Chinese opera

Fairy Couple (天仙配)

Date: May 24, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. The seven daughters of heaven travel to middle earth in search of lovers. The youngest daughter soon falls in love with Dong Yong (董永), a poor lad who enslaves himself to three years of servitude in order to pay for his parents’ funeral. After the daughter marries Dong, she buys Dong Yong’s freedom by weaving, with some heavenly help, 10 scrolls of silk quilts in one evening. Heavenly father soon finds out about this forbidden matrimony, and forces the two lovers to separate. At separation, the daughter laments: “来年春暖花开日, 槐荫树下把子交 / in the spring of next year, return to the tree under which we are married to find your son” – a poetic phrase that has become a symbol of Huangmei tragedy.

Performance. Playing the role of the youngest daughter is Plummie Winner Li Wen (李文). At 42, Li was not, at the surface the most ideal actress to play the role of the youngest sister – her older sisters on stage looked and were probably at least a decade younger than Li. But to declare that Li was unsuitable for the role was as ridiculous as calling Deborah Voigt too fat for Ariadne. If anything, Li inhabited the role with aplomb – her first stage entrance revealed an innocent teenager with such a natural playfulness that cloaked her real age. Her mastery of the role became obvious when she danced in a pas de sept in the first act (of six) with her six sisters: as the seven sisters moved in synchronized unison, Li’s movements were distinctly more fluid, with cleaner breaks separating one dance sequence from the other  than her counterparts. As she metamorphosed from an angel engineering her matrimony with Dong to a faux earthling serving her earthly husband, Li’s visage and body language adapted distinguishably from a prankish to a shy yet mature innocence – that shade of difference, albeit physically minute, conveyed a monumental switch in dramatic direction, and epitomized Li’s aptitude as a stage performer. In the role of Dong was top-class actor Yu Shun (余顺), who seemed to struggle at the beginning with a dry throat but recovered to deliver some juicy passages after intermission, including the famous line in which Dong lamented their inevitable separation: “从空降下无情剑 / the heartless sword befalls”.

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Footnote: The performance is part of a series of Chinese operas staged to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, to be commemorated on July 1, 2011.

Multimedia samples:

1. Yu Shun, as Dong and Wu Yaling (吴亚玲) as the sister. The sister tries to engineer their first rendezvous, while Dong narrates his background: 56.com video.

2. Plummie winner Han Zaifen (韩再芬) and Zhao Chun (赵纯), singing respectively the roles of the sister and Dong after they bought their freedom: Youku.com video.

3. Farewell scene, by Zhou Li (周莉): Youku.com video.

4. Tan Chunfang (檀春芳), singing “the heartless sword befalls”: 56.com video.

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Chinese opera

The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭)

Date: May 4, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎) is a kabuki actor who specializes in onnagata, or women’s roles. In 2006, after watching a performance of The Peony Pavilion, Bando-san fell in love with the art and soon began taking lessons from Zhang Jiqing (张继青), an authority in kunqu performance and the inaugural winner of the Plum Blossom prize. It is not unprecedented for a guy to tackle the female role of Du Liniang (杜丽娘) – most famously, Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳) has done it, to great acclaim. But it is unprecedented that a Japanese onnagata would try a role and in an art form so deeply imbued with ancient Chinese sensibilities. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the onnagata – while stage execution may differ, kabuki and kunqu have their similarities – in many ways they often share a similar sentimentality towards a more idyllic past, and tend to extol the virtues of ethereal beauty and ancient customs more than many other art forms. The biggest difficulty Bando-san had to overcome remained with the libretto, which is in Chinese and to be sung in the kun vocal style. After two years of hard work (Bando-san once said that it took him a few months to learn three minutes of the libretto), Bando-san made his debut as Du in Kyoto in 2008, and soon thereafter performed the role in Beijing, Shanghai and then Hong Kong. Dubbed the “Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion”, this production draws from a pool of top kunqu and theater talents from the two countries.

