Opera

Paris Opera/Jordan: Tristan und Isolde

Date: April 8, 2014
Location: Opéra Bastille, Paris.

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Isolde: Violeta Urmana
Sailor’s Voice: Pavol Breslik
Brangäne: Janina Baechle
Kurwenal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Melot: Raimund Nolte
King Marke: Franz-Josef Selig
Shepherd: Pavol Breslik
Steerman: Piotr Kumon

Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan, conductor
Peter Sellars, production

This Peter Sellars production, famous for its minimalist direction and extensive use of video projections, premiered in 2005 at the Opera under Gerard Mortier, then general director of the Opera. A champion of bold new works, Mortier exemplified a new generation of art administrators who sought to bring classical opera up-to-date with the times, whether in its embrace of new technology or adoption of multimedia as a narrative or coloring device. It was thus appropriate that, before the first note was played, the Opera allowed a minute of silence to pay tribute to Mortier, who passed away exactly a month ago.

This production does not please everyone but, perhaps by brutal force of visual identity, makes staunch impressions. Projected on a scrim at the back of the stage, Bill Viola’s video imagery materialized repetitively and at a slow pace. In Act I, during the scene retelling Tristan’s history and Morold’s fate, video projections showed two actors, in two tiles of slow motion video, doing a variety of mundane activities: undressing themselves, washing hands, and head-dipping into a basin of water. Taken alone, the video subjects could not look more prosaic – perhaps intently – so as to avoid taking unnecessary attention away from the main stage. It soon became clear that the mundane repetitions were ritualistic, perhaps alluding to the formality of paraphrasing the Cornwallian history before Tristan and Isolde could find each other’s love. By juxtaposing daily routine tasks closely with the later Acts’ metaphysical exploration of love and death, the video also seemed to serve as a contrasting harbinger of what was to come.

Peter Sellars’ stage was simple but efficacious: a dark box in the middle of the stage was used to signify the ship with which Tristan brought Isolde to King Marke. That same dark box doubled as Tristan’s death bed. In the beginning of Act II, Tristan and Isolde each stood inside a square of white lights beamed down from above. The light over Tristan would soon extinguish, and he would walk towards Isolde. Choreographed to perfection, Tristan would step into Isolde’s square just as the music leading to their monumental duet, “So Sterben wir”, began. Sellars’ directorial treatment here was exemplary: simple stage movements looked elegant, drove tension and focus towards the subject, and placed emphasis squarely at, no pun intended, the center of the vocal storyline.

To be sure, neither Robert Dean Smith nor Violeta Urmana could be labeled as gifted stage actors. With Sellars’ minimalist designs and direction, they often looked aimless and physically out of place. But that was not to say they had no stage presence, which they were able to muster through the force of their dramatic voice. After all, good Tristan und Isolde calls for tonal color and exceptional endurance, and here the duo offered a whole lot, and then some. Urmana’s upper notes emerged with care and clarity, while her middle registers, of which there were plenty in Isolde, shimmered with supple richness and intensity. Her “Als für ein fremdes Land” was, like a tamed horse cantering in free pastures, absolutely joyful to listen to. Her Liebestod was heart-achingly moving. One may not find a scintillating spectacle in Smith’s voice, but he sang with refined subtlety and seasoned restraint. Crucially, Smith paced himself well enough that his physical output was, like a piece of well-oiled machinery, consistent and elegant throughout, without sounding tired or labored deep into Act III. Jochen Schmeckenbecher, as Kurwenal, sang fearlessly. Franz-Josef Selig, as Marke, sang with a force of destiny. Piotr Kumon, as Steerman, belted jubilantly from one of the upper-level boxes, while choruses in Act I filled the house with resolute, almost ecclesiastical power just as the lights in the hall slowly illuminated, only to turn off simultaneously at the last note of the Act. If Wagnerian music is meant to build towards consummate moment of epic proportions, this instance is certainly it.

Under Philippe Jordan, ensembleship with fine legato phrasings took precedence over mastery of individual lines. The Opera’s orchestra sounded mellow, and mellower than one would typically find in a German orchestra. Nothing really stood out with a dazzle, but the entirety spoke as a coherent whole well worthy of Wagner.

Tristan und Isolde, at Paris Opera. Photo credit: Paris Opera.

