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.

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Nabucco

Date: May 22, 2013
Conductor: Eugene Kohn
Production: Gilbert Deflo
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Nabucco is widely accepted as the work that Verdi finally matured to his own. When Verdi composed it, it was not long after his wife Margherita died of encephalitis. An angle of redemption is thus widely interpreted to exist in Nabucco – one of spiritual renewal and enlightenment. When tenor Placido Domingo attempted the baritone title role as a septuagenarian, could he be invoking a similar angle of redemption too?

As a tenor during his prime, Domingo has excelled and been widely acclaimed in roles that require shades of baritonal qualities, such as Lohengrin and Siegmund. Domingo’s slightly baritonal timbre afforded him to excel in those roles, but also led to critics to suggest that he was never a tenor to begin with, especially, albeit perhaps unfairly, when the tenor began to transpose down in the twilight of his tenor career. As a baritone, Domingo’s top notes effuse the sort of fluidic, airy ring that differentiates a tenor from a baritone. In the middle registers, where Domingo sounds best, his voice nurses a timbre that is both velvety and coarse (in a controlled kind of way). As Nabucco, which turns out to be Domingo’s first stage performance in China in nearly thirty years (that did not include a private concert performance of Simon Boccanegra in Beijing a couple of years ago), his finest dramatic moment was at the end of Act II, when he started to look and act with an exacting, almost haunting, confusion. In “Dio”, Domingo sounded caringly paternal, while Leo Nucci sounded, in comparison, though not in any disparaging way, somewhat dismissively possessive. The major difference was effectively one of interpretation, not necessarily one of vocal output. Any suggestion that Domingo was singing baritone roles so that he could redeem towards his true self seems rubbish. In my opinion, Domingo simply feels that he was ready to interpret these baritonal roles dramatically, and has both the support of his tessitura (though not necessarily the perfect timbre and delivery) and house directors. Surely, why not?

The role of Abigaille has confounded many singers in the past. Sun Xiuwei (孙秀苇) portrayed a daughter whose fury was eventually usurped by an un-containable guilt. When she was furious, Sun’s facial expression was monstrous. In her final scene before her ultimate downfall, she looked spent but seemed ready to accept her fate. Vocally, Sun’s liberal mannerism could be irritating, but that was the least of her problems. Sun had pitch problems for much of the night, especially in the upper registers where she tended to flat going into most of her top notes. In Abigaille’s treacherous lower registers, her voice was practically chewed up by the vastness of the NCPA. A better actor than singer, at least in this evening, Sun was markedly better in her Act I focal point – the more dramatically expressive cavatina – than in the subsequent, the more technical, cabaletta.

Li Xiaoliang (李晓良) towered as Zaccaria with a stentorian bass, and provided some of the finest singing of the evening. In his Act I cabaletta, he lit up the stage while encouraging the Jews to rebel against the invasion. In the supplementary roles, Jin Zhengjian (金郑建) was dutiful and dramatically effective as Ismaele, especially at the end of Act 1 when he blossomed with anger and dismay while being wrongfully accused. Yang Guang (杨光) gushed with melancholic sadness as Fenena.

The production was not particularly impressive but serviceable with occasional interesting moments, including when Nabucco orders the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, whereupon a slow-motion projection depicting temple bricks falling down on the upstage scrim was powerfully effective. Kohn was a little dragging at the beginning but picked up pace in Act III. The orchestra was thin in the strings and suffered some mistakes in the brass, during much of Act III, as well as in Fenena’s Act IV numbers.

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing.

Nabucco

Date: April 6, 2013
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Production: Daniele Abbado
Location: Covent Garden, London.

This production was supposed to be Leo Nucci’s triumphant moment. Nucci was supposed to be the headliner, in a new Covent Garden production on the eve of Verdi’s bicentennial. As the anointed King of Babylon he would bow to no one except the Verdi gods.

And then Placido Domingo entered the fray. He would not only sign onto the production, but sign onto the title role. And it would be his role debut on the floor where he initially debuted, as a tenor, some forty years ago. Naturally, the press zoomed in on the Domingo storyline, casually forgetting that the King of Babylon has long been anointed. Nucci would still open the production, but all eyes focused on Domingo’s role debut a fortnight later. Poor Leo.

Poorer still, was Nucci’s performance tonight. His voice, assertive, brimmed with cracking firepower. His timbre properly flexed to reveal one of a relentless boxer before the interval, and one of a hapless aging man thereafter. In terms of projection, his ringing high notes easily caught at the end of the upper slips. When Nabucco challenges Abigaille to take the crown from him in “S’appressan gl’istanti”, his voice unleashed with atypical fury. Dramatically, however, Nucci could simply not fit into Daniele Abbado’s empty stage without looking like a lost impala in the vastness of Serengeti. The stage’s relative barrenness made the short and fit baritone look even less regal; without Verdi’s musical cues, his stage entrance as the King of Babylon would have been unnoticeable. Nucci’s body told the story of the production’s problems, as his hands seemed to relish but could not find a prop to hold onto. Nucci’s body showed up, but never inhabited the stage. He moved about, but never occupied. Domingo may not be a better baritone, but he would surely occupy the stage with better dramatics and authority. In the rest of the cast, Liudmyla Monastyrska provided a subtle but effective Abigaille, while Marianna Pizzolato offered good dramatics and reasonably adequate grasp of Fenena’s formidable passages. Vitalij Kowaljow, as Zaccaria, was comfortable in his range, and seemed much more ready and determined to make his stage presence known, even in Abbado’s precarious nothingness. Even for those opera goers who are not familiar with the plot line, the stage aura of Zaccaria and Nabucco foretold from the very beginning the latter’s eventual fall from grace.