Performance. The Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion presented seven chapters in one evening, out of the original’s 55 chapters (which could easily take a few nights to labor through, a la Wagner). Bando-san began the evening by discovering a beautiful garden for the first time and, in the process, delivered perhaps the most famous bit in all of kunqu:

原来姹紫嫣红开遍 / 似这般都付与断井颓垣 / 良辰美景奈何天 / 赏心乐事谁家院. The spring flowers bloom with abandon / next to broken wells and deserted fences / where have the pretty sight and beauty gone? / who in the past has lived in this pleasant and charming place?

As his Du made her new discovery, she started to lament a wasted past, while carrying a facial expression that effused a curious glow yet tempered with a mild air of regret. Within a short passage, Bando-san was able to showcase a complex array of emotions, yet framing all of them within the psyche of the teenage girl he was portraying. By the end, his Du has transformed from a clueless teenager wondering what love was and where to find love, to someone who had all the answers figured out. In the chapter “Union with the Ghost” (幽媾), when Du’s lover, a scholar, expressed love for a woman in the declaration: “姐姐 / my lovely sister!”, Du barely nudged as she was certain that the woman for whom the scholar declared love was no one else but her. The gesture could be read as naive, but when Bando-san portrayed such on stage, Du, neither jumping to ecstasy nor harboring any doubt, simply beamed with a matter-of-factly confidence. She moved slightly towards her lover, as if acknowledging his declaration for her. The lover, played by Yu Jiulin (俞玖林), provided an excellent counterpoint to Bando-san’s Du. Having seen him in Macao for the first time in 2005, I found his acting now more refined, emitting the innocent warmth of a young scholar with more restrained precision than in the past, when he would tend to over-act.

This performance is part of a series of performances celebrating the tenth anniversary of Kunqu’s selection by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Other performances with reviews include: A Collection of Scepters (满床笏), and The Lute Story (琵琶记).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

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Opera

A Beijing Lohengrin for sure. Perhaps a Ring Cycle too?

While waiting for my Tosca companion in the NCPA foyer, I came across this poster, which is a call for auditions for next year’s opera festival. Everything looks normal, but one thing stands out: an audition call for Lohengrin. Perhaps the NCPA programmers finally feel that Beijing is ready for Wagner. Perhaps in not too distant a future, a Beijing Ring?

The NCPA audition calls, the complete list:

  • Rossini’s La Cenerentola
  • Mozart’s Figaro
  • Verdi’s Traviata and Un Ballo
  • Puccini’s Butterfly and Tosca
  • Strauss’ Fledermaus
  • Wagner’s Lohengrin
  • Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
  • Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
  • China-themed operas: Xishi (西施), Zhaoshi Guer (赵氏孤儿), Yunhe Yao (运河遥).
2012 Opera Festival Auditions. There shall be Wagner. Perhaps a Beijing Ring in the works as well?

2012 Opera Festival Auditions. There shall be Wagner. Perhaps a Beijing Ring in the works as well?

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Opera

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.

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Opera

Carmen

Date: April 10, 2011
Conductor: Chen Zuohuang
Director: Francesca Zambello
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Repeating the success of last year’s Opera Festival, the National Centre for the Performing Arts brought back last year’s critical darling, Carmen, to the current Opera Festival, its third year running. The production by Francesca Zambello remained basically unchanged. There seemed to be, however, an evolutionary refinement of the entire production, especially in the gypsy dance number inside Lillas Pastia’s inn, which seemed more organic and natural than last year’s perceptibly under-rehearsed and somewhat disorienting rendition.

Viktoria Vizin’s voice was ripe and seductive, but lacked an exquisite timbre that would elevate her above the large horde of Carmen wannabes. Dramatically, she was less suave than Kirstin Chavez, last year’s Carmen, and her Habanera was comparatively pedestrian and uninviting. Yet, she made up with brisk control of her vocal instrument and was, unlike many egocentric Carmens who would dictate tempi at will, meticulous in placing her notes within the comforting confines of the accompanying music.

