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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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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Opera

Oedipe

Date: September 2, 2017
Location: Sala Mare a Palatului, Bucharest, Romania.

Oedipus: Paul Gay
Tirésias: Sir Willard White
Créon: Christopher Purves
Shepherd: Graham Clark
High priest: Mischa Schelomianski
Phorbas: In Sung Sim
The Watchman: Maxim Mikhailov
Thésée: Boris Pinkhasovich
Laïos: Marius Vlad Budoiu
Jocaste: Ruxandra Donose
The Sphinx: Ildikó Komlósi
Antigone: Gabriela Iştoc
Mérope: Dame Felicity Palmer

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic
Romanian Radio Children’s Choir

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
Carmen Lidia Vidu, multimedia director

concert performance, with multimedia projection

Since its premiere in 1936, Oedipe has rarely been performed anywhere, and has only appeared semi-regularly at the Bucharest National Opera (in the Romanian language and not in French, the language as written). This has been a travesty, as the opera is widely considered to be a masterpiece, whether of sophisticated orchestration or of incorporating Romanian folk elements. The reversal to mean started last year, when the Royal Opera staged it to rave reviews. London Philharmonic will open its new season at the Royal Festival Hall later this month. The Thuringian town of Gera will start a string of staged performances, beginning next April. Reviewed here was London Philharmonic’s festival opening concert at the Enescu Festival, with the same cast and crew for their forthcoming season opener in London.

Commenting on Oedipe, his first and only opera, Enescu once said that the opera must keep its momentum, with “no pathos, no repetitions, no unnecessary chatter.” As the opera tells the entire life story of Oedipus, from birth till death, the necessity to minimize over-indulgence on any specific emotion is obvious, lest the proceedings be stretched too long and tiresome. Accordingly, Oedipe is a composition where orchestrations take frequent and dramatic turns: harmony does not linger protractedly in one place, even if certain elemental figures repeat themselves, not necessarily as iconographic motifs but as construction layers upon which the orchestration seems to be built. The result shimmers with lushness and sophistication, in a freely flowing style not unlike Romanian doinas. Certain solo lines, particularly with the flute (Shepherd’s beautiful meander) and oboe, also point to the monophonic traditions and uninhibited rhythms found in doinas. Here, Vladimir Jurowski’s interpretation was hugely satisfying, especially in his ability to bring about dramatic fulfilment embodied in Enescu’s score. The orchestra could sound a little inert and unresponsive in the slower passages, but it came alive as Jurowski’s conducting arms started to animate and the tempo began to pick up. Jurowski’s thrashing arm movements and spirited body lurchings asserted his authority. The orchestra responded well, whether through relentless calamity of the lower brasses or the collective commitment of the eight double basses. In lyrical passages, the glorious flute of Sue Thomas and the wondrous harmony of the horn section held sway. The orchestra sounded unusually forthcoming in the fan-shaped hall that was probably more designed for punchy political proclamations (as Ceausescu did plenty here) than for vocal performance. Perhaps to ensure that the music could reach the upper tier, which had unencumbered views of but was quite far from the stage, the orchestra and the choir seemed ready and willing to dial up their volume. The effect was that some numbers, including the nightingale song, was probably too loud for those sitting close to the stage.

Paul Gay navigated the title role’s fiendishly treacherous lines with finesse and beauty, all the while maintaining dramatically fitting eye contact with other singers, as if they were acting on a real stage with costumes and sets. He donned white shirt and trousers in the first two acts, but changed to a red/black combination in the last two, as if to visually delineate between a life of innocence and that of sin — by way of attempting to defy destiny. In Sung Sim sounded sonorous yet tender enough as Phorbas that he could easily make a career singing roles such as Gurnemanz or Wotan. Ruxandra Donose nourished the role of Jocaste with a buttery voice, but unleashed a searing anguish as the story unfolded and Tirésias’ prophecy finally consumed her. The role of the Sphinx was portrayed by Ildikó Komlósi, who sang into a microphone from one of the side boxes and, through the loudspeaker, was able to produce an eerily chilling voice. Dame Felicity Palmer nursed a motherly but remorseful Mérope. The moribund way with which she walked off stage after her character’s suicide was consuming and chilling. Sir Willard White and Boris Pinkhasovich had the briefest moments as Tirésias and Thésée, but with their fine vocal specimen they evidenced a deep and luxurious cast.

Carmen Lidia Vidu’s videos provided vivid and interesting historical context but did not distract from the storytelling. The audience fell madly in love with the performance, in a hall where Ceausescu has made many proclamations that attempted to defy a destiny that would eventually befall him. Just as Oedipus was eventually consumed and transfigured by his decision to defy destiny, it seems all the more fitting that the opera was performed nowhere else but here.

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Opera

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.

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Opera

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.

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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.

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Chamber music and recital, Opera

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.

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