Marco Polo

Date: September 21, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Marco Polo, a dance drama, is a cooperation between the NCPA and China Oriental Performing Arts Group, one of the premier commercial art enterprises in China.

Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, visited China during which Kublai Khan ruled. The dance drama, expanding upon this episode, is structured as a love story between the Venetian merchant and Khan’s daughter. As the two falls in love, Marco Polo is also awed by the great inventions and virtues of Chinese society. The story ends when Khan decides to give away his daughter in a diplomatic marriage to maintain peace.

Choreographer and director Chen Weiya (陈维亚) has said that Marco Polo is not an attempt to completely retrace the story of Marco Polo the merchant, but an attempt to find and express “the surprise, cheer and passion of a westerner when he discovers oriental culture.”  In that respect, Chen’s work is a triumph: the production presents the cultural and technological advances of the Chinese, basking the entire civilization in a courageous, advanced light. In the second Act, dancers acted as Chinese printers and showed Marco Polo how the printing press worked. Two dancers acting as a Chinese medicinal master and an acupuncture model engaged in an impressive pas de deux-like sequence where the master would flip, roll, wrap the model into different positions and showed the traveler how the positioning of the needle affected nerves and muscles. In another ensemble sequence, half a dozen consumers in a noodle shop moved in unison, excited by the mastery display of a master chef pulling and twisting noodle dough in an expertly acrobatic display. Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo, and Yin Shuo (殷硕), as Khan’s daughter, had numerous jaw-droppingly impressive duets, including one in the penultimate scene when she was about to leave him. In that scene, his display of enormous physical strength, tempered by his haplessness in her impending departure, provided a succulent counterpoint to her portrayal of an outward frailty but an inward strength — that strength coming from knowing that her sacrifice would spare the life of thousands of her subjects.

Zhang Qianyi (张千一) composed the score, with crisp rhythms and smooth junctures that bridge one scene to the next. Some musical themes evoked memories of Elmer Bernstein and Virgil Thomson, especially in those scenes where Marco Polo was shown traveling great distances to the east. The third Act, which revealed the state of war and the emotional turmoil generated by the impending diplomatic marriage, referenced some thematic and militaristic elements in Shostakovich’s Fifth and Eleventh symphonies. Set designer Gao Guangjian (高广健) provided an overly splendid display that highlighted the figurative rather than literal realities of Kublai Khan’s dynastic glory. Lighting designer Vladimir Lukasevich was a master painter of light, shading Gao’s set with superbly effective emotional colorings.

Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo.

Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo.

Dancers in Kublai Khan's palace.

Dancers in Kublai Khan’s palace.

Yin Shuo, as Kublai Khan's daughter.

Yin Shuo, as Kublai Khan’s daughter.

Bob Dylan

Date: April 6, 2011
Location: Workers’ Coliseum, Beijing.

Back in the old days, Bob Dylan was known to open concerts by reading a couple of reviews by his reviewers and then letting his audience boo and cheer as they saw fit. Expectations for the night, especially regarding energy level and amount of interaction, would therefore be set early on. No such thing happened in Beijing. After arriving on stage, Dylan and his band immediately began playing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”. The audience, initially inebriated with this “I am at the concert of a rock and roll icon” phenomenon, soon returned to a sit-and-clap mentality as the night wore on, periodically letting loose mechanical and icy applauses more appropriate for a B-grade circus trick than for a rock and roll performance. The only real “interaction” between Dylan and the audience occurred between encores, when he introduced his band. There was nary a hint of energy to suggest that he would speak his mind out loud other than through his lyrics. His verbal delivery was occasionally muddled, but not as bad as expected, especially after having read that, at times during his current “Never Ending” tour, Dylan would mumble through his lyrics and produce so much off-key dissonance that he would leave his crowd wanting more. The acoustics at the Workers’ Coliseum bore some blame too: even if he shifted and morphed phrases ad lib – and he most certainly did – or even changed his lyrics, most people would not have noticed. The encore pieces, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young”, stimulated a tad more excitement from the audience, but not by much. If all that Dylan needed was a little extra bit of audience rapture to get him to do or sing something that would piss off the censors, the audience did not oblige.

