Chamber music and recital

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi

Date: April 5, 2018
Location: Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin.

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, tombak and daf

Sandwiched between two Parsifal outings in Berlin is a recital by Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, an Iranian-born, Berlin-based percussionist now regarded as the world’s foremost virtuoso of tombak, a goblet-shaped hand drum widely used in Persian music. Tombak musicians snap and scratch their fingers on the drumhead to create sound. A wide variety of timbre is created by changing: fingering velocity, the duration of touch on the drumhead (a kiss vs. a snap), and contact friction (skin vs. fingernail). Mortazavi revolutionized tombak playing by introducing new techniques by the dozens, including heavy use of finger knuckles, use of one’s thumb to “divide” the drumhead into two sides with different tensions and therefore distinguishable pitches, and extensive use of the side of the drum for antiphonal clicks. In other words, Mortazavi has redefined tombak playing as an interaction between any physical structure of the drum instrument and any physical structure of the human hands. It is hardly surprising that Mortazavi’s unconventional playing has drawn the ire of traditionalists, who consider the pure art of tombak playing gravely endangered. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the new inventions introduce a richer texture of sound with heightened expressive capabilities.

The evening performance did not have a stated program – the proceedings seemed to be a direct result of Mortazavi’s, as well as the audience’s response to his music. In addition to tombak, Mortazavi also played the daf, a tambourine-like hand drum. In fact he played with two of them, one of which included a web of metal rings clung to the rim to effectuate breeze-like metallic jingles. All his pieces were constructed with multiple cycles of varying dynamics, surging to great heights and then receding to dark, hushed valleys. His fingering varied from a meticulous series of light tapping to a rapid firing of uninhibited fury. Using nearly all his fingers (except thumbs), he created perfectly aligned rolls of notes with a machine-like consistency. By changing placements of his palm on the drumhead, tones swerved from high to low, sometimes falling off a cliff on a whim, other times sliding slowly into an eerie oblivion. Some of his solos lasted well over fifteen minutes, with undulating dynamics, long plateaus of fiery jubilations, and cascading sets of tonal features. Mortazavi’s music is not, and probably not meant to be programmatic, but the rugged mountain ranges of the Zagros come to mind. Mortazavi was humorous too: after a long languish, he would end a piece with a crisp beating of the side of the drum or a comedic brush of the drum body’s decorative grooves. Or he would bookend a ravishing finish of blazing intensity with a lazy snap on the drumhead.

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Chamber music and recital

Mark Padmore / Wigglesworth / Cook

Date: April 4, 2018
Location: Kammermusiksaal at the Philharmonie, Berlin.

Schumann – Liederkreis Op. 39
Wiggleworth – Echo and Narcissus
Janáček – Zápisník zmizelého (The Diary of One Who Disappeared)

Mark Padmore, tenor
Ryan Wigglesworth, piano
Allison Cook, mezzo-soprano
Members of the Vocalconsort Berlin

Echo and Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata is Ryan Wiggleworth’s setting of the Narcissus poem from Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. The piece is a perfect companion to Janáček’s The Diary of One, set to the text by Ozef Kalda, not least because Wiggleworth’s inspiration for the format of his work came from Janáček’s – a musical setting with a male voice as chief protagonist, a female voice as narrator, piano and an off-stage female choir in mind. Both pieces also tell the story of a man falling for the beauty of another (for Narcissus, the reflection of himself), enchanted in part by the glitter of the eyes: “He could not believe / The beauty of those eyes / That gazed into his own” (Hughes); “Pohledla po mně zhluboka / pak vznesla sa přes peň / a tak mi v hlavě ostala / přes celučký, celučký deň. (With searching eyes she looked at me / then swift as a bird flew / but left me yearning after her / for all that day, all that day through.)” (Kalda). Both men bid farewell to a land where their lives begin, but this is where the comparison ends: Wigglesworth’s ending is chilling, as if all lights around us are dimming to an eternal darkness. Janáček’s treatment is more upbeat, as the protagonist bids farewell with a new chapter of life already in mind – after all, he clearly knows he is eloping with his temptress Zefka. Where Janáček’s colorations ebb and flow, Wigglesworth’s palette is decidedly more somber. His piece ends with Mark Padmore repeating the word “farewell”, in a slow diminuendo and with two syllables in a descending semi-tone. The counterpoint is the off-stage chorus (situated at the back of audience balcony) repeating the same words in an eerie pattern of ascending harmonic progression. Wigglesworth’s writing here is simple, elegant, but dramatically effective, and I wish this work could find a place in the standard repertoire. Mark Padmore never over-dramatized (in contrast to Ian Bostridge’s; see earlier review here), but elucidated his lines clearly, with conviction and utmost reverence. This kind of treatment was particularly evident in Schumann, where his delivery flowed with conversational beauty, without the sort of overt, let-me-tell-you-something sort of didacticism prevalent with some of the more lieder recitalists today. His on-stage demeanor gave the effect of letting the voice and words speak for themselves, and he was merely a conduit between us the audience and the composition. Allison Cook was a fine singer who mustered different timbres as she cycled through bursts of singing, narrating, and whispering. Ryan Wigglesworth had a fine touch and sensibility on the keys. His prolonged pedaling of the final chord in Janáček punctuated the protagonist’s exhilaration, as if to reflect upon the more somber Schumann and Wigglesworth that came before.

