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.


Bayerische Staatsoper/Allemandi: La Cenerentola

Date: July 12, 2012
Conductor: Antonello Allemandi
Production: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

When Nikolaus Bachler, the Intendant of the opera house, appeared on stage before the curtain went up to announce that Joyce DiDonato was not feeling well, the hall permeated with a concerted gasp of disappointment, only to be replaced by relief when Bachler said that DiDonato would nevertheless continue.

At the outset, DiDonato’s voice was buttery and clean, and did not sound particularly stressed. Nevertheless, she took care to preserve her voice for the opera’s finale, so much so that she was nearly inaudible in most of the ensemble singing. That put additional pressure on the two other female voices, who had the unenviable task of counterbalancing an all-male tag team of lead vocals as well as chorus. If DiDonato consciously saved her voice throughout the evening, she let it all out in Non piu mesta. DiDonato proved that textural sensibility and vocal agility could coexist beautifully, as her acrobatic passages flowed with sensual, expressive coloration. An optionally interpolated high D-flat before one of those two-octave descending scales provided a playful counterpoint, akin to a plump cherry sitting atop a Rococo-style, multi-layered wedding cake.

When Dandini arrived at Don Magnifico’s house as Ramiro, he casually threw his hat and baton to his real boss in a terse but fine moment of dramma giocoso. But such was the theatrical masterstroke of Ponnelle, who with this short interaction was able to convey Ramiro’s slight displeasure at being subjugated, even temporarily; Dandini’s satisfaction in being his own boss; and the dramma giocoso’s playful sensibility. (This directorial brilliance was also evident in a video recording of the same production, with Claudio Abbado and La Scala, some thirty years ago.) The staging showed signs of its age, with the colors of many of the scrims fading away. One scrim malfunctioned briefly and caused Cinderella to sing part of her second Une volta…un re with a half-drawn scrim, but otherwise the drama flowed perfectly.

Lawrence Brownlee, as Ramiro, was confident and accurate in delivery, but lacked bite and charisma. In Si, ritrovarla io guiro, Brownlee added a third high C in the da capo. Alessandro Corbelli, as Don Magnifico, lost some of his vocal prowess due to age, but more than compensated with dramatic weight, as he should in this genre. Nikolay Borchev’s vibrato, sounding forced and unnatural, needed more refining. As an actor he drew genuine laughter whenever the drama required of his Dandini. Alex Esposito, as Alidoro, projected an exceptionally strong and ringing voice, albeit just a tad too bright for bel canto. As Clorinda, Eri Nakamura excelled vocally. More importantly, she acted the part with a whimsical but cheerful giddiness, and didn’t look at all like someone who sandwiched this Clorinda performance between her Woglindes during the Munich Ring.


Bayerische Staatsoper/Nagano: Das Rheingold

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

This year’s Munich Opera Festival features two Ring Cycles. If Francesca Zambello’s American Ring offers to test the audience’s analytical competence by providing a parallel American historical narrative, Andreas Kriegenburg’s production is decidedly more subdued, without any particular inclination to provoke or proselytize (other than an insignificant attempt at it in Götterdämmerung). What remains is a nuanced though not particularly memorable depiction of Wagner’s story.

As audience filed into the National Theatre, even before a note of Wagner was heard, they became aware of roughly a hundred actors on stage, leisurely picnicking in white gowns – perhaps to present a world uncorrupted by the dark powers of the Ring. As the light dimmed and the sound of gurgling water effused from the speakers, the actors stripped to their underwear and started to paint themselves with broad swipes of blue paint. As they slowly moved towards the stage apron, Kent Nagano’s E-flat began to hum from the pit. The music crescendo was matched on stage by the actors miming the waves of the Rhine in rhythmic unison. As the music making became more intense, so was the energy on stage: male-female couples started to frolic in passionate embrace. An actor, whose body was painted in gold and cladded with little else, emerged from the waves of blue human bodies. Also emerged from the waves was Alberich, who broke through the bodies to reach and carry away the golden body. For the rest of the Cycle, Kriegenburg’s concept, if it could be called that, was to deploy human bodies as a descriptive art form, either as mimed physical props (the waves of the Rhine, and the gold), or as metaphorical solutions for abstract problems (the energy of the Rhine’s breaking waves).

In theory, the thesis of using body as an art form was genuinely exciting, not least because Kriegenburg was willing to stay away from the tried-and-true, though somewhat conservative, usage of high-tech and stage gimmickry. In practice, however, some of these depictions were either too frivolous or distracting. When the giants were depicted by the two brothers standing on two cubes, whose volumes were filled with doll workers, the metaphor of two labor managers crushing their sorry subjects in the name of progress was unmistakable. Troubles began when the giants moved about on stage. As the cubes had to be rolled from one facet to another like two rolling dice, the two brothers had to balance themselves like Dumbo on a ball. The friction and resultant noise caused by moving the two cubes, as well as the genuine concern about Dumbo falling onto the stage floor, was a bit too distracting even though the metaphor had its analogical merits. In the Nibelheim scene, workers toiled in the background a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Weak or dying workers were rolled across the stage and thrown into two pits, after which a blow torch would shoot vertically upwards to seemingly depict the reincarnation of Alberich’s worker army. Here, the metaphor had legs, but the movements created so much noise – the blow torch emanated an annoying hissing sound, while the rolling of the dead bodies against the stage floor resulted in more unnecessary noise – that any attempt to focus on the juicy and all-important monologues of Alberich and Wotan became difficult. Even Wolfgang Koch, playing Alberich, seemed visibly disturbed by the randomness of the hissing sound. The list could go on.

Johan Reuter depicted a Wotan who was more angry than furious. As a voice, Reuter came across as subdued and lyrical, but lacked the graininess of a hefty baritone. Koch’s Alberich gushed with a tormented fury, and his rugged voice of untamed anguish only made his portrayal more thoroughly believable. When the Ring was taken away from him in Nibelheim, Koch was properly distraught, thereby setting the inevitable course for the curse and the gods’ demise.

Sophie Koch was dressed as and acted the part of an angry Barbie Doll. Curiously, instead of feeling shame, she expressed a malicious satisfaction when the gold was taken away from the gods by the giants. Vocally, she was perhaps a sliver too light for the role, and her performance often verged towards spitting out rather than delivering her libretto. Stefan Margita was even more magnificent here in Munich than he was in San Francisco a year ago, perhaps because his ringing voice did not have to cut through Runnicles’ overworked orchestra that was so desperate to generate enough sound to fill the War Memorial. In Munich, Margita’s Loge was less calculating and more all-controlling, as if he planned everything all along.

The cerebral, lyric-inclined Kent Nagano did not, on paper, seem to be an ideal Ring conductor, yet he did an admirable job here, perhaps because the sweeping music at the distal ends of Das Rheingold was perhaps Wagner’s most Italianate in the entire Cycle. Fantastic singers made up the trio of Rhinemaidens: Eri Nakamura, Cardiff ’09 finalist, delivered Woglinde’s lines with care and fluidity. Angela Brower, who did a fabulous job as Dorabella earlier this year in Hong Kong, sang a playful and expressive Wellgunde. Okka von der Damerau, as Flosshilde, poured lyrical abundance.