The Makropulos Case

Date: February 25, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Emilia Marty: Annalena Persson
Albert Gregor: Aleš Briscein
Vítek: Petr Levíček
Kristina: Eva Štěrbová
Baron Prus: Svatopluk Sem
Dr. Kolenatý: František Ďuriač
Janek: Peter Račko
Stage Hand: Jiří Klecker
Cleaner: Jitka Zerhauová
Hauk-Šendorf: Jan Markvart
Lady’s Maid: Jana Hrochová

Orchestra and Chorus of the Janáček Opera of the National Theatre Brno

Marko Ivanović, conductor
David Radok, director

Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, based on a play by Karel Čapek of the same name, tackles a topic that is as old as humanity itself: human being’s infatuation with immortality. The heroine, Elina Makropulos has been living for more than three hundred years and, now going by the name of Emilia Marty, is seeking the potion that would allow her to live three hundred years more. As she pursues the secret formula, self-doubt eventually compels her to reject immortality altogether.

Here, Emilia Marty was portrayed by Annalena Persson, whose voice was supple with a molasses-like richness. Big, penetrating and powerful, Persson’s voice reminds us of the early years of another Swedish soprano by the name of Birgit Nilsson. As a dramatic actor, Persson owned the stage with a dominating presence, and that was not just because of a role that demands it. Persson made it a habit to engage those around her with a fiery and penetrating eye contact. Even as she was singing about her past excesses or a lingering meaninglessness of life, she would, via the certainty of a forceful glance, make it known to those on stage, and the audience off stage, that she meant what she sang. As the need to find the secret formula entraps Emilia and robs her of her freedom, the realization that life could go on without it unshackles her and brings her freedom. Here, Persson aptly portrayed this slow but sure transformation through a gradually loosening of limb movements. Through her eyes, one could sense that the aggression that used to overwhelm her in her initial quest for immortality has mellowed into the sort of content fulfillment that reflects more of a winning satisfaction than an appeasing complacency.

Janáček’s rhythms for the opera are precise and energetic. Emilia’s final aria is as close to a bel canto “mad scene” as one would have it. Brass stirs with multifaceted polyphony, on top of which rest intricate layers of rapidly-firing winds and strings. This has the effect of dramatizing Emilia’s transformation and the earth-shattering meaning behind it. Here, Brno’s orchestra, led by maestro Marko Ivanović, showcased the score with a lively briskness and measured urgency. Percussion section engaged with gripping intensity and ripping accuracy. The rest of the singing cast was dependable with their good singing and fine acting. Jan Markvart’s caricature of the jocular figure of Count Hauk-Šendorf delighted the crowd with Viennese operetta-like facial expressions perfect for the role. The production is classically done: at Dr. Kolenatý’s office, every piece of furniture, the walls and the lamps were meticulously handcrafted to take us back to the 1913 office realism that Čapek has well prescribed. The staging and lighting were ample and luxurious without seeking to overwhelm or take the limelight off of the music and the stage drama. In most productions, the secret formula would be destroyed. But here, Emilia simply wrinkled the paper containing the formula, threw it on the ground without destroying it. By leaving a can of worms ready to be re-opened, director David Radok created his only significant departure from the standard treatment of the opera’s ending, but in a way that gives us food for thought without demeaning it.

Makropulos Case by National Theatre Brno. Photo credit: National Theatre Brno’s website.

Tristan und Isolde

Date: October 13, 2016
Location: Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Tony Stevenson
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal: Carsten Wittmoser
Melot: Neal Cooper
King Marke: René Pape
Shepherd: Alex Richardson
Steerman: David Crawford

Metropolitan Opera
Simon Rattle, conductor
Mariusz Treliński, production

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s epic tale about love and death, returned to the Met after an eight-year hiatus. The previous production, by Dieter Dorn, was as less well-remembered for its lego-colored background as the dynamic duo who propelled the run: Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen. Mariusz Treliński’s new production, premiered earlier this year in Baden-Baden, could well be remembered as much for its dark staging as the stars who lit it: Stuart Skelton, and Nina Stemme.