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Opera

Parsifal

Date: April 2, 2018
Location: Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin.

Amfortas: Lauri Vasar
Gurnemanz: Rene Pape
Parsifal: Andreas Schager
Klingsor: Falk Struckmann
Kundry: Nina Stemme
Titurel: Reinhard Hagen

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopernchor
Konzertchor der Staatsoper Berlin

Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Dmitri Tcherniakov, director

After nearly a decade of renovation, Staatsoper Unter den Linden re-opened its doors last year to the public. The renovation raised the height of the ceiling, resulting in a more imposing proscenium opening and an increase in the house’s cubic volume. The ceiling directly above the orchestra pit, which used to be arched like Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, is now flat. The design change seems deliberate, as if the orchestra is now boxed in its own chamber in contrast to its past, or in contrast to the somewhat reflective, angled opening of Staatsoper in Vienna. The box seems to yield a warm, comfortably reverberated sound that one would typically identify with Musikverein. On either side of the dome are white-colored lattice grills, parametrically designed with classical aesthetics. They are beautiful to look at, unobtrusive, and probably there to hide ventilation systems, acoustic manipulators, and the reverberation chamber that contributes significantly to the house’s warmer sound.

Staatskapelle Berlin on this occasion was nominally staffed, with small strings sections and no obvious doubling of instruments, except harps. Yet when Barenboim’s arms started to flap with resolute vigor, the orchestra responded, and surging sound followed. In the dynamically most intense passages, including the Transformation music and Klingsor’s entrance music, reverberation took hold and gave a golden-hued, blended sound. When Kundry wails in the beginning of Act II, the orchestra soared to the forefront, engulfing almost entirely Nina Stemme’s voice. Here, where wailing was identified as an integral part of the drama, Barenboim deferred to the orchestra, and the grounds of the house shuddered. In more delicate passages, one could easily hear the various delicious timbres of individual instruments. Muted horns sounded deliriously evil and intentionally vulgar, while timpani notes dropped like plump raindrops hitting cold oil drums. Such clarity was revelatory: when Parsifal’s heroic music escalated with urgency, one could hear the ghost of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier arising in the shadows.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s direction places the drama in contemporary times, with video projections and modern costumes (compare, for example, to his Eugene Onegin for Bolshoi). The Grail knights look after a place of desolation; crumbling walls and frail clothing point perhaps to a post-apocalyptic world. This would be Tcherniakov’s version of our true nature. In plenty other productions, the director would dramatically move stage features and manipulate lighting during the Transformation music. Here, Grail knights stoically file in line and lay out a pile of wooden benches, randomly stacked and visible at one side of the stage, into a communal circle. No other stage movement is visible. No lighting is tampered upon. On the surface of it, the direction seems wanting as it lacks a magical moment to accompany the music that is about to soar to its dramatic (and dynamic) apex. But on deeper thoughts, this makes perfect sense: Wagner never intended the Grail temple to be a part of the natural world; it is man-made, by the brotherhood, to enshrine the Grail. The act whereby the brotherhood moves the benches into a circle not only plays to the notion that the temple is one of human creation, but also highlights some sort of ritualistic formalism innate in the brotherhood. Sure, there is no coup-de-théâtre moment, but Tcherniakov feels, rightly, that such manipulation is unnecessary as he commits to illustrating a deeper meaning – that, if not for any man-made difference, the natural world and our world is really one and the same. This concept is further illustrated in Act II: the physical construct of the production set remains the same, albeit in a shade of perfectly clinical white. Doors, windows, arches and passageways depicted in Act I are still present, albeit now in immaculate condition. Tcherniakov seems to be saying that, in effect, Klingsor’s castle is really the Grail temple, only in a parallel universe, where flower maidens, dressed in primly pressed dresses, are held in captivity. If the natural world is in Act II so bleached as to be discomforting and troubling, Tcherniakov is probably suggesting that the natural world is in Act I so breached by the action of the Grail knights as to be ruinous and destructive. The Grail temple is, in Tcherniakov’s vision, treacherous and damaging to the natural world.

