Chamber music and recital, Opera

HK Phil/Netrebko/Eyvazov: 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.

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Opera

Met Opera/Levine: Don Pasquale

Date: October 29, 2010
Conductor: James Levine
Production: Otto Schenk
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

After spending 17 hours on a plane, nothing relaxes me more than a light-hearted comic opera where the villain gets punk’d and the boy and the girl live happily ever after.

The above crudely, if not slightly irresponsibly, summarizes the story framework of Don Pasquale, and says nothing about Don Pasquale’s essence: Donizetti’s bubbly, effervescent music. Without any famed arias (like Elixir’s romanza or Lucia’s mad scenes), this work is nevertheless infused with plenty of honeyed passages that, altogether, form one coherent magnum opus, and the enactment of such would require nothing less than a stellar cast with a mastery of Donizetti’s written coloratura and of the piece’s buffo dramaturgy.

In that respect, Jon del Carlo delivered. His Don Pasquale was funny: his fine acting made it easy to believe that he was this wealthy old man whose farcical compulsion to get married was evidenced by the maniacal grin on his face, especially when he sang about his imaginary future children in Un foco insolito. His voice was slightly small for the house, but he made up for it by his outsized theatrical movements and broad-stroked physical comedy.

Anna Netrebko, playing Pasquale’s faux wife “Sofronia”, clearly had quite a bit of fun on stage. She was bouncing on and off the bed (in Pasquale’s house), and dancing, hopping, and two-stepping across the stage even as she was delivering her difficult bel canto lines. Voice-wise, she was not, on the surface, perfect for the role, as the lyrical power of her voice seemed to overwhelm the feathery lightness of Norina’s lines. But Netrebko treaded carefully, reserving power in the more exquisite lines while unleashing her vocal potency when the libretto’s emotional arch demanded it. Her impeccable vocal agility was precisely why she was able to effortlessly switch back and forth between a lovesick Norina and her meaner, fake alter-ego, “Sofronia”.

Matthew Polenzani, as Ernesto, Norina’s true love, was meticulous in his phrasings and precise in his delivery. His voice seemed to morph into whatever characteristics he so chose: he would project with a tinge of melancholic sadness in the heart-breaking song of Cherchero lontana terra, and with an aura of unmistakable mischievousness in the serenade. Mariusz Kwiecien delivered a masterminding but believable Dr. Malatesta, and together with del Carlo’s Pasquale, the pair delivered a massively fun dueling patter, at a breakneck speed that effused plenty of playfulness and none of the fast passage’s vulgarities. At the scene change curtain call, James Levine was gracious enough to let Kwiecien and del Carlo do an encore. Amazingly, after 40 years at the MET, this was Levine’s first time conducting Don Pasquale. Levine meticulously phrased Donizetti’s melodic arches with a caressing care, and drew a refined and fresh performance by the excellent MET Orchestra.

Otto Schenk came out of retirement a few years ago to create this production at the urge of ex-Met GM Joe Volpe. According to the lore, the signing of Netrebko onto the production was the deal clincher that compelled Schenk to do one more production. At the final curtain call, when Schenk appeared on stage amidst rapturous applause, he beamed with a big smile and a towering satisfaction, probably realizing that despite a movement towards a more avant-garde, cerebral stage design, the Met audience was still quite receptive to the classical realism that he so represented for a better half of the past century.

Netrebko, in Otto Schenk's Don Pasquale.

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