Treliński’s set was dark – so poorly lit that from the balcony seats one could barely make out the characters if not for the clarity of their voices. Militaristic costumes drowned in a a set painted with objects of grey and rusting metals. The stone-cold setting was made alive, albeit only marginally, by a screen at the back of the stage. As visual narrator in chief, this screen dabbled between genius and (mostly) clichés. For example, a crosshair radar was projected early on to reveal and enforce the place of action, even though the set was clearly one of a ship’s deck. While Isolde lamented Morold’s death, the screen offered to flash back the murder in utmost physical brutality, as if the grief in her voice alone would not suffice. Act 2’s start was cued by an impressive feat of stagecraft, where the entire stage spun about 180 degrees to reveal a Starship Enterprise-like structure, from which Tristan and Isolde professed love to one another. But the movements were so labored and long that the voice seemed secondary to the theatrical development. These sorts of visual narrative walked the fine line between enhancement and unnecessary distraction, and here, even if the visual cues were not found to be overwhelmingly clichéd, they could at times be distracting to the musical presentation.

Nina Stemme is a convincing Wagnerian heroine not least because of her vocal power, reliability and unbound stamina, but because that power and reliability allow her to focus a great deal of her attention on her theatrical acting, which proves time and again to be immersive and efficacious. Treliński’s staging did not provide a great deal for her to work on, due mainly to its plainness and darkness, but that did not seem to deter her: she clearly relished the opportunity to focus singularly on Tristan. Each twitching of her eye brows and each hypnotic glance towards Tristan seemed to unveil a great deal about the sort of Isolde that she wanted us to believe: as Tristan started to peel away the initial bitterness of Isolde’s lifeless armor, passion would resonate to the core. Vocally, her output flowed naturally like a gentle Alpine stream that sounded fresh, even after four hours and onwards to Liebestod. Her voice beamed with cinematic detail and heartfelt passion. Unlike many of Stemme’s contemporaries who relied on an outrageous, hedonistic build up towards and during Liebestod, to the point where the voice could be too excessively loud but lacking a sense of place and purpose, Stemme submitted something that was sublime, with nourished phrasings, crisp diction and a voice that found peace amidst all the commotion and ultimately the inevitable death. At the musical cue where Isoldes of the past simply died or left the stage, she rested her head gently onto the shoulder of Tristan sitting by her side, as though the pair has found eternal love in a manner where death no longer matters. Here, Treliński’s direction was brilliant and savvy, where he clearly reacted to the metaphysical implication without being excessively directorial.

Stuart Skelton, heard this year as Siegmund in Hong Kong, portrayed a soldier with a deep sense of loyalty and a deeper sense for love. Stemme clearly found protective and warm comfort next to the towering and muscular body of Skelton. Skelton presented a springy, agile voice that nevertheless sounded nursed and delicate. From the beginning, he did not show an inkling of restraint, even inside the Met’s gigantic hollow. That perhaps explained why he sounded tired and slightly hoarse towards the end (the high notes in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben” was audibly overparted), but that was not entirely unexpected of a dutiful Tristan who gave everything from the beginning till the very end.

René Pape presented one of the finest King Markes I have ever witnessed: a dignified character whose charity at the end shaded with paternal kindness. Vocally, Pape was sensitive with his words and phrasings, but, as stentorian a bass as he reliably has been, seemed a bit off in production volume this evening. Ekaterina Gubanova offered a fiery portrayal of Brangäne, and arguably was more spectacular vocally and dramatically than she was in Berlin back in June. Simon Rattle’s reading of the score was not as hypnotic as Karajan’s. Nor was his as dramatically surging as Böhm’s. But what Rattle gifted  us was intimate and delicate. If one cuts any random 10-second snippet from the evening, one would find great balance and perfect legato. Over four hours, Rattle did not seem to offer any particularly personal or definitive ideas. If there was nothing here that could point to a Rattle-ian identity, there must be something genuine and genius, with his modesty in not imposing his own color, and in allowing the singers to shine and Wagner’s music to speak for itself.