What is there to be redeemed, and by whom? And what is worth redeeming? When Kundry finally dies, by a treachery in this treacherous world (more on that later), Parsifal redeems Kundry simply by bringing her away offstage. The rest onstage is unredeemed. The Grail is love more generally, or Mitleid more specifically. When Parsifal (redeemer) and Kundry (the redeemed) finally leave the treachery behind, the drama suddenly corroborates not only with their final predicament but, crucially, also with the Schopenhauerian instincts innate in Wagner’s work. Here, Tcherniakov’s presentation of Parsifal is unusual yet, at its core, faithful to the design and philosophy driving it.

Andreas Schager, in the title role, set ablaze with a trumpet-like voice with searing penetration. At “Erlöse, rette mich…Händen!”, Schager brought the drama to a swaggering high watermark. Nina Stemme provided lush nourishing lines as Kundry. While Wagner is known to leave Kundry awkwardly on stage for extended periods, Stemme made the best of her stage time by interacting timely with the flow of the drama. The best example is during Gurnemanz’s monologue: as the Grail leader re-tells Amfortas’ plight, she would slowly walk down stage and be revealed to Gurnemanz’s audience just as her name is called. Stemme’s portrayal of Kundry as less of a vamp and more of a natural being capable of Mitleid (e.g. careful folding of Amfortas’ clothes) made her character more human, and perhaps more identifiable as deserving of a final redemption. Lauri Vasar made impact dramatically as Amfortas but his voice carried little gravitas – whether due to vocal limitation or conscious stage direction, his performance is perhaps an alternative way for Tcherniakov to highlight the fallacy of a redeemable Amfortas. Vocally, Rene Pape nurtured his lines with natural beauty and clarity. His character is most revealing in Tcherniakov’s vision: one who longs for a natural world would end up stabbing Kundry; in a way, he has assisted her in finding redemption through death. Amfortas, Gurnemanz and the rest of the Grail knights are left in the status quo – a state of perpetual suffering – the sort of state defining all of us who are incapable to fathom, much less strive towards, the goal of the Schopenhauerian ideal.

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Orchestral music

Verbier Festival Chamber/Cheung/Capuçon

Date: March 23, 2018
Location: Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong.

Mozart – Symphony No. 35, K.385
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58
Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 33
Schubert – Symphony No. 5, D.485

Encores:

J. Strauss II – Hungarian Polka Op. 332
Rossini – Overture to Guillaume Tell (with a twist)

Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
Gabor Takács-Nagy, conductor
Rachel Cheung (piano)
Gautier Capuçon (cello)

The fervent energy of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra capped off an exciting month of programming at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Culled from the best musicians from professional orchestras around the world, Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra is currently touring in Asia and the Middle East, as part of its celebration of the Festival’s 25th anniversary. This evening, Gabor Takács-Nagy led the procession, with joyous and jubilant reading of the Mozart and the Schubert. With the beginning of Schubert, Takács-Nagy’s phrasing and dynamic control led us into a world of agony, the sort of wandering misery that Schubert is fond of projecting. But Schubert never intends his fifth symphony as a treatise on romanticism. Instead, he aims to allude to the classical era where formalities in harmony are at the forefront, and the piece would develop as such. The seamless transition in the interim is what made this evening most interesting: the orchestral sound ebbed and flowed, but what seemed to be an emerging didactic imagery slowly but surely gave way to pure sonorous beauty. Takács-Nagy’s handling of the call and response between the upper strings and lower strings in the final movement was one that conjured up less of visual symbolism than a professorial pursuit of harmonic balance. Never mind that Takács-Nagy tended to tap his shoes along with the music, thus revealing his perhaps even more illustrious past as a chamber musician: as an orchestral conductor, he was thoughtful, vivacious, and complete.