Standard
Opera

NCPA/Gergiev: Eugene Onegin

Date: March 17, 2014
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Tatiana: Ke Lvwa
Onegin: Yuan Chenye
Lensky: Jin Zhengjian
Olga: Weng Jopei
Triquet: Lu Zhiquan

NCPA Orchestra and chorus
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexei Stepanyuk, director

In its 230-year history, the Mariinsky has never co-produced an opera with an Asian company. Until now.

Opening the 2014 NCPA Opera Festival was NCPA’s co-production with the Mariinsky of Eugene Onegin, which premiered last month at the new Mariinsky. The all-Russian cast at the premiere was here in Beijing to sing at the opening on March 14, while a fine line-up of local singers took over in the alternate evenings. Maestro Valery Gergiev conducted the resident orchestra at the NCPA.

Maestro Gergiev could not have found a better time to be away from his homeland, at a time when Russia was embroiled in its tussle with Ukraine over the Crimean peninsula. The audience in Beijing, with a significant Russian contingent, was protective and rabid in their reception of the maestro, even before a note has been played.

As the curtain drew up, hundreds of sharply colorful balls were littered and stationed perkily across the stage, as if saying that the place where these characters live is abundant with harvested crops and happy returns. A white swing was placed on stage right, where villagers would swing happily back and forth in their spare time, while a white table on stage left was where villagers would savor the fruits of their harvests. In director Alexei Stepanyuk’s vision, Tatiana’s world before Onegin’s rejection was one of simple pleasures, where sky was blue and fruits were plump and round. The costumes, by Irina Cherednikova, presented a civilized community where happiness was reflected in dress colors and plenty was the norm. Set designer Alexander Orlov seemed consciously ready to paint his props to reflect not just the lifestyles of his characters but, as the drama moves on, also the slippery slope of Onegin’s psyche that Pushkin so wished to project. The colorful garden scene soon gave way to Larina’s country house, with a more subdued, sandy white shade, and then to Gremin’s palace which was painted mostly in a rich but almost lifeless marble black. In the final scene, Onegin and Tatiana were standing in front of a black curtain, as if foretelling that there was nothing left between the two characters. When Onegin finally saw his fate, the curtain drew up, revealing an empty and dark stage with just enough light to illuminate fading puffs of smoke. In parallel was Onegin’s faded prospects and ultimate demise. This mechanism was a stroke of directorial genius, as if Stepanyuk was saying that the curtain of the eponymous character’s fate was finally revealed – one of nothingness. The rest of the curtain work was noteworthy: by drawing two curtains from either side at different speeds, and one curtain dropping behind them from atop, Stepanyuk was able to frame, like a camera shutter, the focus of each scene’s beginnings and endings, as if to intensify and focus on particulars of the drama. Especially poignant was the drawing down of the curtain at the end of Act II: when the orchestra scurried to a close, the curtains zoomed in on a hapless Onegin kneeling on stage left, intensifying Onegin’s singular moment of loneliness and guilt.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s production was not without flaws: it was not entirely obvious at which point Lensky turned from mild jealousy to intense rage, as it, together with Onegin’s flirtations with Olga, seemed to have happened in a split second. That hastiness seemed to rob the audience of quite possibly the most important dramatic turn in the opera. By utilizing those framing black curtains, the rest of the stage had to be set slightly upstage (about 10 meters from the pit), meaning that some of the singing was a little too far back and not ideal, especially in the vastness of the NCPA.

Jin Zhengjian, as Lensky, did not start well. In his duet with Weng Jopei’s Olga, his upper-middle registers struggled with noticeable breaks, and did not have enough vocal power to counteract Weng’s voice, which was not big to begin with. A slow start did not, however, ruin a fine end, as plenty was left in his vocal tank for his all-important Act II aria, which he rendered admirably. As a stage actor, Jin was dutiful but lacked some necessary fire to make him stand out as a dramatic lead. Yuan Chenye’s Onegin had no such stage presence issues, and his silky smooth timbre caressed Tchaikovsky’s phrases elegantly. He did find breathing problems in Onegin’s treacherous long phrases after Tatiana finally rejected him, leaving audible but forgivable gaping holes in his output. Relative newcomer Ke Lvwa, as Tatiana, had the moment of her life. Her portrayal was sincere without looking acted, occupied without looking self-indulgent. Her voice bloomed with a supple sweetness and her top was warm and secure. In the letter scene, her Tatiana was at different times giddy, hopeful, annoyed, and flushed with youthful love. Based on this performance alone, Ke should be on her way to international stardom. The Russian words from most of the singers sounded a little too artificially chewed, but that was to be expected from the all-Chinese cast. Lu Zhiquan, as Triquet, devastated his lines with questionable French diction not unlike Martin Yen mindlessly chopping vegetables, but as a stage actor Lu was loyally entertaining.