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde, New York. Photo credit: Met Opera.

Tristan und Isolde

Date: June 18, 2016
Location: Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Tristan: Stephen Gould
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Attilio Glaser
Brangäne: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Kurwenal: Ryan McKinny
Melot: Jörg Schörner
King Marke: Matti Salminen
Shepherd: Peter Maus
Steerman: Seth Carico

Deutsche Oper
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Graham Vick, production

When Wagner conceptualized the music drama, he was heavily influenced by the works of Schopenhauer. The central theme of Schopenhauer –to achieve inner peace through renouncement of desires – seems most evident in Act 3, when Tristan longs for release from his tormented longing for Isolde, or in Act 2, when both Tristan and Isolde seem willing to obtain fulfilment through death. The metaphysical realms of these depictions are a boon to experimental theatrical directors, who to portray these realms use a variety of fantastical devices, whether color, as in Dieter Dorn’s production at the Met; or video, as in Peter Sellars’ production in Paris; or even geometric shapes, as in Katharina Wagner’s production at Bayreuth. Photo-realism is mostly avoided.

Paul Brown’s set in this Graham Vick production is contemporary, reminding us of a luxurious cabin in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. This photo-realism robs the audience of a chance to experience, perhaps through fantastical stagecraft or music, the unknowable reality. Tristan’s death is handled with the hero leaving the stage by going through a door and into a crowd of zombies. After Liebestod, Isolde likewise enters that door, signifying her rejoining with Tristan. In Acts 2 and 3, when the two lovers utter anything in the libretto that points to or sounds like death, stage extras would walk across the stage and scatter flowers on a casket, placed prominently in the middle of the stage. Or, before the first note is sounded, Tristan’s coffin is nailed. Or, in Act 1, the shepherd’s herd is reenacted by actors crawling in four limbs. Or, throughout the entire evening, a lamp the size of a SMART car is used to literally highlight a part of the stage relevant to the ongoing libretto. Even if light (and darkness) has symbolic meaning in the story, why does this have to be labored to such repetitious pathology? These depictions seem almost all too overt and pictorially descriptive, in stark contrast to an ambiguously (deceptively?) represented world or, to a false representation of what we believe as the physical world (?). The production here seems insensitive to the background history behind the piece.

But Tristan und Isolde shines or dies with the vocal cast and the orchestra. With that, the star that outshone all others was Stephen Gould, whose imposing voice, as Tristan, impressed immensely. His handling of the libretto’s words was deutlich, with the kind of regal clarity befitting the voice of a professorial Bundestag politician. Tristan’s fiendishly long phrasings and endings were handled with care. Unlike many North American heldentenors, Gould’s diction was natural and unforced. His top rang with the sort of metallic gloss one finds on a sports car freshly wheeled off from the factory. Compared with his Siegfried I heard in 2009, Gould seemed much more willing to control and pace his vocal output at the outset to avoid coarse shouting closer to the end. Significantly, he probably now owns one of the densest and most stentorian outputs at the lower end of Tristan’s tessitura, not just among his contemporaries but every recorded Tristan I have come across. By the midpoint of his great monologue in Act III, it was clear that he still had plenty of reserve power and did not sound tired at all. A high A-natural was ever-so-slightly mishandled in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben”, in his monologue lamenting his betrayal of Marke, but it neither disturbed the audience nor the singer himself.