Cheung is a gifted pianist who gave a thoughtful display of perhaps Beethoven’s most lyrical piano concerto. Her intonation, especially in the slower second movement, was ethereal and controlled. In the faster passages, Cheung’s performance was handicapped by a Steinway piano muddling away, especially in the middle registers, and seemingly unwilling to project more clarity that perhaps Cheung, and most certainly Beethoven, surely would have sought. Capuçon’s cello lines had long, overarching phrasings that wove nicely with the orchestral lines. Melodic subjects were repeated with slight tweaks to intonation to yield a richly woven fabric of sound. If Cheung was seeking perfection in individual notes, Capuçon was clearly more committed to channeling meaning through shapely and refined paragraphs. Two encore pieces followed: a cheerful Hungarian Polka, by Strauss II, and a vocal-only rendition of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell overture (yes, orchestra members sang the overture) that confirmed just how much fun members of this festival orchestra are having on their tour.

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Ballet and dance

Whipped Cream

Date: March 22, 2018
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The Boy: Daniil Simkin
Princess Praline: Sarah Lane
Princess Tea Flower: Hee Seo
Prince Coffee: Cory Stearns
Prince Cocoa: Joseph Gorak
Don Zucchero: Blaine Hoven
Chef/Doctor: Alexei Agoudine
Marianne: Catherine Hurlin
Ladislav: Duncan Lyle
Boris: Roman Zhurbin

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Ormsby Wilkins, conductor

Richard Strauss completed scores for only two ballets, one of which is Whipped Cream, premiered in 1924. The story tells of a boy who, after overindulging on whipped cream, falls ill and starts to hallucinate and dream of a world of dancing confections. The original production, with lavish costumes and elaborate sets, was meant to bring back memories of the glorious yesteryear, with veiled references to the preferred bygone days of (perhaps) the Hapsburg Empire. Alas, that premiere did not go well with the Austrian public; any nostalgic feelings were quickly nullified by the brutal reality during this period of First Republic: hyperinflation ran rampant, and Austrians (and much of the German-speaking Europe) were barely making their ends meet. Strauss resorted to defending himself by explaining that he merely wanted to create joy, but the ballet’s exuberance in the eyes of the impoverished public left such a bad taste that it was mothballed for much of the rest of the composer’s life.

ABT’s revival of Whipped Cream (albeit with new choreography) during one of modern age’s longest bull markets seems timely. Unemployment has been inching downwards (at least in America). Inflation remains stubbornly low. The majority of Americans is not impoverished by any modern standard. In this production, premiered last year, Alexei Ratmansky douses the Company with copious amount of busy choreography, with demanding jumps and turns for both men and women. Sure enough, Mark Ryden’s set and costumes have all the trappings of a gilded age that, while referencing a distant past, echoes a prosperous society in which we are supposedly living in. But is that true? Income disparity has been severe and getting worse; social inequity has been exacerbated by political hacks unwilling to reverse the status quo. And yet we all feel comfortable with the sets and costumes, as if we have become so elitist, and so gilded, that, even if the art is purely escapist and fictional, we could be rendered defenseless if accused of losing perspective and insight into the deeper, perhaps unseen, problems in society? If we can’t find the repugnance of an elitist art amidst poverty and injustice in the same manner that ballet goers found repugnance a century ago, what does it say about the ballet goers today? Are we elevating ballet to an elitist art form so much so that we could see, and relish seeing, the art as a narcissistic reflection of ourselves, while conveniently forgetting, if only for the fleeting moment, the rest of humanity who could barely make their ends meet, in this gilded age in the 21st century?