Maestro did magic with the orchestra, which, though not Mariinsky golden, sounded as good as ever. Gergiev’s phrasing of the Tchaikovsky score was mellow and smooth, like Fred Astaire skating on dance floor. The brass section, especially the horns, sounded obedient and delicate. In both the letter scene and Lensky’s aria, the oboe’s line floated with an inspired lyricism and tonal beauty. While no fire has been fired (so far) on the other side of the world in Crimea, I think Gergiev should unleash more musical fire from the upper strings, but overall the evening was a pleasurable one.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act I, Scene 1. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act II, Scene 2. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act III, Scene 1. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Standard
Opera

Opera HK/Schaefer: Der fliegende Holländer

Date: October 10, 2013
Conductor: Henrik Schaefer
Production: Adolf Dresen (Volker Böhm revival), with Opera Hong Kong
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

One of the most crucial, albeit brief, moments in Holländer is the back and forth between the Steersmen chorus and the ghost chorus, because it represents the tension between the living and the dead. In this Opera Hong Kong revival of Adolf Dresen’s Düsseldorf production, the ghost chorus was presented via taped recording, leaving the Steersmen chorus singing towards an empty upstage. Dramatically it may not be unreasonable – who can claim that ghosts are visible, if existent at all, anyway – but by using a taped recording rather than a live chorus, the Opera Hong Kong producers (meaning Warren Mok, OHK’s honcho) not only neutered one of Wagner’s dramatic arsenals of the dueling choruses but watered down the opera’s central theme: the archetypal struggle between life and death.

Adolf Dresen’s production was simple and traditional – Act I opened with Daland’s ship parked on stage right. As Steersmen left the scene and the lone watcher fell asleep, Dutchman’s ship slowly rolled in from stage left. Redly lit from within the hull through a metal grid deck, the boat was where The Dutchman entered the stage to the tune of his haunting motif. The rest of the opera revolved mostly around these two ships, save for Act II where ladies spun wheels in what seems like a cotton factory. When The Dutchman finally received his salvation, the ghost ship collapsed in a series of folding mechanical action, not unlike a pirate ship mutilating itself in Disneyland’s water fountain showcase. The set was simple, but mostly conducive to the telling of the opera.

Jukka Rasilainen sounded perfectly fine as The Dutchman but was a relative bore on stage. His visage’s lifelessness seemed to translate onto his voice, especially in “Die frist ist um”. As he reminisced about his longing for death (“doch ach! den Tod, ich fand ihn nicht!”), when he should have been delirious, he sounded like a disinterested math professor reciting passages from a combinatorics textbook. Rasilainen’s Dutchman did not sound like someone who has toughened himself through years of wandering at sea. If he was anxiously trying to communicate a yearning for redemption, neither his visage nor his voice revealed much of that. Manuela Uhl’s Senta was ungrateful to life but found its meaning and destiny when her eyes first met The Dutchman. Her portrayal of this longing was entirely believable. Vocally, she was careful, though slightly too risk averse, in her Act II ballad, but threw everything on the table in her suicidal cries in the finale. Tomislav Mužek’s Erik was smooth and metallic. The voice of Carsten Süss’s lone Steersman was squeaky in his Act I aria, but flourished in his brief outputs in Act III. Liang Ning struggled at times to produce adequate output at Mary’s low tessitura, but seemed to relish her time on stage. Kurt Rydl’s Daland was the vocal standout of the evening – he sounded stentorian but alive, and portrayed a father who was more opportunistic than genuinely evil. His Daland was the morbid Dutchman’s living, breathing antithesis. Compared with past performances, the chorus of the Opera Hong Kong gave everything they could and then some, and sounded better than ever. Yet the men could use more support at tenor, while the women could be more in unison, especially in phrases starting with hissing syllables.