Nina Stemme has perhaps the most reliable and steady Wagnerian voice today. She never shouts, and even if it sounds like shouting she does not look uncomfortable or overparted. One of her greatest gifts is a consistently perfect pitch, which allows more of the intricate chordal and chromatic interplay between Isolde’s voice and the orchestra’s to come through. Her legato passages, especially as the drama built up to the extinguishing of the light, oozed like warm cheese. The reliability of her voice could present a liability as well, as it lacks that tiny bit of fragility that, in my opinion, could be desirable in Isolde: after all, Isolde has to face loneliness, as well as a dying/dead Tristan all by herself. Her calm and steady “Mild und leise” at least added to, though not definitively, a proof of that theory. That being said, singing with reliability is miles better than singing with an undisciplined shrill.

In the Act 2 duet “O sink hernieder”, the vocal outputs were equally matched. Their melodic lines were handled with sincerity and aplomb, all the while navigating together with heart-melting unity. The overall musicianship of the rest of the cast was of the highest caliber. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Brangäne carried the day with vocal purity and dramatic persuasion. Ryan McKinny’s Kurwenal was rather invisible in Act 1 but warmed up enough to voice clearly and resolutely in Act 3. Jörg Schörner, as Melot, sounded properly angry and stole some luster from Tristan, as it should be. Matti Salminen starred triumphantly as Marke, portraying the king with regal composure in Act 1 and wretched devastation in Act 3. At curtain call, there was a short ceremony in which he was feasted with applause and flowers, as the evening’s performance turned out to be last stage performance.

Donald Runnicles, usually a reliable Wagnerian, conducted an orchestra who, for the most part, lingered without much to say. Passages that are supposed to sound ruhig came out lifeless. Heftig passages appeared grotesque. Solo violins and violas had no problem pumping out the right phrases but sounded coarse and tired. The star of the evening, crucially, was Chloe Payot, whose handling of the cor anglais passages was magnificently klipp und klar. In the orchestra’s defense, the general lack of a cohesive soul in the playing could be due to an exhausted orchestra having done evenings of Mozart (Abduction), Verdi (Trovatore) and Puccini (Tosca) on consecutive days prior to this Tristan performance.

Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo copyright: Bettina Stöß.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov in concert

Date: March 8, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Verdi – Sinfonia from La Forza del Destino
Cilea – “respiro appena…lo son l’umile ancella”
Cilea – “È la solita storia del pastore”
Verdi – “Tacea la notte placida…Di tale amor”
Verdi – “Ah! sì ben mio…Di quella pira”
Verdi – Prelude from Attila
Verdi – “Già nella notte densa”
De Curtis – “Non ti scordar di me”
Puccini – “Un bel dì vedremo”
Massenet – “Toute mon âme est là!…Pourquoi me réveiller”
Puccini – “O mio babbino caro”
Puccini – “E lucevan le stelle”
Puccini – Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut
Puccini – O soave fanciulla

ENCORES

Kálmán – “Heia, in den Bergen”
Puccini – “Nessun Dorma”
Verdi – “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jader Bignamini, conductor
Anna Netrebko, soprano
Yusif Eyvazov, tenor

Prima donna Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, her newly-wedded husband, began their month-long, five-city Asia tour in a sold-out concert this evening as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In what was her Hong Kong/Asia debut, this must be the most sought-after ticket in town.

Netrebko found an enthusiastic audience eager to be pleased. When she first stepped onto the stage floor, in a plump and elegant white gown, the typically stoic, stone-faced Hong Kong audience went out of character, with an extendedly warm and boisterous greeting that said everything there is to say about her popularity and the enthusiasm towards her long-awaited Hong Kong/Asia debut. That monumental greeting was outmatched by an even more boisterous one when Netrebko came out after the intermission in a strapless, red silk gown with Asian-themed digital print. Netrebko and Eyvazov alternated in a program of popular Italian/French arias. Her voice basked with a warm golden hue, with a stately and comfortable top. She could flow from loud to soft passages with ease: the well supported pianissimos in “Un bel di vedremo” from Butterfly were a good example. On the other side of the token, Netrebko was able to pull some sturdy punches in those exposed, incredibly fast passages in Leonora’s cabaletta, with a searing forte that easily sailed over a loud orchestra while reminding everyone that it was her Donna Anna that brokered her cosmic trajectory to stardom. Netrebko’s breathing was meticulously controlled (save, alas(!), for the erratic final note, sang offstage, in her Mimi), yet with such an unbound vocal reservoir that in “lo son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur, the solo violin accompanying her exhausted his numerous up-bows and nearly failed to keep up with her seemingly endless, and clearly audience-indulging(!), fermatas.

