Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov in concert

Date: March 8, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Verdi – Sinfonia from La Forza del Destino
Cilea – “respiro appena…lo son l’umile ancella”
Cilea – “È la solita storia del pastore”
Verdi – “Tacea la notte placida…Di tale amor”
Verdi – “Ah! sì ben mio…Di quella pira”
Verdi – Prelude from Attila
Verdi – “Già nella notte densa”
De Curtis – “Non ti scordar di me”
Puccini – “Un bel dì vedremo”
Massenet – “Toute mon âme est là!…Pourquoi me réveiller”
Puccini – “O mio babbino caro”
Puccini – “E lucevan le stelle”
Puccini – Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut
Puccini – O soave fanciulla

ENCORES

Kálmán – “Heia, in den Bergen”
Puccini – “Nessun Dorma”
Verdi – “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jader Bignamini, conductor
Anna Netrebko, soprano
Yusif Eyvazov, tenor

Prima donna Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, her newly-wedded husband, began their month-long, five-city Asia tour in a sold-out concert this evening as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In what was her Hong Kong/Asia debut, this must be the most sought-after ticket in town.

Netrebko found an enthusiastic audience eager to be pleased. When she first stepped onto the stage floor, in a plump and elegant white gown, the typically stoic, stone-faced Hong Kong audience went out of character, with an extendedly warm and boisterous greeting that said everything there is to say about her popularity and the enthusiasm towards her long-awaited Hong Kong/Asia debut. That monumental greeting was outmatched by an even more boisterous one when Netrebko came out after the intermission in a strapless, red silk gown with Asian-themed digital print. Netrebko and Eyvazov alternated in a program of popular Italian/French arias. Her voice basked with a warm golden hue, with a stately and comfortable top. She could flow from loud to soft passages with ease: the well supported pianissimos in “Un bel di vedremo” from Butterfly were a good example. On the other side of the token, Netrebko was able to pull some sturdy punches in those exposed, incredibly fast passages in Leonora’s cabaletta, with a searing forte that easily sailed over a loud orchestra while reminding everyone that it was her Donna Anna that brokered her cosmic trajectory to stardom. Netrebko’s breathing was meticulously controlled (save, alas(!), for the erratic final note, sang offstage, in her Mimi), yet with such an unbound vocal reservoir that in “lo son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur, the solo violin accompanying her exhausted his numerous up-bows and nearly failed to keep up with her seemingly endless, and clearly audience-indulging(!), fermatas.

One could easily dismiss Eyvazov as yet another case of Sutherland’s Bonynge – that buy-one-get-one-free deal in the operatic world, but that would be unjust to Eyvazov here. Eyvazov nurtured a fine voice, with a sumptuous Italianate timbre and the sort of scorching, exposed top that would not displease the loggione a la Scala. Going through Eyvazov’s selections here (e.g. Manrico, Werther and Cavaradossi) and his repertoire (e.g. Des Grieux), one cannot stop but think of Jonas Kaufmann, but the similarities would end here. Even if Eyvazov’s diction could sometimes be slightly muddled (something that nobody would ever complain about the linguistically-inclined Kaufmann), his vocal production is definitively more Italianate. His timbre reminds us of the singers of the yesteryear: Corelli, yet with more sensitive subtlety, or di Stefano, yet with more ease and less abuse of the vocal chord. By that I am not arguing Eyvazov as necessarily equaling Corelli or di Stefano, at least not yet, but there are certain qualities about the Azerbaijani tenor that make him a great candidate to further stardom. His high notes sounded natural and with dimension, and his phrasing was discreet and attentive. The real chemistry between him and Netrebko also helped with the duets on display tonight, especially in the La bohème. If this concert is any indication, his Salzburg debut as Des Grieux this summer could prove to be his star-making party. It remains to be seen if Eyvazov’s exposed top could withstand the wear and tear that come naturally with a busy schedule ahead.

Jader Bignamini flapped his arms in a way that was neither abhorrent nor particularly interesting to watch, but did give the impression that he was not conducting but merely manhandling a rehearsed time sheet. With the prima donna’s presence in mind, no indictment shall be warranted here, but the Hong Kong Philharmonic was left alone to produce a sound that was bland and not particularly Italianate. Unaccustomed to accompanying a vocalist, and probably under-rehearsed for this specific occasion, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded like a machine grinding through the proceedings without revealing much of anything. The opulent scores of Verdi and Puccini were not given proper care. It was as if a monotone IBM computer is tasked to read out a punch card – all the precision but none of the excitement. The only outlier was principal cellist Richard Bamping, who with a few committed solo phrases brought us from the raucous commotion following Cavaradossi’s aria to the solitary journey to Le Havre in Manon Lescaut. His phrasing spoke of a haunting desperation, in a voice that was ominous but arrestingly poetic.

