Opera

HK Phil/van Zweden: Das Rheingold

Date: January 22, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Wotan: Matthias Goerne
Donner: Oleksandr Pushniak
Froh: Charles Reid
Loge: Kim Begley
Fricka: Michelle DeYoung
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Deborah Humble
Alberich: Peter Sidhom
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Kwangchul Youn
Fafner: Stephen Milling
Woglinde: Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde: Aurhelia Varak
Flosshilde: Hermine Haselböck

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

concert performance

In the span of one month two years ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic went from being an orchestra with hardly any significant footprint in the Wagnerian repertory to one with a couple: the orchestra performed Holländer, with Opera Hong Kong, and then The Ring Without Words a few weeks later, with Maazel conducting. Coincidence does not come by easily, and certainly not in the world of art programming. Any avid follower of the HKPO back then could not possibly escape speculating on the prospect of something more dramatic lurking on the horizon. Without fail, the orchestra announced within a year that it would embark on its most ambitious project in its 40+ years of professional existence: Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Granted, over the past few years the HKPO has markedly improved to become a credible orchestral ensemble under music director Jaap van Zweden. Granted, the “HKPO Ring” would be performed over four years – one opera per year. That being said, one ponders whether making baby steps with Wagner’s other early-in-career romantic works would have been a better choice to get the orchestra accustomed to the physical and mental demands of Wagner’s music, or whether the Ring Cycle should be presented at all to a city that is heretofore, sadly, underexposed to and relatively unfamiliar with the composer’s music. But something must start somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Van Zweden built up the E-flat chord of the opening bars with measured subtlety. His dynamics at the outset was so tightly leashed that one wonders whether he was deliberately trying to recreate the restrained sound of an enclosed orchestral pit. As the evening progressed, Van Zweden loosened much of that restraint, yet seemed determined to staying within a well-defined boundary of volume and exuberance. The maestro, attentive and committed to the score, showed no signs of fatigue despite standing on the podium throughout the evening. His timing at just a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes was fairly mainstream, but sounded slightly draggy during the Rhinemaiden scene at the beginning and the rainbow bridge passage towards the end. Except in respect of these varying tempi, he did not draw much attention to himself, deferring mostly to the singers and musicians. Without a culture of operatic playing – let alone Wagner’s – the orchestra by and large responded well and remained vigilant. Remarkably, the cellos unleashed a rapturous firework during Wotan and Loge’s descent into Nibelheim, and the violas displayed unfettered fury in the subsequent ascent. The 60+ strings stayed focused for much of the evening, with energy level ebbing only ever so slightly towards the end: when Donner is about to unleash his power in the billowing thundercloud, the strings did not manage to support with a corresponding rage. The horns, ever important in Wagner, had a “slip up” (pun intended) during the slippery reef scene, but otherwise compromised nothing of consequence. The woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, complemented with exquisite phrasings and a mystical voicing of their lines.

The ideal Wotan in Das Rheingold should sound confident, if not also slightly spiteful. But Matthias Goerne, in his debut as Wotan, was found sounding a little too sentimental and romantic, as if his character has been journeying forever and ready to face demise (Winterreise, anyone?). Perhaps his characterization today is better suited for the Wanderer in two years’ time. While Goerne gave a worthy output infused with a warm and sumptuous glow, his delivery lacked the sort of expansive projection required if he were to sing behind an orchestra in a real opera house, as opposed to in front of one in a concert hall. Peter Sidhom as Alberich sounded corrosive, dramatic, and well-suited for the role. Whether with a clenched fist while trying to catch the Rhinemaidens, or with a stomping foot during the love curse, Sidhom also managed to inhabit the role and, while reacting to the words and scenes, devoured the space with raw delirium. Kwangchul Youn nurtured a fatherly and buttery voice as Fasolt. With a heart-felt rendition of “Freia, die Schöne”, the Wagner veteran induced plenty of sympathy and awe from the audience (even a botched oboe clunker could not derail his triumph). As Froh, Charles Reid delivered his short stanza with a piercing projection and a shimmering metallic ring.

Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka was the evening’s most unfortunate miscast. The mezzo’s voice was full-throated and feisty, but sounded too much like a Sieglinde or a Kundry not to be a distraction. Kim Begley’s Loge had pitch problems as Loge, especially in the critical thematic passage “So weit Leben und Weben” when he sounded more like an old man droning about a minor league ballgame than an intellectual’s pontification of a man’s noble desire for a woman. Begley somewhat redeemed with lively acting and eye contact with the audience. David Cangelosi’s Mime was adequate but a bit too lyrical and not nearly menacing enough. Deborah Humble presented an Erda that was motherly and gracious, yet assured. Unlike the rest of the cast, who sang in front of the orchestra, Humble appeared on cue in the balcony behind the orchestra, dressed in a stunning velvet green gown. The color of her gown, which matched the concert hall’s green velvet upholstery, as well as her understated entrance on cue, said more about Erda the character than many productions today with luxurious sets possibly could.