One could easily dismiss Eyvazov as yet another case of Sutherland’s Bonynge – that buy-one-get-one-free deal in the operatic world, but that would be unjust to Eyvazov here. Eyvazov nurtured a fine voice, with a sumptuous Italianate timbre and the sort of scorching, exposed top that would not displease the loggione a la Scala. Going through Eyvazov’s selections here (e.g. Manrico, Werther and Cavaradossi) and his repertoire (e.g. Des Grieux), one cannot stop but think of Jonas Kaufmann, but the similarities would end here. Even if Eyvazov’s diction could sometimes be slightly muddled (something that nobody would ever complain about the linguistically-inclined Kaufmann), his vocal production is definitively more Italianate. His timbre reminds us of the singers of the yesteryear: Corelli, yet with more sensitive subtlety, or di Stefano, yet with more ease and less abuse of the vocal chord. By that I am not arguing Eyvazov as necessarily equaling Corelli or di Stefano, at least not yet, but there are certain qualities about the Azerbaijani tenor that make him a great candidate to further stardom. His high notes sounded natural and with dimension, and his phrasing was discreet and attentive. The real chemistry between him and Netrebko also helped with the duets on display tonight, especially in the La bohème. If this concert is any indication, his Salzburg debut as Des Grieux this summer could prove to be his star-making party. It remains to be seen if Eyvazov’s exposed top could withstand the wear and tear that come naturally with a busy schedule ahead.

Jader Bignamini flapped his arms in a way that was neither abhorrent nor particularly interesting to watch, but did give the impression that he was not conducting but merely manhandling a rehearsed time sheet. With the prima donna’s presence in mind, no indictment shall be warranted here, but the Hong Kong Philharmonic was left alone to produce a sound that was bland and not particularly Italianate. Unaccustomed to accompanying a vocalist, and probably under-rehearsed for this specific occasion, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded like a machine grinding through the proceedings without revealing much of anything. The opulent scores of Verdi and Puccini were not given proper care. It was as if a monotone IBM computer is tasked to read out a punch card – all the precision but none of the excitement. The only outlier was principal cellist Richard Bamping, who with a few committed solo phrases brought us from the raucous commotion following Cavaradossi’s aria to the solitary journey to Le Havre in Manon Lescaut. His phrasing spoke of a haunting desperation, in a voice that was ominous but arrestingly poetic.

St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

Fidelio

Date: June 25, 2015
Location: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.

Jaquino: Nicholas Phan
Marzelline: Joélle Harvey
Rocco: Kevin Langan
Leonore: Nina Stemme
Don Pizarro: Alan Held
First Prisoner: Matthew Newlin
Second Prisoner: Craig Verm
Florestan: Brandon Jovanovich
Don Fernando: Luca Pisaroni

San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

concert performance

Beethoven’s only opera is not an easy one to conduct: beginning effectively as a singspiel, its orchestration becomes denser and more complicated, eventually finishing off in a lengthy, majestic choral finale. A measured and gradual buildup, spanning the entire performance, could pay off handsomely. The San Francisco Symphony found solid leadership in the hands of Michael Tilson Thomas, who led with great patience and control. The septuagenarian conductor put a tight leash on Beethoven’s dynamics and dramatic dynamism until the end, where choral and orchestral wildfires finally spilled all over Davies in their full and unabated glory.

