Rigoletto

Date: August 28, 2011
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Stefano Vizioli
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Rigoletto returns to the NCPA after two consecutive years of monstrous box office. Desiree Rancatore and Leo Nucci flew in for two of this year’s four performances, but the TFS, having heard the duo thrice in the past two years, opted for one of the other two performances with an all-Chinese cast.

Yuan Chenye (袁晨野) delivered a vocally masterful performance as Rigoletto. His stentorian voice easily carried over the Lü Jia-directed NCPA Orchestra. Yuan’s timbre was somewhat monotone, but was saved by the size of his voice and his passionate stage presence. Xue Haoyin (薛皓垠), as the Duke, had an Italianate voice, combining rich colorings of uttered syllables with a bright, crisp sound. His acting denied him a flawless outing, as he did not seem comfortable singing and acting at the same time. His beautiful, seductive lines in Bella figlia found very little in common with his stiffened body on stage, making the audience wonder whether Maddalena was merely seducing a singing but otherwise lifeless Roman sculpture. Yao Hong (幺红) had a questionable evening as Gilda. Her voice lacked control, as evidenced by various overparted top notes in Caro nome and then in Si, vendetta! She also looked visibly strained as she navigated those higher registers. Nonetheless she attempted the optional E-flat at the end of the third Act quartet, to the bewilderment of some audience members. Song Wei (宋委), with her candied visage and foxy body, had all the visual qualities of a seductive Maddalena, but her intonation proved average and the size of her voice remained so small that she and not Yao was the weakest link in that quartet.

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Tosca

Date: May 14, 2011
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Giancarlo del Monaco
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

On the surface, it is inconceivable that a state-funded opera company in China would be permitted by Chinese censors, who are generally allergic to religious presentations to the mass public, to produce an opera with as many religious themes as Tosca. The flipside of the argument could be that Tosca is permitted perhaps because Puccini himself does not intend Tosca as a religious statement. If anything, Puccini paints an aura of general ambivalence to the institution of religion in the aftermath of Italy’s Risorgimento period.

Giancarlo del Monaco’s production, with its vivid details and traditional staging, serves to bring the audience back to this period…early 19th century Rome. The ornamented ceiling of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, as well as the gilded ceiling of Farnese, were hand-painted and placed in a dramatized, slightly fish-eye perspective. A wonderful gimmickry by set designer William Orlandi in Act I allows him to slightly change the set for the Te Deum scene without massive movement of the set. At the outset of Te Deum, the ornamented ceiling of the church slowly gives way to a spinning picture of the church’s dome. As the dome spins and the Te Deum observers file onto the stage in seemingly perfect synchronization of pace, Orlandi allows the audience to feel simultaneously the majesty of the liturgical tradition and the visual grandeur of the church. In line with recent traditions, the NCPA programs no intermission between Act II and Act III — and this production does not require any. As the orchestra begins Act III’s music, a slight patch of blue is projected onto a stage-front scrim, placed after the Act II curtain comes down and Act III curtain goes up, as if to signify the melancholic hours of the night. As light is projected behind the translucent scrim, Scarpia’s residence is slowly lowered under the stage, revealing behind it a gigantic, beautifully-crafted, two-storey statue of Saint Michael. As the dolly holding the Saint Michael moves towards stage-front and thereby enveloping the sinking Farnese set, del Monaco seems ready and willing to foretell that the final judgment in Tosca resides not with the powers under the roof of Farnese but by the God above it. The left shoulder of Saint Michael also serves conveniently as the location from which Tosca jumps to her death.

Del Monaco’s production has a few quirks. In Act I, the libretto includes a scene whereby Scarpia offers holy water to Tosca and Tosca accepts it — both as a symbol of Tosca’s piety and as an excuse for Scarpia to physically touch Tosca’s skin. In del Monaco’s version, this is impossible as Scarpia is on stage left and far away from both the water fountain and Tosca, both on stage right. In Act III, Cavaradossi is supposed to die without a blindfold, but remains blindfolded and turned away from Tosca as he is shot to death. Spoletta’s prayer in Act II is particularly interesting because the delivery is done standing straight and in a cold, dark corner. It is not entirely clear whether del Monaco intends to write Spoletta off visual focus – admittedly the focus at that point in the opera should be on Tosca and her looming betrayal – or the director truly believes that this particular Spoletta, torn between his loyalty to Scarpia and some innate residue of human compassion, compromises so that he could maintain his relationship with God and not anger Scarpia at the same time. Finally, stars are unveiled slowly before Mario’s star aria in Act III, but remain visible at Mario’s execution, indicating that del Monaco does not intend an obvious break between night and day – the sort of spiritual and magical separation that die-hard Puccini fans would sometimes expect.

Aquiles Machado’s entrance as Cavaradossi included a set of woodened facial expressions and stiff gestures that were neither compelling nor engaging. His Recondita Armonia showed why: his voice seemed unprepared, and his high notes were executed without the kind of comfortable support that one would expect coming from a confident Mario. As the night progressed, Machado recovered and proved that my early doubts about him were unfounded. His Vittoria, Vittoria sustained seemingly forever without sounding screamed, and he took care to avoid his comparatively weak head voice (which became apparent through Act I, especially during the eye aria) by moving briskly through the dreaded third syllable. His E lucevan le stelle was also delivered with much dramatic force and a stunning candidness.

