Siegfried — first reaction

Date: July 29, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The location is East Berlin, but it bears few linkages, if any, to Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. One of the more important linkages is Brünnhilde’s rock, which physically links the last three operas together. In Die Walküre two days ago, the rock was represented by a video of Brünnhilde resting in a bedroom and a ring of fire not remotely connected to that video — the separation already a questionable choice all by itself. Tonight, Brünnhilde’s rock was a physical log pile underneath the socialist Mount Rushmore. The lack of linkage all but proves with no uncertainty my earlier assumption that each of these operas tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines in parallel to those of Wagner’s Ring.

Unless director Frank Castorf did not bother to do his homework by watching recordings of past productions, he seems intent to let go of a few important dramatic devices typical in previous productions, one of which is Notung’s slashing of something big and significant at the end of the forging scene — “so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!”. Nothing broke at all tonight — in fact, Siegfried did not even attempt to swing or flaunt his newly forged sword at all. In another off-script curiosity, Fafner was killed not by Notung, but by gun fire, whose obscenely loud noise, enabled by what smelled like real gunpowder, not only drowned out the orchestra but also disturbed a few in the audience so much so that one near Door IV Recht had to be assisted out. Some dramatic devices in Act 3 were so absurd that I wasn’t sure if the director was trying to mock the somewhat incestuous relationship between Brünnhilde and Siegfried; or to mock Wagnerians’ typical expectation that the end of the act was supposed to be innocent and beautiful; or, worse, to mock the composer himself.

Vocally, Burkhard Ulrich sang all the notes and acted his part, but fundamentally I don’t think he has the right tonal quality, i.e. an exaggerated, mischievous voice, for the menacing role of Mime. Catherine Foster sounded quite fresh and exhilarating, but I found her at times struggling, at least facially if not also tonally, while attempting Brünnhilde’s top notes. Lance Ryan, who is notoriously known to cakewalk the role of Siegfried without reservation, was uncharacteristically weak in Act 1, sounding quite constricted in vocal output, especially next to Ulrich’s booming voice. But from Act 2 onward Ryan blossomed, and even out-sang Foster on several occasions, both in volume and in their duet’s various self-imposed fermatas.

After the final curtain was down, sustained loud boos ensued: the crowd seemed eager to pass on their unanimous verdict, unified, in part, by the execution of some outrageously dubious dramatic devices at the end of Act 3. After the performance and on my way down the Green Hill, I learned a new word in German from people around me while looking at their fuming faces and listening to their raised speech tone, without asking anyone what it means or consulting a dictionary. The word? Furchtbar.

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Die Walküre — first reaction

Date: July 27, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The visuals for Die Walküre were tamer, probably due to the whole story now set in a bleak hinterland in Azerbaijan (according to programme notes). The characters, formerly dressed in colorful all-American gear, are now in drab Caucasus fashion. As fashion changes, the characters also don’t seem to transfer from Das Rheingold to Die Walküre, as if each opera tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines that are parallel to those of the Ring.

In terms of singing, Johan Botha proved to be the star of the evening. Botha’s voice was golden, searing with brightness and clarity. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde seemed to have some difficulty at the beginning, including a botched entrance near “Der Manner Sippe…” and a slight tendency to scream when trying to hit top notes from above (when she ascended from her mid tessitura she sounded just fine). Otherwise, Kampe was fiesty and fiery, both vocally and dramatically. When Siegmund was killed by Hunding, Kampe’s Sieglinde exerted a heart-achingly chilly cry, at roof-shattering decibels, that I believe shocked even the most seasoned Wagnerians. Catherine Foster, as Brünnhilde, was a little bit of a letdown. Foster shrieked her way out of some top notes, but more fatally, didn’t sound like she has inhabited the role. Claudia Mahnke, as Fricka, found much better vocal support and projection tonight than last night — her voice portrayed someone with sensitivity and self-esteem, exactly how I would imagine someone in Fricka’s position to be. Maestro Petrenko started rather slowly, sped up towards the end of Act I, and maintained a steady pace till the end.

Das Rheingold — first reaction

Date: July 26, 2013
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

Frank Castorf’s concept is about the quest for oil, and Valhalla seems to be the profit-at-all-cost American oil corporation. The Gods are essentially Texas oil-riggers and/or those who benefit from the mining of black gold. Nibelheim is not so much a physical place as a metaphorical representation of oil profiteering. I shall withhold judgment regarding the production until the end of the cycle, but suffice to say, the production value (in terms of carpentry and overall craftsmanship) is exquisite. Everything from a road-side grocery store to a small road sign is meticulously made and spot on. In that sense, this production, set along America’s Route 66, is extremely visual, and perhaps a bit too visually stimulating. Some of these visual placements seem erroneous, including a sign that says “Wi-Fi here” when the rest of the set seems to point to an era before the dawn of computing. The use of live camera feeds, projected onto a large billboard-like screen on top of the set, reveals Castorf’s desire to give a different point of view to the Ring experience. As stage actors are filmed and projected onto the screen even though they are not singing or belong to that particular moment in libretto, some of these live camera feeds emanate the feel of reality TV a la Big Brother. The orchestra sounded small but compact, as I would expect from Bayreuth’s sunken pit. Maestro Kirill Petrenko seemed more willing to play with dynamics and speed, especially in the orchestral transitions — in a sense, more Furtwängler than Solti.