But first, the soloists. If Nina Stemme was not to be as widely acclaimed a Wagnerian specialist as she already is, she would surely be suffixed as the Leonore of our times. Very few sopranos could pull off the tessitura challenge of the role, but Stemme handled it with superb care and the sort of ease that characterizes all top singers in their prime (Stemme is most definitely in her prime right now.) Even without a production set to project onto, her dramatic instincts were genuine and emotionally fulfilling, without an inkling of forced acting. With “Abscheulicher”, she made meanings — of Leonore’s despair, hope, consolation, and steadfast resolution — out of mere words. Brandon Jovanovich, as Florestan, came off at his entrance sounding slightly hoarse and dry, but for obvious reasons that only enhanced, not hindered, his characterization of Beethoven’s imprisoned and impoverished hero. As the night wore on, it seemed clear that Jovanovich’s voice, purely on lyrical terms, was not at its most behaved; but his fearless approach to Florestan’s high notes revealed a committed musician who was willing to risk it all for his audience. In that respect, Jovanovich was Fidelio, and Fidelio was Jovanovich. The tenor would win the hearts of the audience, and the audience showed their love at his curtain call. Not everything portended perfectly: Beethoven’s robust Overture (first version) sounded stale and weighed on the deep lull of San Francisco’s summer. Crisp timpani action was dulled by the occasionally lifeless and mechanical upper strings, while the mostly brilliant horn playing was sometimes negated by a few parched notes.

Beethoven first premiered Fidelio at Theater an der Wien in November 1805, a few months after he debuted (in April of that year) his Third Symphony, in the same hall. The two pieces, written and presented at a time of Napoleon’s dramatic rise, represent a coherent vision of Beethoven’s political ideology: Fidelio exhibits the composer’s great passion for the common man’s liberty and freedom, while Eroica presents a hero who champions democratic and anti-despotic ideals. Both pieces require, in my opinion, a similar structural understanding of this ideological subject matter, the execution of which probably prefers an overarching ensemble control and orchestral narration over bursts of fiery brilliance. Here, Tilson Thomas showcased the sort of steady nobility and unwavering control that remained regrettably unfulfilled in van Zweden’s Eroica a fortnight ago.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony's Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony’s Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

Das Rheingold (in Concert)

Date: January 22, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Wotan: Matthias Goerne
Donner: Oleksandr Pushniak
Froh: Charles Reid
Loge: Kim Begley
Fricka: Michelle DeYoung
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Deborah Humble
Alberich: Peter Sidhom
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Kwangchul Youn
Fafner: Stephen Milling
Woglinde: Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde: Aurhelia Varak
Flosshilde: Hermine Haselböck

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

concert performance

In the span of one month two years ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic went from being an orchestra with hardly any significant footprint in the Wagnerian repertory to one with a couple: the orchestra performed Holländer, with Opera Hong Kong, and then The Ring Without Words a few weeks later, with Maazel conducting. Coincidence does not come by easily, and certainly not in the world of art programming. Any avid follower of the HKPO back then could not possibly escape speculating on the prospect of something more dramatic lurking on the horizon. Without fail, the orchestra announced within a year that it would embark on its most ambitious project in its 40+ years of professional existence: Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Granted, over the past few years the HKPO has markedly improved to become a credible orchestral ensemble under music director Jaap van Zweden. Granted, the “HKPO Ring” would be performed over four years – one opera per year. That being said, one ponders whether making baby steps with Wagner’s other early-in-career romantic works would have been a better choice to get the orchestra accustomed to the physical and mental demands of Wagner’s music, or whether the Ring Cycle should be presented at all to a city that is heretofore, sadly, underexposed to and relatively unfamiliar with the composer’s music. But something must start somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Van Zweden built up the E-flat chord of the opening bars with measured subtlety. His dynamics at the outset was so tightly leashed that one wonders whether he was deliberately trying to recreate the restrained sound of an enclosed orchestral pit. As the evening progressed, Van Zweden loosened much of that restraint, yet seemed determined to staying within a well-defined boundary of volume and exuberance. The maestro, attentive and committed to the score, showed no signs of fatigue despite standing on the podium throughout the evening. His timing at just a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes was fairly mainstream, but sounded slightly draggy during the Rhinemaiden scene at the beginning and the rainbow bridge passage towards the end. Except in respect of these varying tempi, he did not draw much attention to himself, deferring mostly to the singers and musicians. Without a culture of operatic playing – let alone Wagner’s – the orchestra by and large responded well and remained vigilant. Remarkably, the cellos unleashed a rapturous firework during Wotan and Loge’s descent into Nibelheim, and the violas displayed unfettered fury in the subsequent ascent. The 60+ strings stayed focused for much of the evening, with energy level ebbing only ever so slightly towards the end: when Donner is about to unleash his power in the billowing thundercloud, the strings did not manage to support with a corresponding rage. The horns, ever important in Wagner, had a “slip up” (pun intended) during the slippery reef scene, but otherwise compromised nothing of consequence. The woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, complemented with exquisite phrasings and a mystical voicing of their lines.