Nicola Luisotti made the orchestra sound charming, while the warm chorus shone brightly and in one coherent whole. The stage actors – spending a majority of their time looking into the audience – rarely looked at each other on stage, perhaps because they did not feel they belonged there. And they shouldn’t, because the stage offered very little for them to react against. There is nothing wrong with a grey-shaded, simple production, but something must not be right if I almost felt like I paid a fortune to go to an un-staged concert version of Nabucco.

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera's Nabucco

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera’s Nabucco.

La Traviata

Date: March 23, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Production: Ferzan Özpetek
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

If Carmen Giannattasio is not already, or does not soon become, a global superstar, who would? Her courtesan was appropriately coy and collected in public, only willing to unleash her limitless emotional reserve, whether of joy or of despair, in situations alone. Her portrayal of Violetta’s charm in Act I, of emotional destruction in Act II, and of physical dissolution in Act III managed to impress, while the progression, from ebullience to death, was hauntingly real. As a singer, she phrased her lines and placed her notes carefully, as if caring for a new-born child, but never with the kind of flamboyance that tended to draw attention away from lyricism into mechanisms. Her flurry of notes in Sempre libera was an emancipation of fluidity and floral abundance. During her repeated curtain calls, she looked humbled and honestly overwhelmed by the audience’s outpouring of love and warmth.

Jose Bros had a rather forgettable evening as Alfredo. His voice has proven to be effective for bel canto, but, at least for this evening, lacked the sort of searing projection required to do Alfredo, never mind Verdi, justice. His Brindisi was fine, most probably because it had all the trappings of bel canto singing, but problems with his voice surfaced in his big Act II number. In the cavatina, he sounded weary and consumed, even when he was supposed to sing about boiling spirits. As he transitioned to the cabaletta, his voice was still rather lightweight, but, as if backup power renewed him temporarily, at least harbored some fiery sensation. All that collapsed when he attempted the final high C, which was so strained and flat that surprised even Bros himself. As he moved off stage, he looked visibly disturbed, with some in the audience gasping in horror and wondering whether the tenor could continue. He could and did, but sounded restrained, with a constricted top, for the rest of the way.

The dictatorial cruelty of pere Germont was captured through Simone Piazzola’s strong stage presence, except that when standing next to Bros, who is 48 years old, the 28-year-old Piazzola neither looked fatherly nor authoritative, even with heavy makeup. As a singer, Piazzola had projection and heft, but lacked the kind of vocal allure that stamped each unique voice. Giuseppina Bridelli, as Violetta’s friend, brimmed with an ebullient joy and stayed true to her character’s spirit for most of the evening.

Who really needs another Traviata with a primly decorated room laden with fluffy pillows in Act I, or fake greenery crawling over acid-washed village walls in Act II? This Traviata was exactly that, but while the staging looked hackneyed, it was mostly conducive to the flow of the drama. The exception to this boring realism occurred in Act III, when the audience was invited into the mind of Violetta. The stage had nothing but Violetta’s dimly-lit deathbed engulfed in pitch-black darkness. As she recalled the various happy moments of her life, actors would show up under keyed lights and re-enacted her thoughts, including episodes of bullfights and a couple in passionate embrace. That nifty stage feature provided visual activity, even as Violetta contemplated silently, with only a mellow orchestral sound in the background.

Abbado led the San Carlo Orchestra with briskness and purpose. The Chorus exploded with energy and fine vigor. In the first two acts, there seemed to be a problem with the Cultural Centre’s low-key lighting system as it flickered, though intermittently, with such schizophrenic urgency that it could very well represent something, perhaps the diseases that slowly ate away Violetta’s health. There was also a problem with offstage monitors, which caught a cellphone signal and eked out a few seconds of audible, though not ruinous, reverberations.

San Carlo Naples: La Traviata.

Act I in San Carlo Naples’ La Traviata. Copyright: San Carlo Naples.