The controversy over his playlist in China is well-known: see here, here, and here. While I belong to the group who does not believe Dylan’s intention was to deliver a kosher playlist to please the censors, it was still remarkable that Dylan, being who he is and who he represents, would perform in a venue whose stage orientation requires him to directly face a red-carpeted, privileged section where two dozen VIPs would sit comfortably in cushioned chairs and be offered free glasses of water. The “man of the people” ‘s acquiescence in this regard, if nothing else, would partially vindicate Maureen Dowd.

Bob Dylan, in Beijing.

Bob Dylan, in Beijing.

Red carpet and free waters, in Workers' Coliseum's VIP section.

Red carpet and free waters, in Workers' Coliseum's VIP section.

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?

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.

The Migrating Bird (孔雀东南飞)

Date: May 2, 2011
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. The Migrating Bird / The Peacock Flies Southeast (alt.) is based on an epic poem written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.). The poem, with exactly 356 phrases, each having exactly five characters, is considered by many to be the first narrative poetry in the Chinese language. The story begins by introducing a married couple: Liu Lanzhi (刘兰芝), a lovable housewife, and Jiao Zhongqing (焦仲卿), a government official. Jiao’s mother never quite approves of their matrimony, and is openly choleric towards her daughter-in-law. Eventually, she also manages to orchestrate their divorce, after which Liu is sent back to her hometown and slated to be remarried to the son of a high government official. Vowed never to be remarried again, Liu decked out in splendid matrimonial wear and, just before the wedding, drowned herself to death. After learning of Liu’s death, Jiao was devastated and later also committed suicide. The Chinese title, “孔雀东南飞”, comes from the first two verses of the poem: “孔雀东南飞,五里一徘徊”, which refers to how migrating birds in mid-flight often turn back to look for each other. These two verses, coupled with the final stanza (see below), set the tone for the relationship between the two characters:

“两家求合葬,合葬华山傍 / 东西植松柏,左右种梧桐 / 枝枝相覆盖,叶叶相交通 / 中有双飞鸟,自名为鸳鸯 / 仰头相向鸣,夜夜达五更。”

The two finally reunited, in adjacent burial grounds / Cypress and phoenix trees standing by in eternity / Branches intertwined, leaves mingled / Therein rest two birds, a pair of mandarin ducks / To each other they listen, till the wee hours of the night.

Performance. Chen Moxiang (陈墨香), one of the most prolific Beijing Opera scriptwriters and a frequent collaborator with Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋), adapted the poem into the standard opera repertory in 1932. Chen’s version was generally faithful to the original poem, only slightly altering the ending to allow the lovebirds to be reunited one last time, before they held hands and drowned together. Chi Xiaoqiu (迟小秋), as Liu, was fearless in her portrayal and impeccably fluid in her delivery. Her on-stage agility, coupled with the acute crispiness of her phrasings offered a model exhibit of Cheng-clan artistry. Bao Fei (包飞), as Jiao, was authoritative and focused, and weaved through some of his difficult lines with apparently very little effort. Mei Qingyang (梅庆羊) provided some comic relief as the theatrical muse playing Jiao’s mother. A playful conversational interchange between Mei and Chi’s characters marked the dramatic focal point of the evening, in which the elder tried to embarrass the younger by assigning the younger the impossible task of placing a lamp in a small room with very little space, only later to realize that in the process the elder could not offer a counter-solution and thereby putting herself in an awkward, frying-in-her-own-grease moment. The ebb and flow of the dramatic energy between the two, coupled with swift circular stage movements, epitomized the strength of the cast and clarity of the night’s execution.

The story is nothing less than a direct criticism of feudal society where parental wishes trumped individual choices back in the days (and I can safely say that some flavor of this feudal society is still prevalent in today’s rural China). The ending was depressing, but necessary as a means to set free from the historical status quo. Perhaps in an attempt to lift the audience out of such morbid melancholia and end the night on a more positive note, Chi sang a highly-charged encore from Magnolia (玉堂春), to rapturous applause.

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMTgyNDc2Njg=/v.swf

Chi Xiaoqiu, in Bird (on Youku).

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.

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.