Ballet remains an elite, not necessarily elitist, art form – one that requires world-class training and hard work. For all the potential trappings of an elitist evening, this evening’s performance was undoubtedly a showcase of the elite. Daniil Simkin was sensational as the Boy, a role he created last year. His boyish and fun portrayal was in stark contrast to performances seen earlier: as Romeo, and in Van Cauwenbergh’s “Les Bourgeois” (in Taipei, in 2017, not reviewed). His grand écarts were bouncy and weightless, bending up well past the 180-degree line. His coupé jetés encircling the stage were so smooth and effortless, as if he was a wild animal roaming on four legs in free land. Sarah Lane, as Princess Praline, displayed strong upper-body strength, and acted with passion and commitment. Her jumps were, at least on this occasion, lacking suspension en l’air. Both Cory Stearns and Hee Seo had good evenings juggling between Ratmansky’s fiendishly complex choreography and dramatic eloquence, but between themselves, a chemistry languished aside. Blaine Hoven’s muscular movements as Don Zucchero were decisive without losing the role’s comedic angle. Joseph Gorak’s excellent Prince Cocoa reminded us how even a secondary role could enliven an evening’s experience, much in the way that a scintillating Mercutio could lift the entire experience of Romeo and Juliet. Catherine Hurlin starred brightly as Marianne, another secondary role. Hurlin’s flexible body untangled Ratmansky’s choreography with fluidic and seemingly painless ease. One would be forgiven for deeming her outstanding performance, coupled with genuine eye contact and ebullient smiles, the brightest star of the evening. Ratmansky’s choreography for corps was busy but not frenzied, and accorded soloists with extended solo sequences that well-matched the long arches of Strauss’ phrases. The final grand pas, filled with classical steps and references to the Le Corsaire and Don Quixote of the ballet world, romped with uninhibited abundance and fanfare.

Ormsby Wilkins, a resolute leader, gave a measured reading of Strauss’ score. The orchestra executed with clinical precision, and was trouble-free all evening save for a minor blip in the high horn passages towards the end. More emphasis on carving out long Straussian phrasings, instead of meticulously shaping individual notes’ intonation, would have been preferred. Mark Ryden’s set was astoundingly beautiful, with warm colors and creative props. A trolley which the Boy would eventually climb atop to claim the figurative confectionery crown was wonderfully decorated; it was also used only once. The theatre filled with a jolly good spirit. In the context of the society in which the production is performed, whether it can be considered lavish or wasteful, or both, is a matter that deserves to be debated on another day.

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Opera

Pelléas et Mélisande

Date: March 15, 2018
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Arkel: Alfred Reiter
Geneviève: Leah-Marian Jones
Pelléas: Jacques Imbrailo
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Mélisande: Jurgita Adamonyté
Yniold: Rebecca Bottone
Doctor: Stephen Wells

The Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera

Lothar Koenigs, conductor
David Pountney, director

Pelléas et Mélisande, unlike Tristan und Isolde, is not an opera about its eponymous characters. The main character is Golaud — Mélisande’s husband and Pelléas’ half-brother — who could not come to terms with the force of destiny. Golaud would witness (and cause) the title characters to die, survive the both of them, yet be unceremoniously dismissed by Arkel as an after thought at the drama’s end. There is no hero, nor is there even a scripted downfall of the hero. The opera’s characters — and we — are all shaped and swept away by destiny. If Debussy’s free-flowing harmony does not already drive home the point that his is not, or is unglued from all influences of Wagner’s, the characters’ destiny most certainly does.

Where Golaud is central to this framework, Pountney’s production brings Mélisande more to the fore. The implication does not necessarily divert attention entirely away from Golaud, but the effort seems to put Mélisande on equal footing. The production set includes a spiraling tower in the middle of the stage, surrounded by a moat of water. The spiraling tower is fashioned in the form of a 50-feet tall skeleton topped with a skull the size of a small sedan. This skeleton tower remains there for the entire opera, and must surely signify something: that people (mostly men) traverse in and out of the skeleton throughout the opera probably signifies a carcass of a woman being trampled upon constantly, as though a stone-faced woman is to be raped so repeatedly as to have lost what remains of her soul and spirit, leaving merely the physical being to be ravaged. Could that be Mélisande? Dozens of chains hanging from the rafters above signify the entrapment of something. Could a spirit be entrapped in a spiritless physical being that reincarnates? In Pountney’s framework, the answers to the above seem to be in the positive: Mélisande is a recurring spirit being brought out by the shepherd. When she dies physically, her child is literally reduced into a puff of smoke, just as Debussy’s music resolves to a close. During the scene when Yniold is looking for his ball, Mélisande reincarnates as the stone that Yniold is unable to turn over. Yniold, focusing on the ball, is probably oblivious to this fact, but Pountney here seems to tie Mélisande as a morphing spirit of nature. If the stone in Debussy/Maeterlinck’s vision is to depict a world where no one can see let alone control his destiny, Mélisande in Pountney’s treatment seems to transcend above and beyond that. The fact that Mélisande is looking at the audience, smiling, while fiddling the ball away from Yniold, seems to suggest that Mélisande is in it with us — the audience. She may not be dictating fate, but she, and the audience, already knows the truth that Golaud so desperately wants to know: that fate shall run its course. Here, the reincarnating Mélisande is not comparable to Kundry precisely because she is also in it with the audience.