The ideal Wotan in Das Rheingold should sound confident, if not also slightly spiteful. But Matthias Goerne, in his debut as Wotan, was found sounding a little too sentimental and romantic, as if his character has been journeying forever and ready to face demise (Winterreise, anyone?). Perhaps his characterization today is better suited for the Wanderer in two years’ time. While Goerne gave a worthy output infused with a warm and sumptuous glow, his delivery lacked the sort of expansive projection required if he were to sing behind an orchestra in a real opera house, as opposed to in front of one in a concert hall. Peter Sidhom as Alberich sounded corrosive, dramatic, and well-suited for the role. Whether with a clenched fist while trying to catch the Rhinemaidens, or with a stomping foot during the love curse, Sidhom also managed to inhabit the role and, while reacting to the words and scenes, devoured the space with raw delirium. Kwangchul Youn nurtured a fatherly and buttery voice as Fasolt. With a heart-felt rendition of “Freia, die Schöne”, the Wagner veteran induced plenty of sympathy and awe from the audience (even a botched oboe clunker could not derail his triumph). As Froh, Charles Reid delivered his short stanza with a piercing projection and a shimmering metallic ring.

Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka was the evening’s most unfortunate miscast. The mezzo’s voice was full-throated and feisty, but sounded too much like a Sieglinde or a Kundry not to be a distraction. Kim Begley’s Loge had pitch problems as Loge, especially in the critical thematic passage “So weit Leben und Weben” when he sounded more like an old man droning about a minor league ballgame than an intellectual’s pontification of a man’s noble desire for a woman. Begley somewhat redeemed with lively acting and eye contact with the audience. David Cangelosi’s Mime was adequate but a bit too lyrical and not nearly menacing enough. Deborah Humble presented an Erda that was motherly and gracious, yet assured. Unlike the rest of the cast, who sang in front of the orchestra, Humble appeared on cue in the balcony behind the orchestra, dressed in a stunning velvet green gown. The color of her gown, which matched the concert hall’s green velvet upholstery, as well as her understated entrance on cue, said more about Erda the character than many productions today with luxurious sets possibly could.

Given its relative inexperience in the genre, the HKPO delivered well above expectations. Van Zweden was able to hold everything together with a coherent vision. If there were flaws, some musicians sounded rather clinical in their approach – as if they were playing for a Brucknerian perfection of harmonized cadence rather than a solo leitmotif in a dramatic passage. Some musicians looked (not necessarily sounded) towards the end as though they were relieved to be done with the evening than excited about bookending the beginning of the saga, as Wagner intended Das Rheingold to be. There are rumors that HKPO’s newly appointed principal guest conductor, Yu Long, will eventually bring this “HKPO Ring” to Beijing in 2017. Whether that is true or remains a good idea will depend on how well the orchestra improves upon tonight’s performance. The starting point has already arrived. The gold has been taken out of the Rhine. Yet there is still time.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.