Orchestral music

Mozarteumorchester Salzburg/Fischer/Jussen and Jussen: Mozart

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Stiftung Mozarteum Grosser Saal, Salzburg.

Mozart – Symphony No. 34, KV 338
Mozart – Concerto for Two Pianos, KV 365
Mozart – Symphony No. 38, KV 504

Mozarteumorchester Salzburg

Ádám Fischer, conductor
Lucas Jussen and Arthur Jussen (piano)


This late morning matinee concert was delightful, not only because of the overall quality of the performance but because, on this Sunday morning with crisp air and blue sky, this was one of the few Mozart-only concerts in the entire Festival. Fischer was an animated conductor, but not merely aesthetically: the orchestra reacted with each beating of his baton, whether a tempo pickup, a long-planned crescendo, or that sudden subito piano. Melodically, the oboe pair’s series of harmonic counterpoints in the first movement was delicious, warm and airy. The Jussen brothers had a disastrous start in the piano concerto for four hands: in the middle of the first movement, an unknown beeper started to cause some confusion, if not between the pianists or within the orchestra, then certainly with the audience, in which many angry heads were frantically looking for the offending culprit. No one accepted fault, but the beeping died down eventually. The Jussens held fort, but the orchestra’s output seemed somewhat stranded, in terms of confidence, amidst all the confusion. The second movement began with glaringly constricted oboes and smudged horns, but order was soon restored when the pianos intervened. The roam to finish was resolute and strong, and the Jussens rewarded a ferocious ovation with a triptych from Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, Op. 22. Le bal (#12) stood out particularly with the Jussens taking great care of, and having fun while hacking away at, the dancing rhythms and flowing melodic lines. After intermission, Fischer led a fine treatment of the Prague. Brass glimmered like lush summer willow, while woodwinds nourished their lines with great care, like butterflies picking nectar elegantly away. The pictorial reminded the audience what a great day it was in Salzburg, even if the music was not programmatic in its intent. The overall sound inside the Mozarteum was fantastic, with just enough reverberation to sound warm but not too much to muddle.

Ballet and dance

Paris Ballet: Legends Mixed Bill

Date: May 11, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Coralli and Perrot – Giselle Act 2 pas de deux, with Lucie Barthelemy and Alessandro Riga
Meehan after Ivanov and Petipa – Black Swan pas de deux, with Ge Gao and Ryo Kato
Robbins – In The Night, with Muriel Zusperreguy and Josua Hoffalt, Aida Baida and Esteban Berlanga, Agnes Letestu and Stephane Bullion
Cue – La Mort du Cygne (The Dying Swan), with Esteban Berlanga
Fontan and Sarrat – Carmen Toujours! pas de deux, with Lucie Barthelemy and Olivier Sarrat
Martinez – Les Enfants du Paradis pas de deux, with Aida Baida and Esteban Berlanga
Caniparoli – Lady of the Camellias pas de deux, with Yao Jin and Lucas Jerkander
Van Cauwenbergh – Les Bourgeois, with Alessandro Riga
Favier – Non, je ne regrette rien, with Agnes Letestu and Stephane Bullion
Prejlocaj – Le Parc final pas de deux, with Muriel Zusperreguy and Josua Hoffalt

Balletomanes in Hong Kong will certainly remember two of the pieces this evening: Les Bourgeois, danced by Carlos Acosta in 2016, and Le Parc, danced by Alice Renavand / Florian Magnenet in 2015. Van Cauwenbergh’s choreography is not so much dancing as it is acting, and here Riga romped the stage as a cigarette-smoking bombshell, with the sort of clownish smile and gestures that aroused delirious laughter in the auditorium. Aided by a younger and more flexible body, Riga’s rendition in contrast with Acosta’s felt less muscular and more natural. In Le Parc, Zusperreguy and Hoffalt’s flawless techniques would stand out more if only they did not beam with great chemistry, which they certainly did. Zusperreguy flowed just as graciously as Renavand (and Guérin – their inspiration), and seemed to enhance the role by adding a hint of nervousness and uncertainty, as if she is well aware of life’s reality even as the couple, in ecstasy, momentarily escapes from it. This display of insight was well in contrast with Jin/Jerkander in Lady of the Camellias. The Hong Kong Ballet pair displayed all of Caniparoli’s visual language while managing to find, seemingly, no chemistry between themselves. Jin’s Marguerite, often looking towards the audience, was more eager to please them than Jerkander’s Armand – something that was unfortunate, especially since the pair found good chemistry dancing together in Hong Kong Ballet’s full version back in October 2016. Alas, such was the fact of life with galas where getting into character could be a monumental task. In the Favier, Letestu and Bullion displayed great efficacy of movement and precision while dancing within the confines of a carpet barely larger than the average bathroom stall. Fontan and Sarrat’s Carmen Toujours! was perhaps one of the most exciting new choreographies I have seen lately. Physical moments switched back and forth between cruel violence and sappy tenderness, in deference to the wretched history between Carmen and Don Jose. In the frenetic scene where Jose was about to stab Carmen a la Sweeney Todd, the psychological intensity seemed most and appropriately intertwined with the visual physicality. It would have been perfect, if only the corresponding music was not the flower song, which opera lovers would find out of place. I look forward to comparing it against Yuh Egami/Ricky Hu’s new choreography for the Hong Kong Ballet later this month. Robbin’s In The Night looks and feels Parisian without actually programming as such. All three pairs’ dancing was precise, especially the dancing between Letestu and Bullion. The seasoned pair moved their legs cleanly without unnecessary jitters. Their dancing revealed not a word of flamboyance but a waterfall’s worth of human sensibility. Motions flowed with generous profundity of thought and conviction. Henri Barda, who for decades has been Robbins’ most trusted collaborator, colored the moment with delicious live rendering of Chopin’s nocturnes, among other music. His piano, situated in the pit area (stage right), was spotlighted loosely but prominently from above and was clearly programmed to be an equal partner to the dance proceedings onstage. His performance, full of voice and sentimentality, was worthy of the standing ovations the auditorium lavished him.

Robbins’ In The Night: Paris Opera Ballet legends in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Le French May website.


NCPA/Chen: 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.


NCPA/Chen: 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.