Chamber music and recital

Sabrina Ma Recital

Date: July 26, 2014
Location: City Hall Theatre, Hong Kong.

Sabrina Ma has been playing percussion for more than 20 years, and if one pays no attention to her youthful presence on stage and the giddy smile set free after that occasional mishit, Ma looks confident and mature beyond her age. Still in her twenties, Ma has already completed her music education in three continents, roamed around the world competing and collecting trophies, collaborated with artists from different cultures and experimented with pop music and improvisations in inter-disciplinary works. Her recital in Hong Kong this weekend reflected as much her character as her musical journey. Her first number was “Heimlich, still und leise”, a 2013 composition for film by violinist Benedikt Bindewald whereby Ma played a range of percussive instruments over a pre-arranged soundtrack of humming voice and electronic music. With a repetitive but snappy melody, the soundtrack unveiled itself as a sleepy but certain through train. Ma’s playing over, too certain and assured to be improvisatory, nevertheless added ample textural surprises, like a bouncy Wile E. Coyote chasing the cool train of The Road Runner. With Paul Smadbeck’s Rhythm Song, Ma’s second number returned to more traditional fare: Ma showcased her mallet skills, ripping through Smadbeck’s treacherous four-mallet work and seemingly ready to tell a story behind it. Ma closed the first half with Rebonds A & B by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Here, Ma unleashed single-handed quadruplets with stunning efficiency and evenness. The rhythms were like flying shrapnel coming out not from a disorderly explosion but from a well-oiled, well-controlled factory.

After a slightly prolonged intermission, Ma returned on stage to perform Cálculo secreto, a delicious vibraphone number by José Manuel López López. In Ma’s vision, this piece tasted like celestial music punctuated with sixties’ extraterrestrial sentimentality and regimen. The sophistication and timing of Ma’s pedaling work wove a thoroughly intricate musical fabric with multiple layers that thickened and thinned with a rollicking passing of time. Her final three numbers were all 21st century compositions: The Art of Thangka by Emiko Uchiyama, Khan Variations by Alejandro Viñao, and Havana by Rilli Willow. Each presented an ethnic sentimentality (Japanese, Arabic, Jewish) that Ma portrayed with fine aplomb, even if Ma would occasionally lose concentration and find no clean clearance on the keys. Havana was a love poem in vocals played over the monitors, over which Ma showered with well-thought-out, purposeful percussive goodies. Simple work on the bass drums, a few notes on the keyboard and an honest connection with the piece throughout were all that Ma needed to bring zest and a living pulse to the vocal piece.

Sabrina Ma.

Sabrina Ma.

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Opera

Guillaume Tell

Date: July 6, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

Guillaume Tell: Michael Volle
Arnold Melcthal: Bryan Hymel
Walter Furst: Goran Jurić
Melcthal: Christoph Stephinger
Jemmy: Evgeniya Sotnikova
Gesler: Günther Groissböck
Rodolphe: Kevin Conners
Ruodi: Enea Scala
Leuthold: Christian Rieger
Mathilde: Erika Grimaldi
Hedwige: Jennifer Johnston

Bavarian State Opera
Dan Ettinger, conductor
Antú Romero Nunes, director

Guillaume Tell seems to be enjoying a mini renaissance after years of neglect (outside of Pesaro anyways). New productions have popped up recently in Amsterdam, Liège and Torino, and more new ones will be staged in Cardiff, Graz, Monte Carlo and Covent Garden. Part of it is due to the Florez-led revival of Rossini appreciation, but part of it is simply a matter of time: a tragic overdue.

Florez, as good as he has been in Rossini roles, would have no business in Rossini’s last opera. The major tenor role here, Arnold, belongs to a heavier lyrical voice, delivered in Munich majestically by Bryan Hymel, who is fashioning himself as the go-to person for French grand operas, having recently done Robert in Robert le diable and then Aeneas in Les Troyens. Between his Aeneas in 2012 and now, Hymel’s French diction has improved remarkably. With Asile héréditaire, he brought down the house with incredible breath control, fiery output, and pulsating pacing. More importantly, he delivered not with voix mixte but with a full and punchy voice.