Given its relative inexperience in the genre, the HKPO delivered well above expectations. Van Zweden was able to hold everything together with a coherent vision. If there were flaws, some musicians sounded rather clinical in their approach – as if they were playing for a Brucknerian perfection of harmonized cadence rather than a solo leitmotif in a dramatic passage. Some musicians looked (not necessarily sounded) towards the end as though they were relieved to be done with the evening than excited about bookending the beginning of the saga, as Wagner intended Das Rheingold to be. There are rumors that HKPO’s newly appointed principal guest conductor, Yu Long, will eventually bring this “HKPO Ring” to Beijing in 2017. Whether that is true or remains a good idea will depend on how well the orchestra improves upon tonight’s performance. The starting point has already arrived. The gold has been taken out of the Rhine. Yet there is still time.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

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Opera

SF Opera/Runnicles: Siegfried

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

Jay Hunter Morris was not expected to sing in this production. As the cover for Ian Storey, the original two-evening Siegfried, Morris was supposed to stand by and be ready if Ian Storey became indisposed. But such a call up came a few months early, at a rehearsal in March of this year, when Storey decided he was not ready for the first evening’s duties. Morris, debuting the role, came through and, more importantly, showed nary a sign of exhaustion at the end.

Morris seemed to have skimmed through some of the high notes at his entrance, and noticeably saved firepower for the long evening. As the evening progressed, he opened up poco a poco, culminating with his duet with Nina Stemme’s well-rested and full-powered Brünnhilde in his final scene. While his voice sounded somewhat pinched, he made up with pitch and rhythmic precision. By the third Act, his voice opened up ably and, without sounding fatigued, produced a suave, sweet sound with the sort of vivacity not commonly found at the fourth (or fifth!) hour of most Siegfrieds. His golden blond hair looked like Neil Robertson’s on an explosive hair day. After five hours of him, he simply looked like the boyish-looking snooker star’s twin brother! Under a radiating charm and plenty of youthful energy hid a boyish tenderness that compelled the audience to dish out parental forgiveness, even as his character was this disrespectful, ungrateful brat.

Stacey Tappan delivered one fine forest bird: her voice was tender and playful but without so much trill as to kill the role. Her portrayal of the feathered animal in human costumes was slightly more problematic. Costume designer Catherine Zuber dressed Tappan in a radiant burgundy orange dress, into this Eva Marie Saint lookalike. However, her humanized presence, even if merely figurative as she led Siegfried to Brünnhilde, somewhat negated the logic of Siegfried’s interjection as he first discovered Brünnhilde. Ronnita Miller’s Erda provided dramatic heft with her arresting stage presence and her secure vocal athleticism. David Cangelosi’s Mime was more vocally penetrating than Morris’ Siegfried, but dramatically didn’t inhabit the role as much as Morris did. While Cangelosi worked some of the mandatory squealing and wheeling into the role, his portrayal was rather bland and unremarkable as compared with other contemporary Mimes such as Wolfgang Schmidt at Bayreuth and Herwig Pecoraro in Vienna. If anything, his singing felt like a butcher working on a carcass with professional speed and adequacy, albeit with neither dramatic fanfare nor excitement.

Delavan improved further as Wotan. Vocally, his voice was penetrating and fearsome. Theatrically, he seemed more comfortable portraying a God in decline than as the ruler of all Gods in the previous evenings.

Fafner’s cave was set in an abandoned factory. The dragon appeared as a huge, tank-like machinery with flat claws that were imposing in size but looked practically harmless. Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich wore a pair of infrared goggles as he waited for his opportunity. Jan Hartley’s projections continued to daze and awe, and gave much context to the impending decline of the status quo. Deforestation, trains loaded with timber, overstretched electricity grid were some of the projected images that served to bolster two of the central themes – environmentalism and the cost of greed – of this American Ring. The Act III stage in Die Walküre  was transformed into a ruinous rock pile, suggesting that Zambello was ready to highlight the passing of time and more importantly, the degeneration of the world outside it. While that seemed to be a deviation of Wagner’s intent (the circle of flame in my opinion was supposed to surround and protect Brünnhilde in perpetuity, impenetrable to the effects of the passing of time), the dramatic outcome of such deviation seemed to tuck neatly into Zambello’s vision of gradual decay and impending downfall.

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