Turandot (ballet)

Date: February 7, 2015
Company: Hong Kong Ballet
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreographer Natalie Weir’s Turandot proves to be a reliable workhorse by returning on stage in Hong Kong for a fourth time, some twelve years after its premiere. Set in Puccini’s original music, the choreography mixes classical steps with a contemporary variety. After Turandot is first kissed by Calaf in the transfiguration scene, she pirouettes sprightly, but not without collapsing her rotating axis into the caring arms of Calaf, as if ready to be completely consumed by his love. When Calaf pronounces her transfiguration: “E amore nasce col sole!”, she would stand arabesque penché while gazing coyly at him, but not before rolling with him on the floor in raunchy, steamy lust. Playing the role of this transfigured Turandot was the elegant Zhang Si Yuan, who has recently been promoted to company principal. Her movements were calibrated but faithful, and by the look of her face she seemed to be truly absorbed in her character. As Calaf, principal dancer Li Jiabo had sturdy lifting arms and, while not a particularly high jumper, produced with unfaltering reliability. Another company principal Liu Yuyao danced to the music of what is one of the saddest roles in all of opera – that of Liu. While the namesake was a coincidence, her dancing portrayed a character with unbound will-power to do what is best for Calaf, while using her impeccably strong calf muscles to glide her relatively large body frame across the dance floor with fluidic beauty. Set designer Bill Haycock enlivened what is typically the most visually boring scene in the opera – the riddle scene – by using about a dozen corp members to form words by raising alphabet shapes, in an effort not unlike the sequential unveiling of a word in Wheel of Fortune. Haycock also did magic with Liu’s death scene by placing her on a podium and dropping from the lighting grid a long-running red silk onto her dying body. By omitting Puccini’s three stooges, Weir and Haycock also managed to streamline the story and focus on the love story.

Liu's death scene.

Liu’s death scene. Photo credit: Hong Kong Ballet.

Manon Lescaut

Date: June 28, 2014
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Manon Lescaut: Kristīne Opolais
Lescaut: Christopher Maltman
Chevalier des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann
Geronte de Ravoir: Maurizio Muraro
Edmondo: Benjamin Hulett
Dancing Master: Robert Burt
Singer: Nadezhda Karyazina
Lamplighter: Luis Gomes
Naval Captain: Jeremy White
Act III Sergeant: Jihoon Kim
Innkeeper: Nigel Cliffe
Chorus: Royal Opera Chorus

Royal Opera
Antonio Pappano, conductor
Jonathan Kent, director

Manon Lescaut, written by Puccini perhaps at a time of the composer’s greatest personal and financial misery, provides a breathing room of idealistic escapism for the composer. In Manon, Puccini found a heroine who couldn’t fail to win the hearts of all, and in Des Grieux, a hero who would follow his love to the end of the Earth. In real life, however, Puccini could barely afford his rent in Milan, and his relationship with the married Elvira was met with fierce opposition from all corners and, in any case, not going well. In other words, Manon Lescaut the operatic output was the unwavering stability yearned for but not (yet) achieved in Puccini’s life.

In Jonathan Kent’s vision, most of that sentiment remains intact, though not without some questionable designs. Act I has all the proper trappings required by Puccini’s libretto – a motel, a staircase, a balcony and a casino, but the set, designed by Paul Brown, looks more like a trucker’s stop along the section of Route 66 closest to Las Vegas, than some casino-land, as suggested in the programme notes, in Baden-Baden. Geronte’s house is a stage within a stage where Manon gyrates feverishly in a peep show to attract the salivating glances of customers. By doing away with the musicians in the traditional dance scene and making Manon a total object of desire, Kent seems willing to assert the point that Manon couldn’t resist winning the hearts of all, even if in a customer-performer relationship — yet in doing so, seems willing to rob the audience of a good dance scene that is to be expected in the opera. Dressed in a pink Lolita nightwear, Lady-Gaga thigh-high white stockings and trashy blonde wig, Kristine Opolais’ Manon was there to demolish any notion of faux elegance, focusing squarely instead on the exploits of visual voyeurism. It was hard to believe that in Puccini’s original vision, this girl was actually about to go to a convent. The stage within a stage is boxed by a prison-like Teflon-made dollhouse, as if Manon is an object unwillingly trapped in the status quo. But she is not, as she seems happy to please her peeping onlookers and happier when she lingers on to fetch her jewelry even as Des Grieux is anxious to drag her out of the malice.