The set, by Antú Romero Nunes, has nearly nothing other than enormous tubular pipes that descend, spin and angle to assemble into shapes, in a stage concept not unlike Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met. For example, in the militarization scene, the pipes would descend and present themselves as though they are gun barrels. In Altdorf, the chapel is depicted with pipes angled at each other, as if presenting themselves as two slanting sides of a chapel roof. Trees in the forest are depicted with plenty of the pipes floating sturdily in midair. The difference here is that, unlike Lepage’s concoction, the pipes are not treacherous walking hazards. Nor are they making crackling noises that inhibit listening. In other words, the pipes are not so obtrusive as to affect the listening experience; it is simply a way, albeit an expensive one, to define a set and make an impression.

As Jemmy, Evgeniya Sotnikova was fine, sweet and persuasive. Michael Volle, in the eponymous role, was fine dramatically but couldn’t muster enough tonal color and lyrical beauty to be a truly great Rossini singer. More problematically, his voice often disappeared in the ensemble. Erika Grimaldi sang with sweet expressiveness in Matilde’s aria Sombre forêt, or rather Selva opaca – she was flown in as a last minute replacement for the indisposed Marina Rebeka and could only sing the opera in Italian (she is currently singing the Hapsburg princess in Graham Vick’s production in Torino). Dan Ettinger was a steady hand and delivered what Rossini promised: dramatic grandeur and joyous bliss. Some overt massaging of the score was done: the overture, instead of being played at the beginning, was moved to after the intermission, before which much of Act III has already been done and up to the shooting of the apple. However, in some perverted ways, this rearrangement worked, as the pulsating Swiss Soldiers March served to provide a cliff-hanger of a drama to the apple shooting scene. It also provided some context to the fascinating composition, which heretofore was relegated as an inconsequential show piece. Traditionalists be damned.

The production turns out to be a dark and cynical take on the idyllic themes of love, family, liberty and country. Act I comes with no dances, as would be expected from this Rossini opera. The showy grandeur and Schiller’s emphasis of nature seem coolly assailed by the listless roboticism of the tubes. Yet somehow the sheer presence of the gigantic tubes defines the scale of the opera without the need for an elaborate set and/or a show-stopping dance scene. Equally, the destructive nature of the tubes serves somehow to highlight an important theme in Schiller’s omen: that of the unpredictable and destructive power of the political man. In that respect, as perverse as it may seem, Nunes and Munich found an interestingly workable formula.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Opera

Die Frau ohne Schatten

Date: July 3, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

The Emperor: Johan Botha
The Empress: Adrianne Pieczonka
The Nurse: Deborah Polaski
Der Geisterbote: Sebastian Holecek
Barak: John Lundgren
Dyer’s Wife: Elena Pankratova

Bavarian State Opera
Sebastian Weigle, conductor
Krzysztof Warlikowski, director

One of the highlights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival is the return of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which debuted in Munich in November 2013 under the baton of Kirill Petrenko.

Warlikowski’s celestial action is set in a psychiatric ward, where characters are either employees or patients. Barak’s mundane world is set in a laundry room, perhaps part of the ward complex. Because both worlds occupy the same stage space, Warlikowski deftly uses an elevator shaft to whisk characters between the two worlds, thereby facilitating the transfiguration scene changes. This device reminds us of the dream elevator that takes passengers onto different dream levels in Inception, the Hollywood film. In Act III, Keikobad’s Temple is depicted as a crisis stabilization unit with a warden manning patient records and determining whether those who get wheeled-in need to be “secured”. While the Empress waits outside, the Nurse acts as if she is a real nurse in the procession, imploring the Empress to play ball and not getting herself declared insane. But by the Empress’ final awakening, the Nurse gets escorted away in a straight-jacket and “secured”. As it seems to suggest, proper humanity in Warlikowski’s vision is not so kind on the mentally disturbed.

