Pop, jazz and rap

CHAT live in Hong Kong

Date: May 23, 2013
Location: Sheung Wan Civic Centre, Hong Kong.

French singer-songwriter Charlene Juarez, better known on stage as CHAT, lives up to her stage name. Her voice has a mesmerizing timbre, whose fragile sentimentality belies her secure delivery, just like a cat whisking freely but surely atop an endless maze of Parisian rooftops. In Les âmes soeurs, which appears in her latest album, Le Coeur, her musical notes are placed with a meticulous delicacy, not unlike a cat’s paw kissing the edge of slender roof tiles. While Juarez sings, she often works the keyboard with blistering attacks of fast arpeggios. L’insouciance, a number from her debut album Folie Douce, reads visually like a fast cat skipping up and down an undulating terrain of hot tin roofs. While her fingers are at it, she raps too – not in the traditional sense of chimed rhyming but in the form of a spindle rapidly spouting delicate lines of verbal goodies. She carries an airy blond hair over her gazing eyes and a gorgeous body that swings deliciously while she makes music, in such a natural way that she seems to enjoy her music much more than that spotlight moment onstage.

Unlikely as it may seem, the biggest distraction of the evening turns out to be her music. CHAT readily allows her harmonic arch to go momentarily haywire, which is fine, but the finale of her music almost always resolves to a simple tonic, often in the major key, and often in the root position in unison with the routines of a finishing bass and a concluding drum sequence. If anyone has played music with preset playing patterns on a drum machine that has a handy <end> button, an evening with CHAT sounds like a bunch of amateurs clowning about in a record studio. That sort of association is regrettable, because the rest of CHAT’s music is, for the most part, cerebral and soulful. Her song Le coeur, in her eponymous album, provides a pleasing exception: it ends not with a simple resolution but with a subtle inversion that seems to echo the waffling emotions described in the lyrics, thereby giving more body and meaning to the harmonics. Perhaps that should be her blueprint for future compositions.

The CHAT performance is part of Le French May.

CHAT live in Hong Kong.

CHAT live in Hong Kong. Copyright: CHAT and Le French May.


NCPA/Kohn: Nabucco

Date: May 22, 2013
Conductor: Eugene Kohn
Production: Gilbert Deflo
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Nabucco is widely accepted as the work that Verdi finally matured to his own. When Verdi composed it, it was not long after his wife Margherita died of encephalitis. An angle of redemption is thus widely interpreted to exist in Nabucco – one of spiritual renewal and enlightenment. When tenor Placido Domingo attempted the baritone title role as a septuagenarian, could he be invoking a similar angle of redemption too?

As a tenor during his prime, Domingo has excelled and been widely acclaimed in roles that require shades of baritonal qualities, such as Lohengrin and Siegmund. Domingo’s slightly baritonal timbre afforded him to excel in those roles, but also led to critics to suggest that he was never a tenor to begin with, especially, albeit perhaps unfairly, when the tenor began to transpose down in the twilight of his tenor career. As a baritone, Domingo’s top notes effuse the sort of fluidic, airy ring that differentiates a tenor from a baritone. In the middle registers, where Domingo sounds best, his voice nurses a timbre that is both velvety and coarse (in a controlled kind of way). As Nabucco, which turns out to be Domingo’s first stage performance in China in nearly thirty years (that did not include a private concert performance of Simon Boccanegra in Beijing a couple of years ago), his finest dramatic moment was at the end of Act II, when he started to look and act with an exacting, almost haunting, confusion. In “Dio”, Domingo sounded caringly paternal, while Leo Nucci sounded, in comparison, though not in any disparaging way, somewhat dismissively possessive. The major difference was effectively one of interpretation, not necessarily one of vocal output. Any suggestion that Domingo was singing baritone roles so that he could redeem towards his true self seems rubbish. In my opinion, Domingo simply feels that he was ready to interpret these baritonal roles dramatically, and has both the support of his tessitura (though not necessarily the perfect timbre and delivery) and house directors. Surely, why not?

The role of Abigaille has confounded many singers in the past. Sun Xiuwei (孙秀苇) portrayed a daughter whose fury was eventually usurped by an un-containable guilt. When she was furious, Sun’s facial expression was monstrous. In her final scene before her ultimate downfall, she looked spent but seemed ready to accept her fate. Vocally, Sun’s liberal mannerism could be irritating, but that was the least of her problems. Sun had pitch problems for much of the night, especially in the upper registers where she tended to flat going into most of her top notes. In Abigaille’s treacherous lower registers, her voice was practically chewed up by the vastness of the NCPA. A better actor than singer, at least in this evening, Sun was markedly better in her Act I focal point – the more dramatically expressive cavatina – than in the subsequent, the more technical, cabaletta.

Li Xiaoliang (李晓良) towered as Zaccaria with a stentorian bass, and provided some of the finest singing of the evening. In his Act I cabaletta, he lit up the stage while encouraging the Jews to rebel against the invasion. In the supplementary roles, Jin Zhengjian (金郑建) was dutiful and dramatically effective as Ismaele, especially at the end of Act 1 when he blossomed with anger and dismay while being wrongfully accused. Yang Guang (杨光) gushed with melancholic sadness as Fenena.

The production was not particularly impressive but serviceable with occasional interesting moments, including when Nabucco orders the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, whereupon a slow-motion projection depicting temple bricks falling down on the upstage scrim was powerfully effective. Kohn was a little dragging at the beginning but picked up pace in Act III. The orchestra was thin in the strings and suffered some mistakes in the brass, during much of Act III, as well as in Fenena’s Act IV numbers.

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing.