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.

Carlos Acosta: A Classical Farewell

Date: June 30 & July 2, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Petipa – Swan Lake White Swan Pas de deux
Bournonville – La Sylphide Act 2 Pas de deux
MacMillan – Winter Dreams Pas de deux
Fokine – Dying Swan
Vaganova – Diana & Actaeon Pas de deux
Stevenson – End of Time
Mollajolli – A Buenos Aires
Van Cauwenbergh – Je ne regrette rien
Van Cauwenbergh – Les Bourgeois
Acosta – Carmen
Reinoso – Anadromous
Garcia – Majisimo

A Classical Farewell is Carlos Acosta’s farewell from the classical dance stage. The production, which Acosta takes across the world before he closes his illustrious dance career, features his handpicked selection of young Cuban dancers. While Acosta is the main bill, in reality he only appears in three of twelve pieces, leaving the bulk of the hard work to his compatriots. The overall effect could not be considered underwhelming, however, as the male corps effused Acosta’s dancing shadows and female corps gave us glimpses of Marianela Nuñez and Tamara Rojo, both of whom were Acosta’s frequent and favorite partners in Covent Garden.

At 43, Acosta could no longer hang as high and as long as he could in the past. His sauté fouetté, in particular, found such a short hang time that his landing was at times found ahead of the beat. But that was not to say Acosta lost one of his prized virtues in dancing – his crisply perfect timing, as he would quickly find the necessary adjustments to re-synchronize with the taped music. In the only classical piece he performed – the Diana & Actaeon divertissement – his movements were liquid, and his stance was always picture perfect. He used his extended and still-extremely flexible limps to shape beautiful contours. When his body lines were carefully positioned at rest, one could see great sculptures of body art, as if Acosta was not only performing as a dancer on stage but exhibiting as a sculptor in a museum. Laura Rodriguez, benefiting from Acosta’s enormous hands and rock-solid lifts, danced the Diana part with an expressive, carefree abandon. Her greatest liability, as was the case with the other female soloists though no fault of their own doing, was that her limb extension was not far enough to produce the most elegant lines that we came to expect at major houses; but they surely worked hard to make up for the deficiency with good effort and focus. In Acosta’s other solo piece, Van Cauwenbergh’s “Les Bourgeois”, Acosta danced to the eponymous Jacques Brel song in the style of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof”, or Falstaff. In this instance, Acosta showcased not so much his dancing prowess as his talent for drama and comedy, and revealed what could possibly be a viable career of dramatic choreography and feature production ahead.

Dancing closest to the shadows of Acosta was Luis Valle, who moved his body with great rhythmic precision and exceptionally powerful legs in “Carmen”, where he danced with Rodriguez. The pair moved seamlessly, and well reminded the audience of Acosta and Rojo of the yesteryear. Acosta’s choreography was sensual, intense and dreamy, quite in the same stylistic vein as Martha Clarke’s “Chéri”. The rest of the dancing was fine, but Ely Regina Hernández’s rendition of Van Cauwenbergh’s “Je ne regrette rien”, to Edith Piaf’s music, stood out, not merely because of her rhythmic acumen but because her body strength allowed her to execute some extremely memorable body lines full of charisma and style, as if Sylvie Guillem did Pina Bausch.

José Garcia’s “Majisimo” rounded out the evening. Created in 1965 for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, this divertissement combines classical techniques with Hispanic flair. Here, the corps seemed genuinely most comfortable. While Acosta had the leading role, the star potential of Enrique Corrales, Javier Rojas and Luis Valle really shone through. Corrales might have been a weak and unsteady Siegfried, but he was brimming with smile and confidence in this particular endeavor. The three could be seen occasionally out-hanging Acosta in mid-air. They seemed to relish their stage presence, even next to the dancing giant that was Acosta. This evening, as it turned out, might be better remembered for the bright potential future of Castro-era (or post- Castro-era?) Cuban ballet than as Acosta’s farewell from stage. The audience might not have expected this, but it might just be exactly what Acosta has planned all along.

Acosta in Hong Kong

Acosta in Hong Kong.

HK Phil/Behzod Abduraimov

Date: July 1, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3
Elgar – Symphony No. 1

ENCORE (after Prokofiev)

Bach/Vivaldi – “Siciliano” from Concerto in D minor, BWV 596

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

Closing Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 2015/16 season was a pair of concerts featuring Uzbek sensation Behzod Abduraimov on the piano. The programming was not as curious as it was stale: just over a year ago, a similar concert featured a big Elgar piece (Engima Variations), a finger-breaking piano concerto (Rach 3), and the wizardry of Abduraimov. Surely, Abduraimov is always eagerly anticipated, while the music of Elgar deserves to be heard. But what purpose does setting up similar programs serve? The program notes surely could, and should have offered an explanation, lest the programmers be accused of simply being lazy for repeating what worked before?

That being said, the concert did not fail to impress. In his Third Piano Concerto, Prokofiev scores something that frenetically switches between the lyrical and the grotesque. This evening, Abduraimov juggled a well-balanced act by deftly altering between primal lyricism and blinding hysteria, all the while keeping an absurd level of energy. Some of his peers might pound out Prokofiev’s chords in nihilistic brutality, but Abduraimov’s approach to the keyboard was better thought out, with a combination of cultured sophistication and civility. The young pianist beamed with fiery and authoritative confidence, and did not for a moment sounded muddled or indecisive. This concerto requires an equal partner in the orchestra and the soloist, and Abduraimov was clearly attentive to his partner’s sonic motions here. He leaned forward a la Glenn Gould, but would often look up to synthesize with Ashkenazy’s conducting, which gave plenty of leeway to the pianist and the various orchestral soloists to shine through. The performance probably could have benefited from a slight pick-up in pace, as there were a few instances when the orchestra (especially the brass section) was moving too far behind Abduraimov. With “Sicilienne”, Abduraimov found the perfect coupling to calm down a delirious audience eager for some more. His pace was well-measured; his touch was airy; and his phrasing was smooth as floaty silk. His phrasing of the baroque material could bother a few with a slight romantic inclination, but otherwise no fault could reasonably be found in this incredibly well-executed encore. Here, he showed great potential in a much wider repertoire, away from oft-heard, finger-breaking piano concertos.

Elgar’s First is probably the most definitive British symphony, if only because Elgar unabashedly advocated its “Britishness”. That being said, it is well documented that Elgar might have borrowed from, or influenced by, the music of Wagner and Brahms. The construction of some lower strings points to Wälsung music in Die Walküre, while various woodwind harmony reminds one of Siegfried. Here, Ashkenazy seemed ready to peel away the gargantuan piece in piece-meal bits, slowly revealing and highlighting each and every important solos. This Elgar never sounded so much like a multi-instrument concerto, each with equal prominence over the course of the symphony. Ashkenazy’s pace was thoughtful and didactic, though a brisker pace would have been preferred. Overall, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded quite fine, if more Germanic than British, and was clearly more attentive and lively with Elgar than with Prokofiev.

Bricolage by Toolbox Percussion

Date: June 29, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Westlake – Omphalo Centric Lecture (arr. Michael Askill) (Hong Kong premiere)
Cage – Third Construction
Kopetzki – Night of Moon Dances
Lam, Fung – Round (world premiere)
Trevino – Catching Shadows
Xenakis – Peaux from Pleiades (Hong Kong premiere)

Louis Siu, Karina Yau, Wei-chen Lin, Iskandar Rashid, Chronicle Li, Lei-lei Hoi (percussion)

This evening has been highly anticipated, not only because Nigel Westlake’s “Omphalo Centric Lecture” is a work that I have longed to hear live, but because I am eager to find out how Louis Siu has evolved as an artist. As reviewed here a few years ago, Siu proved technically proficient, but could be more expressive, whether musically or visually. That assessment was not damning, as his previous program was as technically audacious as he was young, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss him entirely by that sampling point of one single concert. This evening, his curation was as delicious as it was technically daunting, though much more in reference to the demands of ensembleship and stage management than the pieces themselves.

But first, “Omphalo Centric Lecture”. Westlake’s marimba quartet is made famous by its pulsating ostinati, whereby at least one of four percussionists would anchor the proceedings with a solid pulse, on top of which harmonic structures and further rhythmic embellishments are layered and interact with each other. The premise is simple enough, but a lot of effort and rehearsal time unseen by the audience are needed to perfect its execution. Many versions and arrangements endure over the years, but the arrangement by South African percussionist Michael Askill was presented here. The quartet comprising Siu, Yau, Li and Hoi did not fail to deliver the aforesaid basic premise, as Westlake’s pulsating locomotion was clearly heard here. Yet, no sparks flew at the fringe, and the quartet probably could have extracted more excitement and emotional gravity out of it by intensifying the various crescendos and accents, which also could have helped with ensembleship in terms of rhythmic cleanliness. The audience received the performance lukewarmly, that is, without much response after its end. That, however, probably had much to do with the decision, as Westlake’s piece rendered to a close, to dim the stage lights completely, which offered no visual delineation between the end of Westlake’s piece and Cage’s “Third Construction”. With Cage’s wildly popular composition, the quartet found much of the spark missing in the Westlake: tin cans, maracas and tom toms never sounded so good together! Even the various conch shell sirens, delivered by Li, beamed with wild and exciting frenzy. HKAPA’s Amphitheatre, which normally scatters sonic output and, in particular, eats up thin sounds, surprisingly provided a great deal of fidelity, notwithstanding the few lion’s roar moments coming out rather like a lazy cat’s meows.

Kopetzki’s “Night of Moon Dances” found the evening’s peak of ensembleship, when Lin (marimba solo) joined the group. The entire effort was clean and tidy, and smelled of either extraordinary focus or ample rehearsal time, or both. Lin’s stick work was fiery, and furiously accurate. His upright body stance and demeanor reminded one of a confident sportsman. There was much to appreciate from this performance, whether it be Lin’s clean stick work, Siu’s fearless bass drum playing, or Yau’s deft approach to the solitary timpani.

Doubledeck Factory was founded by local composer Dr. Austin Yip and percussionist Louis Siu in 2012, and has since been renamed to Toolbox Percussion to better describe its retooled focus on promoting percussive arts in Asia. “Bricolage”, Toolbox’s inaugural project, was this ensemble concert. After intermission, a Doubledeck/Toolbox-commissioned work by Fung Lam, titled “Round”, was presented. Using a mahjong table, the premise is simple enough: to weave a rhythmic fabric using the mahjong table and its tiles. Musicians would alternately generate sound by using a mahjong tile to hit another tile or the table. As musicians call up different rhythms asynchronously, just as four uncoordinated mahjong players would around a mahjong table, the theoretical result could be an adventurous and syncopated layering of rhythmic complexity. But what a should-have-been! In Lam, the rhythmic section was preceded, if intended, with the quartet playing a simulated/actual game of mahjong, as if to juxtapose it with the rhythmic section that was to come after. The rhythmic section built on a limp, and frankly never quite found solid footing anywhere. The effort, if entirely scripted, was unmemorable, and offered little musically or dramatically. The question is…why bother? Anyone who has watched Chinese dama play mahjong would know that finding four aunties well trained in the art of mahjong and who could play at a breakneck speed would have offered a more interesting sonic experience than this. If mahjong is a game whereby tension naturally builds up, that tension was hopelessly lacking here. By comparison, Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi”, which moves with more tension and excitement, all the while simulating the robust and diverse sonic experience at a Chinese dining table, has much more to offer.

Ensembleship was again evident in the pieces by Trevino and Xenakis. Percussionists are often accused of playing with their ears, which is mostly true, but aside from listening to each other, the sextet often had eye contact with each other. The curation of this concert was ambitious, but the overall musicianship was quite laudable. Aside from Lam’s composition, which started with a great premise but could benefit from a substantive revision, all the pieces were woven together by the six percussionists into an evening fabric of vivid rhythmic intensity — a bricolage, as one may say. As ensemble recital goes, Siu should not be singled out for review here, but as the artistic director most responsible for the evening’s proceedings, Siu and his effort are commendable. If this evening offers any guide as to the future of Toolbox, percussion enthusiasts in Asia should be thrilled with anticipation.

Bricolage

Bricolage.

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.