Jurgita Adamonyté’s voice were gentle, while her diction was easy on the ears. Jacques Imbrailo nurtured his lines with security and lyrical beauty. If Pelléas was a youthful representation of Maeterlinck himself, then, by Imbrailo’s depiction, Maeterlinck was certainly an innocent, blossoming young man ready to be loved and love. Violence to woman is horrific enough, but Golaud’s violence to a pregnant woman was here so repulsive, no matter how familiar the opera is to the audience, as to cause a few gasps from the auditorium. Christopher Purves’s Golaud simmered with remorseless evil. His voice was stentorian yet delineated with care, especially when he presented his departing recitatives. Where Rebecca Bottone’s voice lacked depth, she compensated with careful nourishing of Yniold’s lines. Bottone should excel in smaller houses, perhaps in Mozartean/Purcellian roles. Unlike other Arkels who would typically use rhythmic precision to accord a more devilish angle, Alfred Reiter’s portrayal was more free flowing and, to his credit, more agreeable with Debussy’s musical intention. Lothar Koenigs did a remarkable job shaping Debussy’s lines with aplomb – dramatic enough to stir, but not overt enough to draw attention. There were short bursts of moments when the orchestra sounded assertive, almost Wagnerian, especially during the scene changes, but overall it was sublime, lingering in a comfortable and non-obtrusive dynamic range.

WNO’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo credit: HKAF.

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Ballet and dance

Anna Karenina

Date: February 23, 2018
Company: Ballett Zürich
Choreography: Christian Spuck
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Anna Karenina: Viktorina Kapitonova
Count Vronsky: William Moore
Alexei Karenin: Filipe Portugal
Princess Betsy: Giulia Tonelli
Betsy’s companion: Wei Chen
Levin: Tars Vandebeek
Kitty: Michelle Willems
Stiva: Daniel Mulligan
Dolly: Galina Mihaylova
Vronsky’s mother: Anna Khamzina
Countess Ivanovna: Mélanie Borel
Seryozha: Isaac Wong Hei

Christophe Barwinek, piano
Lin Shi, mezzo-soprano

Additional music on soundtrack

Modern choreographers, when interpreting Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, often choose to focus on the love triangle between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, because the emotions boiling among the trio overflow with plenty of material for one full evening of entertainment. Rarely would a choreographer venture deep into societal and philosophical aspects of Tolstoy’s work, simply because these concepts cannot easily be interpreted by dance motions. Take, for example, Alexei Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky. Most of the stage actions center around Anna, and her relationships with Vronsky and Karenin. When Ratmansky veers off, he tends to focus on what affects Anna personally. The corps is mostly used as sugary glazing to move the story along or, in the case of the elaborate horse racing scene, as a standalone, show-off-your-corps sort of spectacle. Secondary characters are given very little stage time, and they, when finally onstage, rarely partake in any choreography of significance.