Henrik Schaefer was seen trying very hard at times to squeeze more dramatic action out of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, but the orchestra remained timid and tame – more Lucerne than Baltic if you will. The weak link was not Wagner’s brass, as most would imagine, but upper strings and woodwinds, which sounded like they were playing mood music for a Hollywood movie than for Wagner’s musical drama. In the Overture, for example, motifs from the woodwinds (fate, longing for death etc.) were often buried in a lush sea of supporting harmonic structures rather than standing out on their own. Upper strings often felt thin and under-powered – perhaps the orchestra was simply not used to playing in the pits and unnecessarily tuned down their output upon seemingly hearing themselves too much. If this performance served as any guide, the orchestra surely has much to improve before their fateful date with the Savonlinna voices in Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Lohengrin next year.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.

Standard
Opera

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Götterdämmerung

Date: July 31, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

As I walked down the Green Hill, I heard from numerous people from the audience that this particular performance will likely go down in history as the one that received the longest boos in Bayreuth ever, bar none. The displeasure, mostly aimed at director Frank Castorf, lasted nearly 15 minutes. A lady sitting one row behind me, a septuagenarian who said this was her 20th Ring production, said she has never booed in her previous nineteen but felt compelled to do so this time around.

Here is a truncated list of things that would irritate most Wagnerians: there was no rope in the Norn scene at all, not even anything remotely analogical or symbolic in nature. When the rope broke per the libretto, there was no visual cue whatsoever. Even the Norns seemed unconcerned by its breakage, a most significant turning point in the Norn scene. Hagen spat water a la voodoo witchcraft, in remotely tangential reference to Alberich’s curse. Notung did not even make a stage entrance at all this evening, nor did Grane. The funeral pyre was wimpy for the gigantic set. And amidst all these, save for a few oil barrels, where was the connection to the quest for oil, which seemed such an alluring concept at the beginning of Das Rheingold but became dead in the water towards the end of Götterdämmerung?

Castorf seems to set each evening of the Ring in different situations, each barely related to the other, so much so that any linkage to a prior evening’s event became inevitably broken. For example, Brünnhilde’s rock was three entirely different conceptions in each of the evenings. So was the Rhine. So was Valhalla. In the Ring, because everything is very intricately related to each other via leitmotifs, Castorf’s concept of severing the relationship between the evenings becomes a dangerous proposition in front of a Wagner-manic audience. His signature theatrical devices, including spitting, videos, film references etc., could be visually stimulating, but also distracting in the context of concurrent singing and orchestration. In my view, the best dramatic design Castorf could muster in four days, soon after Hagen’s battle cry, was to have a supernumerary drop a cart of potatoes down a flight of stairs, in tribute to Eisenstein’s revolution scene in Battleship Potemkin. But everybody in Bayreuth already knew that Hagen was about to incite a revolt of sorts, and the Eisenstein reference, while making ridiculous noise on stage and distracting visuals (imagine dozens of potatoes tumbling down a flight of stairs in the middle of the stage), did very little to improve the drama on stage. Castorf was showing off his intellectual knowledge, but for all the wrong reasons.

Singing-wise, Catherine Foster had an outstanding night. She never yelled and had great breath control throughout the evening. More importantly, I think she really embodied the psyche of Götter Brünnhilde — one of dismay, pensiveness, and ultimately determination. Her voice, with a good mix of human frailty but godly security, reminded me of a late-career Gwyneth Jones, who would take calculated but never uncovered risks. Lance Ryan probably still sounded better than most living Siegfrieds, but compared with what I heard in Shanghai in 2010 and again in Münich in 2012, he sounded more aged and tired, especially towards the end, possibly because he barely had any rest between his Siegfried at the Proms and his Bayreuth Siegfried. The rest of the cast was solid, except Attila Jun’s Hagen, whose voice was slightly too lyrical and small for the role. In the end, I don’t think anyone will remember this bicentennial cycle by its singing, except perhaps Botha as Siegmund and Kampe as Sieglinde. The focus, to be forever etched into Bayreuth’s collective memory, would be why a DDR-born director, often lauded for his forward-thinking and uncompromising theatrical concepts, got fifteen minutes of backside whooping, and would likely stand to receive more had the festival staff not turned on the lights inside the Festspielhaus and hurried everyone off it.

Standard
Opera

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Siegfried

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
Opera

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Die Walküre

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

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

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

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Das Rheingold

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

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

Standard