Nicola Beller Carbone enjoyed a fine outing as Tosca. Costume and makeup designer Jesus Ruiz put her in lavish gowns in bridal white and velvet red, and gave her such a porcelain visage that left no one in the audience wondering why Scarpia was sexually attracted to this prized beauty. Her singing was impeccably nurtured, and took enormous care to phrase her voice diligently. She also nursed her voice well – her careful restraint in the delivery of the various streaking high Cs that Puccini dots throughout the score saved her voice for a passionate rendition of Vissi d’arte, full of grace and piety, and “Amaro sol per te”, full of energy and excitement. In Vissi, as her timbre collected a brief tinge of smokiness and tiny smudges of brass, I could not help but be reminded of La Divina – this comparison alone is perhaps the best compliment I could offer Carbone.

Alberto Mastromarino’s Scarpia was physically and vocally commanding. In Già, mi dicon venal, his gestures were mischievous and devilish, but sang with such romantic conviction that one could not help but at least feel partially sorry for perhaps the most hated character in all of opera.

The voice of Zhao Jin’s shepherd boy was drowned out by an audience still talking and moving about as they mistook the singing as some sort of unimportant, TV-commercial-like(!) interlude between the acts. That was particularly unfortunate, because the audible sections of Zhao’s lines were exquisite, and were phrased with an air of innocent beauty and pastoral purity. The conducting of Lü Jia was gripping – the maestro was able to control pace throughout the evening, letting out rubatos in short spurts to accentuate drama while yielding to singers when they demanded such ritardando. Lü was able to extract urgency and certitude from the young NCPA orchestra, especially in the final three sets of minor thirds – the gun-loading motif – before Mario’s execution. I found the orchestra performing exceptionally well and focused under his baton, compared with some of the performances under Chen Zuohuang, which felt somewhat robotic and uninspiring. It would be a boon if the NCPA procures the maestro’s services more often.

Tosca, Act I, with Aquiles Machado as Mario and Nicola Beller Carbone as Tosca.

Tosca, Act I, with Aquiles Machado as Mario and Nicola Beller Carbone as Tosca. Courtesy of Xinhua News Agency.

Elixir of Love

Date: June 26, 2010
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Franco Ripa di Meana
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Production imagery, Elixir of Love.

Closing out this year’s NCPA Opera Festival was Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s opera about a poor peasant falling in love with a beautiful landowner.

Brilliantly crafted by stage director Edoardo Sanchi, the set provided a cheery platform on which Donizetti’s comic elements were realized. Dulcamara’s entrance was faithful to the script, as the comic quack was descended in a keg-like wicker basket – figuratively attached to a painted cardboard balloon, and hung spectacularly in mid air via the stage’s fly system. Props and set pieces moved across the stage in parallel to the proscenium front, and often times without masking. But such nakedness allowed the music to flow while allowing the audience to keep abreast of the changing set. This was especially evident in the Act I sequences in which the drama switched between the peasantry public and Adina’s more privileged abode.

Huang Ying, having previously sung Giannetta at the Met opposite Angela Gheorghiu’s Adina, debuted as Adina, the beautiful landowner with which Nemorino the poor peasant fell in love. Her acting was cute but never corny, as many Adina would tend to be. Vocally, the Chinese soprano held beautiful trills, while her tonal voice beamed with an Italianate brightness and mellowness. Her rendition of Prendi, per me sei libero, was simply sublime, for which she received handily the most enthusiastic audience applause of the evening.

Guan Zhijing, whose fine acting made his Dulcamara quite lovable, also delivered plenty of nice, aggressive vocal lines. Belcore was sung by Yang Xiaoyong, whose strong, powerful voice provided much gravity and anchor weight to the evening’s music. Rounding out the supporting cast was Ma Min, whose Giannetta was cute and mischievous, and whose singing was supple, infused with an adorable, quintessentially bel canto beauty.

Nemorino was sung by Fan Jingma, who sounded nervous during his first big number, Quanto è bella, quanto è cara. His delivery was throaty and weak, and didn’t really pick up substance until, perhaps sensing some urgency, Una furtiva lagrima, which was solid but nevertheless uninspiring. After the famous romanza, his voice was set ablaze, as if the burden of that big aria was finally out of the way, and proceeded to show hints of what I believe to be his real forte – a lirico spinto voice that is more suitable for heavier roles in the repertoire.

Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting was a highlight of the evening, especially during Nemorino’s big Act II aria, where a melancholic shade of violet purple provided the background to a white light-lid, art deco moon backdrop. That shade of purple slowly turned into a more lively maroon blue, just as Adina began her confession aria, as if breathing life to Nemorino’s deflated ego.

The biggest trouble of the evening remained in the pit. There were multiple times when Lü Jia had a rough time trying to synchronize what was sung on stage and what was played in the pit. In Che vuol dire codesta suonata, the opera’s main chorus number, the conductor was basically scrambling to put together coherence, which was clearly absent as the orchestra was at least a full beat slower than the chorus. Nevertheless, there were pockets of brilliance, including the bassoon solo during Nemorino’s Act II aria, which handed in a solemn, measured rendition that was as delicious as anything I’ve witnessed for that piece of music. There were some fantastic oboe and flute lines, too, but they were small consolations to what sounded like a train wreck from the pit.

Elixir of Love, final scene.