Anne-Catherine Gillet, returning to play Micaela, phrased with sensitivity and skill. Her voice was pure and controlled, and her effortless display of lyrical phrasings was disguised under her excellent portrayal of Micaela’s inherent modesty. Michael Todd Simpson interpreted a fine Escamillo, with a dauntless and dependable aura befitting the bull-fighting character. His voice could carry a distance, but was still insufficient to overcome the design shortcoming as described last year. (Francesca, my dear, if you are reading this, would you care to make some small changes to bring Escamillo closer to the apron so that he could surprise the unsuspecting audience with a scorching start to Votre toast?)

Brandon Jovanovich was triumphant as Jose. His vocal prowess was unmistakable: he possessed a wide singing range with robust dynamic control and a crisp, trumphet-like timbre. His voice had an air of immediate authority, and is obviously perfectly placed for Wagnerian roles (I look forward to hearing his Siegmund in San Francisco this coming June) and dramatic roles like Manrico or Alvaro. His searing top had a rare combination of force and textural juiciness, thus making his La Fleur delivery, albeit oddly without a flower as props, resoundingly enjoyable to listen to.

Chen Zuohuang’s conducting was again suspect, after failing to contain a young orchestra and a big chorus, especially in the big Lillas Pastia gypsy dance. At one point, the singing on stage was almost a full measure removed from the orchestra. More importantly, aside from slivers of brilliance from individual playing (for example, the fate theme by the woodwinds before La Fleur), there was very little personality coming from the pit. The romantic or tragic depths as crafted by Bizet were, unfortunately, neither apparent nor sufficiently befitting Zambello’s fine production.

Viktoria Vizin, as Carmen.

Viktoria Vizin, as Carmen.

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Opera

La Traviata

Date: February 16, 2011
Conductor: Zuohuang Chen
Production: Henning Brockhaus
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The NCPA’s opera season began with a revival of director Henning Brockhaus’s La Traviata, premiered last year during the second annual NCPA’s Opera Festival.

Brockhaus’s stage, designed by Benito Leonori, featured a semi-reflective scrim that, at an angle towards the audience, reflected various carpeted patterns and action on stage. The scrim, when lit from behind, also revealed a secondary space in which some of the contemporaneous actions, including the bull-fighting in Act II, would occur. The carpeted patterns allowed colorings of the scenes, including that of a Parisian salon in Act I, of the facade of a country house, of a floral garden and of Flora’s mansion in Act II. The reflection of a dark stage in Act III seemed to foretell the imminent and sad departure of Violetta. Costume designer Giancarlo Colis gave hints to the setting, which seemed closer to the librettist’s intended Belle Epoque setting than the pre-revolutionary years of monarchic decay as preferred by the royal authorities during the piece’s premiere. The morbid, almost clinical simplicity of Violetta’s white night gown contrasted powerfully with the primly cut suits of the Germonts in Act III, while the gypsy’s dresses imparted seduction without suggesting material voyeurism.

Following the success of the Salzburg Traviata in 2005, the casting for this Verdi opera remains problematic. The performance of Anna Netrebko in that Willy Decker production set such a high standard that any subsequent casting of Violetta seemed inadequate by comparison. It was therefore remarkable that Zhang Liping, previously the go-to soprano for Cio-Cio San in Covent Garden, not only held her own, but delivered a passionate performance with plenty of musical and dramatic intensity. Her Violetta was fragile but poignant, and the frailty she portrayed, especially in that TB-infested final act, begged for sympathy from the audience, as if we were all pères Germont. She navigated Verdi’s difficult lines with ease, especially the myriad of lower registers in Act III that would challenge the most skillful sopranos. Leonardo Caimi’s Alfredo had a boyish visage and a charming quality, though for much of the evening it wasn’t clear where that charm was directed to. There seemed to be a severe lack of chemistry between Zhang and Caimi, and when they finally physically embraced, Caimi looked like he was locked in an embrace with his mother. His voice, slightly more leggiero than desired for the lyrical role, was disastrous when out of control – he visibly strained while delivering the long, high notes in his Quando interchange with Violetta – but caringly delicious when warmed up and projecting, especially in his Act III duet. Juan Pons provided the dramatic tour de force of the evening, delivering a highly subdued but emotionally convincing père Germont. Pons’s voice was no longer as flexible and far-reaching as it used to be, perhaps due to age (he would be 65 this year), but he showed why opera was not merely about singing as he delivered a dramatically mesmerizing and heart-felt reminder to Alfredo, in Di Provenza, about their duty in Provence, and took care to tear himself emotionally apart by how the ridiculousness of the Germonts’ social redemption contrasted pitifully with the eternal presence of human’s frail sensibility.