Jonas Kaufmann’s Des Grieux was noncommittal at first, with a weakly sung L’amor that was barely audible on top of the orchestra. The German tenor recovered enough to deliver a fine but not particularly inspiring Donna non vidi mai. His condition would stay sub-par (by Kaufmann’s typically high standards anyway), until Act II, when he blossomed in the face of Kristine Opolais’ formidable voice. Opolais had a sizzling top, seemingly limitless output in the glorious passages, and a sweet legato in the subtler passages. Though questionable in aesthetic taste, the dollhouse box turned out to be an acoustic aid that effectively helped to project the singers’ voice, especially in the Act II duet. Maurizio Muraro had an off-night as Geronte, as his output came with very little detail and support. In the thankless role of Lescaut, Christopher Maltman turned out just fine, with firm support and plenty of firepower to raise above Pappano’s orchestra.

There is rather something quite remarkable about Pappano’s conducting. The orchestra sounded resolute and dramatic, especially towards the end of Acts II and IV. A sense of drama was clearly evident, accomplished by measured, if in slightly slower tempi, build-up of layers upon layers of sonic goodness. The cello intermezzo in Act III was particularly devastating and melancholic. Towards the end, the orchestra came about in one voice, fully armed, committed as one, but never vulgar or drawing attention to itself. With this sort of fine casting and outstanding orchestral performance, no flaws in the production could dampen the spirit of the night.

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act II: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act IV: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

La Boheme

Date: July 17, 2012
Conductor: Dan Ettinger
Production: Otto Schenk
Location: Bavarian State Opera, National Theatre, Munich.

When the curtain rose to reveal Scene II’s Latin Quarter, the audience gasped with frothy astonishment. An air of Parisian flair and authenticity roamed free, and the collective gaiety of the chorus and stage extras proved infectious. Then, in this warm summer evening in Bavaria, a wintry chill loomed when the colorless set of Scene III exuded a morbid gloom, as if foretelling the opera’s end. Such was the emotive and communicative power of Otto Schenk’s production, which, despite its fifth decade of service, has looked as fresh as it has ever been.

Schenk’s star shone brightly, but not alone. Angela Gheorghiu portrayed a Mimi whose health but not her spirits slowly withered away, while Joseph Calleja played an emotionally-wrecked Rodolfo witnessing Mimi’s gradual but certain demise. Gheorghiu nurtured her sweet tonal quality with the care of a mother tucking her child into bed. If the Romanian soprano had any fault, she harbored a tendency to sing at her own pace, with nary a peek at conductor Dan Ettinger, particularly during her Scene I solo aria. Calleja began the evening with some hesitation, but warmed up on time to find boundless comfort and confidence in Che gelida manina. As he sang the line: “E come vivo? Vivo! / And how do I live? I live!” he acted as though he really meant it. His Rodolfo, like Gheorghiu’s Mimi, was entirely believable. When he cried Mimi’s name towards the opera’s finale, he oozed so much melancholic doom that, after the orchestra’s final note, the audience remained silent for a few seconds to regain composure before erupting in unreserved jubilation. Levente Molnar was reckless with his rhythm and pitch at Marcello’s Scene I entrance, but otherwise recovered well. Dramatically, Molnar expertly balanced his duo role of Rodolfo’s comedic muse and emotional support with an effortless ease. Christian Rieger, as Schaunard, held sway with vigorous baritonal security, while Laura Tatulescu, as Musetta, flourished as an outwardly whimsical but inherently good-natured Parisian darling. Impossible as it may sound, Alfred Kuhn, approaching his fiftieth year as a professional singer, stole dramatic glory by exacting a deliriously funny Benoit.

Dan Ettinger’s conducting was uneven, with moments of brilliance followed by bouts of mediocrity. At times he let Puccini’s legato lines fly with sweeping boldness, but at others he barely bothered with the composer’s exquisitely crafted dynamics and tempi.

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.