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.

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Opera

NCPA/Kohn: Nabucco

Date: May 22, 2013
Conductor: Eugene Kohn
Production: Gilbert Deflo
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Nabucco is widely accepted as the work that Verdi finally matured to his own. When Verdi composed it, it was not long after his wife Margherita died of encephalitis. An angle of redemption is thus widely interpreted to exist in Nabucco – one of spiritual renewal and enlightenment. When tenor Placido Domingo attempted the baritone title role as a septuagenarian, could he be invoking a similar angle of redemption too?

As a tenor during his prime, Domingo has excelled and been widely acclaimed in roles that require shades of baritonal qualities, such as Lohengrin and Siegmund. Domingo’s slightly baritonal timbre afforded him to excel in those roles, but also led to critics to suggest that he was never a tenor to begin with, especially, albeit perhaps unfairly, when the tenor began to transpose down in the twilight of his tenor career. As a baritone, Domingo’s top notes effuse the sort of fluidic, airy ring that differentiates a tenor from a baritone. In the middle registers, where Domingo sounds best, his voice nurses a timbre that is both velvety and coarse (in a controlled kind of way). As Nabucco, which turns out to be Domingo’s first stage performance in China in nearly thirty years (that did not include a private concert performance of Simon Boccanegra in Beijing a couple of years ago), his finest dramatic moment was at the end of Act II, when he started to look and act with an exacting, almost haunting, confusion. In “Dio”, Domingo sounded caringly paternal, while Leo Nucci sounded, in comparison, though not in any disparaging way, somewhat dismissively possessive. The major difference was effectively one of interpretation, not necessarily one of vocal output. Any suggestion that Domingo was singing baritone roles so that he could redeem towards his true self seems rubbish. In my opinion, Domingo simply feels that he was ready to interpret these baritonal roles dramatically, and has both the support of his tessitura (though not necessarily the perfect timbre and delivery) and house directors. Surely, why not?

The role of Abigaille has confounded many singers in the past. Sun Xiuwei (孙秀苇) portrayed a daughter whose fury was eventually usurped by an un-containable guilt. When she was furious, Sun’s facial expression was monstrous. In her final scene before her ultimate downfall, she looked spent but seemed ready to accept her fate. Vocally, Sun’s liberal mannerism could be irritating, but that was the least of her problems. Sun had pitch problems for much of the night, especially in the upper registers where she tended to flat going into most of her top notes. In Abigaille’s treacherous lower registers, her voice was practically chewed up by the vastness of the NCPA. A better actor than singer, at least in this evening, Sun was markedly better in her Act I focal point – the more dramatically expressive cavatina – than in the subsequent, the more technical, cabaletta.

Li Xiaoliang (李晓良) towered as Zaccaria with a stentorian bass, and provided some of the finest singing of the evening. In his Act I cabaletta, he lit up the stage while encouraging the Jews to rebel against the invasion. In the supplementary roles, Jin Zhengjian (金郑建) was dutiful and dramatically effective as Ismaele, especially at the end of Act 1 when he blossomed with anger and dismay while being wrongfully accused. Yang Guang (杨光) gushed with melancholic sadness as Fenena.

The production was not particularly impressive but serviceable with occasional interesting moments, including when Nabucco orders the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, whereupon a slow-motion projection depicting temple bricks falling down on the upstage scrim was powerfully effective. Kohn was a little dragging at the beginning but picked up pace in Act III. The orchestra was thin in the strings and suffered some mistakes in the brass, during much of Act III, as well as in Fenena’s Act IV numbers.

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing.

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