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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Opera

Carmen

Date: May 13, 2010
Conductor: Zuohuang Chen
Director: Francesca Zambello
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello’s new Beijing production of Carmen, commissioned by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, was a resounding triumph. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto, based on the eponymous novella by Prosper Mérimée, was realized by Zambello’s international team in all its gripping drama and theatricality. British set designer Peter Davison built an elephantine set that, at each point of its unveiling, triggered collective gasps by an awed audience. Costume designer Susan Willmington and lighting designer Benjamin Pearcy, both Brits, provided plenty of peppery visual stimulus. An ebullient cast obliged, and delivered an enthusiastic and sumptuously pleasurable stage performance.

Davison’s set was sweeping and broad, covering the proscenium’s entire width. When curtain rose for the first act, a street view was revealed with a slight downward slant to the left, as if to highlight the undulating landscape of Moorish Spain. A rectangular well was placed in the middle of the stage, providing an anchor upon which the first act chorus gathered and an excuse for Carmen to wash her legs and breasts and, most assuredly, to flaunt those plump assets. The second act was a mirror image of the first, whereby the first act’s street stage was flipped to reveal its corresponding interior space. A flight of stairs running from the back to the middle of the stage served as the entrance to Lillas Pastia’s inn and Escamillo’s famed entry point. The set for the third act was a revelation: an imposing rocky scene split into two spaces by a torn wall: a dimly lit, cold space where the smugglers gathered with their contraband, and a warmer volume where Micaela initially hid. While Carmen was never about good versus bad, the contrast was obvious, and the comparison apt. The torn wall spectacularly ran the full height of the proscenium, and upon its unveiling at the beginning of the third act, the audience reacted with a series of approving applauses. The fourth act fully utilized the NCPA’s gigantic stage by prominently showcasing a large bull-fight arena piece, with a nearly five-meter, arched passageway serving as Escamillo’s entrance to the ring and exit from stage.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen, was a captivating actor. The eyes of her Carmen were ablaze with lust and mischievousness, while her sexy body movement was suggestive and inviting. The coloration with which she adorned her melodic lines was expressive and, unlike those colorations from many other overconfident Carmens, not so self-important as to appear vain. Her middle voice, while lacking the velvety warmth typical of an engaging Carmen, had plenty of weight and confidence without any audible hint of chest voice. That said, Chavez’s pitch was somewhat suspect: she tended to go sharp whenever there was a high note in forte, and on various occasions she would enter her passage in a slightly misplaced key, especially En vain… amères at the beginning of the third act.

Jean-Luc Chaignaud’s Escamillo was entertaining and dependable. His stage entry in the second act was full of panache, highlighted by his dramatic throwing of his montera across the stage. His vocal entrance, by comparison, was more pedestrian, as he initially had trouble finding a dynamic range that could carry over the orchestra and into the auditorium. That was not his fault alone – the long recession between the top of the staircase, where he entered, and the orchestra was unforgiving and bore some of the blame. As he descended and moved forward, his voice carried through, in a measured display of baritonal confidence. The rest of the supporting cast excelled: Chen Peixin’s Zuniga delivered a bass line that was full and rounded. Niu Shasha and Li Xintong displayed plenty of coloratura skills in the roles of Mercedes and Frasquita: their harmonious duets Mêlons! Coupons! and Quant au douanieraffaire! stood out with plenty of sappy sweetness. Li Hong served up a feisty Lillas Pastia: her acting was charismatic and lively, though her stunning beauty was somewhat a distraction, especially in the scene before Carmen’s initial entrance in the first act, where Li’s Lillas wore the red flower and taunted the soldiers in a prominent, and in my opinion excessive, fashion.

Richard Troxell’s spinto voice was a little on the lighter side but was well polished and ripe. Listed in the programme notes as a lyric tenor, the American’s voice seemed more naturally suited for spinto roles such as Jose. His careful technique allowed him to navigate the more difficult passages with security and ease. His La fleur, in particular, was meticulously crafted and superbly acted. While he momentarily cracked in the bar just before the big aria’s finale, he recovered to deliver a rousing Bb in mezzo-forte, even though he did not manage (or be bothered) to work on the pianissimo. I would love to hear more of him, as Riccardo, perhaps even Manrico and Alvaro if he continues to build more weight to his voice.

Among the singers of the evening, Anne-Catherine Gillet, as Micaela, had the most comfortable command of the vocal instrument. She demonstrated a luxurious yet well-regulated trill, a huge top and an expressive timbre. She was also a capable actor: many of the Micaelas I have seen in the past were so overacted as to border annoying, but Gillet’s Micaela was mellow and lovable, beaming the kind of ravishing affability one typically associates with one’s friendly next door neighbor. Her arias were phrased with passionate individuality, without teetering on self-indulgence. The Belgian, quite naturally, also had the clearest diction amongst the international cast.

The biggest problem of the evening remained in the pit. At times, Zuohuang Chen sounded as if he had tremendous difficulty holding together the NCPA Orchestra, newly-formed just a few months ago. Soloists romped free, creating a horrendously jagged and patchy orchestral output. Even when everything seemed synchronized and balanced, the playing seemed more routine than inspired, and showed none of the sparkle which Bizet infused into the score. The only worthy highlight of the evening was the Toreador song, which was rendered with broad strokes, in a controlled hysteria of festivity and fervor. But a fleeting moment did not an evening make, and the subpar performance was insulting to a largely educated audience whose discontent at the conducting during the curtain calls were scattered but clearly audible, and, in my opinion at least, justified.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Note: this is the dialogue version. While the NCPA’s sheer size should really call for the Guiraud version, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the dialogues were transmitted to my balcony seat. Some of the audibility problems had nothing to do with version choice: the beginning of Escamillo’s Act 2 aria was due to design limitation; and for part of the evening, due to an orchestra that loomed too much over the voice.

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