Some visuals worked wonders, including the earthquake scene when projections helped to effectuate a collapsing world at the end of Act II. Others, such as the projection of Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, Batman and Buddha, suggested Warlikowski’s vision of humanity but looked corny and incomplete at best (a flipping slideshow with a broader representation could have been better, if silly). Projecting five minutes of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad at the beginning of the opera, before one note was played, brought some context to the psychiatric ward experiment: that even though all the evaluation criteria on the surface of Die Frau is objective (a shadow), the evaluation process itself is purely psychological. Nevertheless, by not having any music in the first five minutes, when everyone in the audience expects some, the audience is reminded of another non-traditional production in Munich not too long ago: the beginning of Act III of Die Walküre, which invited plenty of boos and little to cheer for.

Strauss’ music is meant to be enjoyed not on CD but in an opera house, because Strauss’ sound needs space to expand and flourish. Here, the Bavarian State Opera blossomed. At hand to conduct was Sebastian Weigle, who took over the podium from Petrenko because Munich’s music director had rehearsal duties in Bayreuth. The orchestra sounded with military precision, almost exploding in a sort of disciplined violence during the earthquake music. The sound was golden throughout, but especially noticeable during the renunciation, when Weigle seemed ready to hasten the tempo ever so slightly to catalyze a rapturous finish. Throughout the night the brass was in top form, shimmering in a glow of power and luxury. The trombones, when depicting Barak, uttered with high fidelity and persuasion in particular. String tremolos, in the water of life music, brimmed with sensuality and sensitivity, while reminding everyone that the opera is ultimately a cornerstone exposition of Romanticism. The ending, not dissimilar to the Faustian ending to Mahler’s Eighth, erupted with majesty and purpose. Of note was the eerily mesmerizing sound of a glass harmonica, in the beautiful passage just before the Emperor came back to life in Act III. The glass harmonica, placed in the box closest to downstage right, was lit with a golden glow, and seemed ready to pronounce the settlement of the opera’s end.

Most of the principal singers were exceptional. Johan Botha’s Kaiser sounded bright and radiant, while Deborah Polaski’s Nurse effused with immense emotion and rage. As an actress, Polaski was so nauseating as, perfectly so, to be anti-human and bound for purgatory. Yet, none compared with the immeasurable Elena Pankratova, whose voice, as Dyer’s Wife, displayed skillful finesse and plenty of power to carry over the orchestra. As the drama progressed, the contrast between a thunderous maniac and a tender wife was plainly evident, in terms of Pankratova’s vocal beauty and dramatic intonation.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Elena Pankratova in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Chamber music and recital

Anja Harteros recital

Date: June 30, 2014
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

Soprano: Anja Harteros
Piano: Wolfram Rieger

This evening, Anja Harteros displayed technical brilliance and artistic grace in the Nationaltheater, in a technically demanding lieder program of Schubert and Brahms. Her lines were well prepared and thoughtfully presented, with clear diction and warm phrasing. One of the endearing qualities of Harteros’ singing is a reserved modesty where the diva, projecting no particular vocal mannerism, always plays healthy subservience to the composer and the music. Her emotions were not pretentious but real, while all notes dropped in perfection and simple harmony with blinding accuracy. In Schubert’s An den Mond (D.193) in particular, Harteros released a tremendous sense of sadness, puncturing an air of warmth built up after a couple of love songs. In Nacht und Träume (D.827), she created a timeless space, almost devoid of oxygen and breath, that virtually no audience dared to provoke. In An die Musik and Seligkeit, two of four encores, she committed her phrasings with a relaxed, yet wholesome expressiveness. Even though her phrasing could be accused of being at times too clean and clinical, she made up with finesse and earnestness. In all honesty and seriousness, her voice seems slightly too operatic for lieder, but one wonders whether that is actually the case or simply the reality of having to sing in a 2000-seat opera house. That this is neither Wigmore Hall nor Schwarzenberg should not be lost on the audience when judging her timbre and output. (That being said, Prinzregententheater could surely have been a slightly better venue?) Wolfram Rieger, the gold standard of accompaniment, voiced the instrument with clarity and singular pleasure. He would match Harteros’ singing point by point, ready to assert as an equal partner but never intent to outshine. Rieger’s control of the tempo and dynamic was instinctive, creating enough contrast to entice but not provoke. Meanwhile, his pedaling work was sublime, and tempered the month-long, fist-pumping opera festival with a delicate evening of Hochkunst.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

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