Romeo and Juliet

Date: July 21, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Joëlle Bouvier

Geneva Ballet

The story of Romeo and Juliet has been retold in different contexts, perhaps unusually daringly, if not also effectively, in Baz Luhrmann’s Hollywood flick featuring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. But Luhrmann sets the romance in contemporary New York. In Geneva’s version, the scenery and costumes remain unattributed to any time and space, in stark contrast to Kenneth MacMillan’s formal realism seen a few months back on the same stage. The set, built by Rémi Nicolas and Jacqueline Bosson, includes almost nothing but a curved ramp, spanning the entire width of the stage, that reveals neither a time in history nor a specific location. When Juliet ascends back to her balcony, she would tiptoe nervously up the ramp like a cat climbing up a creaky plank. Towards the end of the ballet, Romeo is seen pulling Juliet repeatedly up the ramp, as if to steal her away from the devil, only to then see her body haplessly rolling back to the bottom and into a deadly still. The ramp effectively serves as an agnostic stand-in for anything that requires elevation, whether physical (the balcony) or metaphorical (the distance between life and death). Romeo fails to pull Juliet’s body repeatedly, in a seemingly Sisyphean task — in the midst of Prokofiev’s tomb music — only to reinforce the brutality of the inevitable awaiting the pair. One could almost hear children in the audience gasping in sorrow, as if ready to implore the protagonist to wait a few more minutes.

Joëlle Bouvier’s choreography is modern ballet, where dancers keep their point shoes in the locker. Sara Shigenari’s Juliet moved with bare feet and never on pointe, while Armando Gonzalez’s Romeo didn’t tour jete into a stately arabesque. The unconventional lifts and rapid motions in Bouvier’s choreography are not strictly speaking classical ballet material, but Bouvier’s lavish use of muscular movements to alternately depict physical strength and emotional fragility ultimately is, perhaps more. By stripping the technical formalities of classical ballet as well as the formal aesthetics of period sets and costumes, Bouvier asserts the use of muscular energy and curving body lines as not only the ultimate expressive medium but her preferred means of responding to Prokofiev’s magnificent score, prerecorded and played over loudspeaker. In the balcony pas de deux, the bodies of Shingenari and Gonzalez slowly accordion-ed from distance to embrace, ultimately curving into each other with youthful passion but never overt eroticism. Vladimir Ippolitov was sincere and playful as Mercutio, though his great fight scene with Tybalt was irritatingly mismatched with Juliet’s decidedly unprovocative mandolin music. Loris Bonani’s Tybalt set ablaze the stage with a volcano of fiery anger, and his unconventional duel with Romeo, bare-fisted and without swords, was like two bulls locked in a tight horn fight: it was surely not the chosen method of settling scores between the two noble houses, but the armor-less fight punched with real energy and emotion, not unlike the bloody, chilling parallel in Luhrmann’s efficient version. In the end, Bouvier’s vision remains faithful to the man from Avon. Equally importantly, it was every bit as faithful to the designs of love, violence and death as love, violence and death have ever been.

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong.

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong

Geneva Ballet in Hong Kong.

The Barber of Seville

Date: July 18, 2013
Conductor: Pier Giorgio Morandi
Production: Pier Francesco Maestrini
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Beijing Opera Festival continues with Barber, Rossini’s opera buffa that has graced opera houses for more than a century. Director Pier Francesco Maestrini offers a cartoonish vision of 17th century Seville fixated with organic modernism. Set designer Zhang Wu obliges, and creates something akin to a microcosm of Gaudi’s artistry. Buildings would bend and curl irrespective of perspective, as if viewing a version of Seville through an ambiguously curved mirror. Actors would inhabit the stage with outrageous postures and outsized movements as though Maestrini was to purposely redefine the perspectives between physical structures and those who live in them, a la Gaudi. Figaro was sung by Liao Changyong, an established baritone in Greater China who nevertheless found limited fame elsewhere. His voice was dependable and carried heft, but lacked an embellishing charisma that one would typically assign to Figaro. Take his all-important cavatina at his stage entrance: he sang almost every note without fault, delivered all the requisite dynamics, but seemed to languish dramatically, whether physically on stage or tonally as a voice. When the great Tito Gobbi attacked the same aria, he delivered with a fiery confidence and a kind of innocent humanity that seemed lacking in Liao’s roboticism and seeming indifference. In comparison, Geraldine Chauvet’s Rosina was more serviceable and more “human” as a Rossini voice. Antonino Siragusa was not my favorite bel canto singer, and he proved it here in Beijing with an uncharacteristic voice and a murky coloratura. All problems amplified when he attacked Almaviva’s final (optional) aria, “Cessa di più resistere”, which JDF revived to astounding success a few years ago and capable tenors tried to follow but rarely came close. This evening, Siragusa sounded hopelessly strained, with too much nasal congestion and not enough clarity in phrasing. In the technically impossible phrases in allegro, Siragusa was barely catching up to the music of the orchestra. To Siragusa’s credit, he provided slightly more visual drama than JDF’s “park and bark” by providing some authentic twist moves. Chen Peixin’s Basilio swamped the stage with clarity and stentorian heft, and proved catalytically comedic. And then there was Bruno Praticò. Praticò was supposed to appear in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, but had to bail out at the last minute, due to an alleged hip injury. The premier basso buffo of our age, with his deliberately Donald-Ducky walking posture, invoked laughter as the Doctor merely by walking across the stage. Perhaps due to age, his upper registers languished without bel canto’s requisite clarity, but his middle registers beamed with a punching firepower in forte and a careful embrace in piano. He even memorized a few Chinese words in his recitative, to the delirium of the capacity audience, some of whom couldn’t help but stood in a jaw-dropping awe as he counted, slowly but surely, and in Mandarin Chinese, the pieces of paper left by Rosina after she wrote that fateful letter to the Count. Barber rarely fails to invoke a jolly good mood, and this performance overall bears no exception.

Pier Francesco Maestrini's Barber in Beijing

Pier Francesco Maestrini’s Barber in Beijing.