Christian Spuck, in a Ballett Zürich production that opened the 46th Hong Kong Arts Festival, attempts something more ambitious. His production gives greater prominence, as well as more feature choreography, to three other pairs of characters: Stiva and Dolly, Princess Betsy and her consort, and Levin and Kitty. (By contrast, Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky hardly features these characters with much if any intensity.) As the ballet opens, readers of the novel would instantly recognize Stiva the adulterer and Dolly his despondent wife. The two characters would for the rest of the ballet hop on and off stage, with short bursts of intricate choreography to expose their relationships – abrasive enough to be emotional, sometimes even militant, but never enough to cause, unlike Anna’s, irreversible road to infamy. By repeatedly bringing the pair back, even as Anna’s life begins to crumble, Spuck perhaps wants to juxtapose the difference between these two adulterers: society back then would overlook adulterers like Stiva who nevertheless cause no irreparable damage to family and society (through the immense will of Dolly, to be fair), but would come down harshly on people like Anna whose extra-curriculars are certifiably her family’s – and herself’s – wrecking ball. Daniel Mulligan’s deliberately arrogant ballet stances and ignoble steps elaborated the outward and animal instincts of Stiva to great dramatic effect. The gutted facial expressions of Galina Mihaylova’s Dolly, most of which were directed towards the audience as she was left alone re-calibrating what remained of her dignity, made us wonder whether she would be better off choosing a Schopenhauerian escape from society once and for all?

Tolstoy makes Princess Betsy the anti-Orthodox, anti-Buddhist archetype, the sort of socialite with lax morals who would neither admit being nor associate with one: she of course snubs Anna as soon as society starts abandoning the latter. Curiously, she and her consort, aptly danced by Giulia Tonelli and Wei Chen, are given the most classical, conventional steps and sequences; perhaps supported pirouettes and classic arabesque lines cultivate the impression that Spuck is intentionally trying to contrast this pair, or at least deviate artistically, from the rest. Tonelli was a graceful dancer, with all the properly nefarious facial expressions. Chen gave Tonelli rock-solid anchorage as she pirouetted next to him, and elevated his dramatic significance in the act by naturally weaving himself into the action through eye contact and timely gestures.

Some of the most beautiful choreography in the entire production is given to Levin and Kitty, especially when they reconcile in the fields and during their wedding. The stage in these scenes is minimally decorated, with sparsely decorated tree trunks nonetheless brightly lit with optimistic color tones. In perhaps the evening’s coup de théâtre, audience gasped with excitement as the pair, portrayed by Tars Vandebeek and Michelle Willems, rode on stage on a bicycle, oblivious to the world and material life. This is not Lise and Colas riding on a bicycle and happily waving at an audience; this moment belongs to Levin and Kitty, and themselves alone. If Spunk intends on channeling a Schopenhauerian aesthetic ideal, or at least magnifying Tolstoy’s agrarian spirit, this is the moment.

Now we are left with the choreography between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin. Nothing was particularly awe-inspiring, and the only jaw dropping moment came during the love-making scene between Anna and Vronsky, where the undressing of Anna was more vulgar than was sensual, outdone only by the two frolicking and rolling on stage with such brutalist ugliness that, if deliberate, could only be explained as a brilliantly concocted contrast to the aesthetic ideal of Levin and Kitty. Again, Spuck could be forgiven for channeling Tolstoy here. Viktorina Kapitonova, as Anna, was a great dancer with confident steps and beautiful lines. Her arm placements, stunning as they were, felt luxurious yet natural. Her portrayal, save for those forgettable love-making moments, was entirely believable. Her dissolution scene, filled with intense pain, made a lasting impression. William Moore, as Vronsky, and Filipe Portugal, as Karenin, were two dependable lifters and committed stage actors, but Spunk has cast aside the characters by giving them very little bravura moments to shine.

Musically, some of the most poignant moments are handed to Levin – Rachmaninov’s depressing Op. 26-12 Noch’ pechal’na (The Night is Sad) was rendered when he was rejected by Kitty. Vandebeek’s possibly unintended fall to the ground towards the end of Levin’s solo weighed even more somberly on that destitute moment. Levin’s music upon his first return to the farms was the contemplative Rachmaninov’s Ne poy, krasavitsa! (No not sing, my beauty), Op. 4-4. Both songs were beautifully sung by Li Shi, to the fine and dreamy piano accompaniment of Christophe Barwinek. These two watershed musical moments are where the ballet production is also weakest – the drama seems completely driven by music and voice, and not necessarily by Spuck’s choreography or stage direction. By giving more prominence to other characters, the ballet company has more slots to show off its talent, but at the expense of finding time to fully develop each character to its full dramatic capacity. The impossible task of trying to explain Tolsoy’s masterpiece with totality remains unfulfilled, but Spuck can certainly not be faulted for the lack of trying.

Ballett Zürich’s Anna Karenina. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

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