Chen was in perfect charge of the score: rendering Verdi’s luscious lines with excitement and faithfulness but without drowning out the singers. The chorus, especially in the Act II gambling scene, was in fine form, just as a pair of gypsy girls frolicked with Alfredo’s winnings on the gambler’s table and other guests cuddled in an asphyxiating night of physical abandon. The only slight blemish was a slightly off-key clarinet solo in Violetta’s letter scene in Act II, but that hardly an evening broke.

Act I, Henning Brockhaus' La Traviata. The NCPA, Beijing.

Act I, Henning Brockhaus's La Traviata. The NCPA, Beijing.

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Chamber music and recital

Maurizio Pollini Recital

Date: October 3, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Maurizio Pollini is the artist who introduced me to the music of Bartok and Boulez. In Pollini’s interpretation I always find an immaculate precision, yet a suave sophistication most closely analogical to the modernity of Norman Foster’s sharp-edged, machine-influenced designs. It was therefore regretful that I only found tidbits of Pollini’s former glory in an evening dominated by inconsistency and unevenness, in what was probably my first and perhaps last opportunity as an audience member to hear the master at work.

In Chopin’s 24 Preludes (Op. 28), Pollini proved that the soon-to-be septuagenarian was ready to reevaluate his interpretation: the stainless steel precision most attributable to his playing style gave way to a more nuanced tenderness. He seemed more ready and willing than in the past to radiate a shade of human warmth, especially in the slower passages. Yet, while he remained faithful as a master weaver of Chopin’s aesthetics, on occasion he lost control of the composer’s subtle textures. For example, in “von Bulow’s Vision”, Pollini began with a solemn resolve, but at one of those famed chords, the momentum took a quick turn and dived into this feathery fickle which I was quite certain Chopin knew nothing of. Its conclusive mirror, the No. 20 Largo, was better as Pollini seemed fully warmed up and was able to direct with a cool aplomb. But in general, I found his Chopin slightly over-pedaled and muddy – perhaps as an improvised reaction to a noisy audience.

After intermission, the program continued with Debussy’s Etudes Nos. 7-12. These pieces were where Pollini found his groove: he eagerly developed the various harmonic lines, unleashing his great arsenal of touch and resulting in a rich fabric of tonal textures, intensity and Debussy’s harmonic densities. Yet, I found his interpretation somewhat uneven and, even if he was attempting a new interpretation, lacking an overarching thesis that linked together Debussy’s disparate elements. Finishing up the evening’s regular program was Boulez’s Sonata No. 2. Pollini showed a superb mastery of Boulez’s intended theatrics by skillfully crossing hands with fluidity. Some of Boulez’s aesthetics seemed on display too, as Pollini registered a myriad of piano timbre and complex chords into a coherent whole. Yet I couldn’t help but compare his performance here to that in the 1976 recording: the 1976 version had this percussive flair that I found lacking here in Beijing, and often times it was this rhythmic excitement that lured me time and again to the recording. There was no such allure tonight.

Despite (or because of?) his age, Pollini’s grace was clearly on display: after four encores, he wrapped up with the difficult crowd favorite, Chopin’s Etude Op. 10-12. His rendition did not impress me too much as I found it slightly dragging and lacking emotive firepower, but it simply showed that the master wasn’t shy of pushing a little more even after two hours of intense music making.

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