Fighting at the Four Guard Gates (杀四门) and ending with Turtle. Fighting, like Stabbing, was not a showcase of lao dan but by no means a cursory time-filler. In Fighting, Wang Lu (王璐) had to fend off multiple groups of bad guys through a series of martial arts. Wang’s movements were clean and precise, and after each whirling routine he would stop into a standstill, with nary a sign of breathlessness or spasm. After he dropped a spear in one extremely difficult routine, he implored his colleagues to let him redo it and then went on to complete the routine perfectly — a gesture that amplified his unfettered professionalism. The Hong Kong audience responded, and recognized Wang with two curtain calls, including a solo one that, while uncharacteristic of Beijing opera’s collaborative psyche, simply showed the depth of Wang’s triumph. The lao dan role of Kang Shi (康氏, or miss Kang) in Turtle was split by Zhang, from the evening before, and Kang Jing (康静), a superstar in the mold of Yuan. The story of Turtle centers around a mother lamenting the mysterious death of one of his sons and her quest to seek justice. The role of Kang Shi is demanding to sing, and the singer must have staying power as she has long-winding passages throughout the piece’s two-hour length. Zhang completed the first chapter in dutiful but unmemorable fashion, while Kang labored through the last three. Towards the end of the last chapter, Kang’ voice sounded slightly flayed and tired. At the curtain call, she looked visibly drained, but should be content that she performed amicably and carried the role with an unimpeachable dignity. Kang Shi is the kind of role that is difficult to please, but extremely satisfying when sung well. In that respect, Kang did just fine.

Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴), as Kang Shi.

The Arts Festival really should congratulate themselves for programming this series. I’m afraid that in the years that I have been living in Beijing, the honchos at Beijing Opera Troupe have never been able to elevate lao dan as a matter worth exclusively programming for, instead sticking often with tried-and-true commercial workhorses featuring famous regular dans. That said, even with the full backing of the Arts Festival publicity machine, the halls in Hong Kong were barely half full, with plenty of empty seats awaiting audiences in both evenings. For all its artistry and crucial dramatic heft in Beijing opera, lao dans deserve more love.