Viva Verdi

Date: March 22, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Performer: San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival closes with Viva Verdi, a program highlighting the Italian composer’s outstanding choral music. The choral selections – Gli arredi festivi and the slaves’ chorus from Nabucco, O Signore dal tetto nation from I Lombardi, and the anvil chorus from Il Trovatore – were sung by the San Carlo Chorus, whose nearly eighty voices meshed in perfect unison. Their dynamic control was especially impressive, with pianissimo releasing as if from a distant past, and with forte so roof-shattering that the entire city had to have felt some serious judder of seismic proportions. In Gli arredi festivi, the flood lights in the auditorium were seen vibrating, as if reacting nervously to Verdi’s choral majesty. If describing that the slaves chorus sent a shiver up one’s spine was cliché, it was also quite appropriate and, at least to this reviewer, true. The ebb and flow of musical energy between the chorus and the strings in Va pensiero’s fourth stanza were truly chilling, even in a well-lit concert setting without an opera director’s vision of the slaves’ lamentation.

Listening to a handful of Verdi’s choral music, one after another, without interruption is akin to eating entrees after entrees of meats without so much as a green leaf or two. As such, inserted between choral pieces were various lighter orchestral bits, including Luisa Miller’s Overture, which features a sprightly clarinet solo, the Act III prelude in I Lombardi, with its feisty violin solo, and the prelude to I masnadieri, with its melancholic cello solo. Also included was Libera me in Verdi’s Requiem. Neither too meaty nor leafy, the piece presented a case of what Verdi could achieve in between: powerful yet diligent, blood-boiling yet properly dignified. Monica Tarone, as the Requiem’s expressive cantor, phrased her versicles with a soothing beauty. Her upper registers were clear and well-placed, but her lower registers languished, often submerged by the avalanche of the orchestra and the chorus.

The San Carlo Orchestra was a fine bunch, with their rendition of the I vespri siciliani overture being a case in point: pleasingly lyrical at the beginning, and authoritative and zesty towards the coda. However, they could sometimes get a little too loud, and seemed to have forgotten, especially the lower brasses, that they were no longer playing in the pit.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program.

San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus, in an all-Verdi program. Graphic taken from: Hong Kong Arts Festival’s website.

Rigoletto

Date: August 28, 2011
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Stefano Vizioli
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Rigoletto returns to the NCPA after two consecutive years of monstrous box office. Desiree Rancatore and Leo Nucci flew in for two of this year’s four performances, but the TFS, having heard the duo thrice in the past two years, opted for one of the other two performances with an all-Chinese cast.

Yuan Chenye (袁晨野) delivered a vocally masterful performance as Rigoletto. His stentorian voice easily carried over the Lü Jia-directed NCPA Orchestra. Yuan’s timbre was somewhat monotone, but was saved by the size of his voice and his passionate stage presence. Xue Haoyin (薛皓垠), as the Duke, had an Italianate voice, combining rich colorings of uttered syllables with a bright, crisp sound. His acting denied him a flawless outing, as he did not seem comfortable singing and acting at the same time. His beautiful, seductive lines in Bella figlia found very little in common with his stiffened body on stage, making the audience wonder whether Maddalena was merely seducing a singing but otherwise lifeless Roman sculpture. Yao Hong (幺红) had a questionable evening as Gilda. Her voice lacked control, as evidenced by various overparted top notes in Caro nome and then in Si, vendetta! She also looked visibly strained as she navigated those higher registers. Nonetheless she attempted the optional E-flat at the end of the third Act quartet, to the bewilderment of some audience members. Song Wei (宋委), with her candied visage and foxy body, had all the visual qualities of a seductive Maddalena, but her intonation proved average and the size of her voice remained so small that she and not Yao was the weakest link in that quartet.

La Traviata

Date: February 16, 2011
Conductor: Zuohuang Chen
Production: Henning Brockhaus
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The NCPA’s opera season began with a revival of director Henning Brockhaus’s La Traviata, premiered last year during the second annual NCPA’s Opera Festival.

Brockhaus’s stage, designed by Benito Leonori, featured a semi-reflective scrim that, at an angle towards the audience, reflected various carpeted patterns and action on stage. The scrim, when lit from behind, also revealed a secondary space in which some of the contemporaneous actions, including the bull-fighting in Act II, would occur. The carpeted patterns allowed colorings of the scenes, including that of a Parisian salon in Act I, of the facade of a country house, of a floral garden and of Flora’s mansion in Act II. The reflection of a dark stage in Act III seemed to foretell the imminent and sad departure of Violetta. Costume designer Giancarlo Colis gave hints to the setting, which seemed closer to the librettist’s intended Belle Epoque setting than the pre-revolutionary years of monarchic decay as preferred by the royal authorities during the piece’s premiere. The morbid, almost clinical simplicity of Violetta’s white night gown contrasted powerfully with the primly cut suits of the Germonts in Act III, while the gypsy’s dresses imparted seduction without suggesting material voyeurism.

Following the success of the Salzburg Traviata in 2005, the casting for this Verdi opera remains problematic. The performance of Anna Netrebko in that Willy Decker production set such a high standard that any subsequent casting of Violetta seemed inadequate by comparison. It was therefore remarkable that Zhang Liping, previously the go-to soprano for Cio-Cio San in Covent Garden, not only held her own, but delivered a passionate performance with plenty of musical and dramatic intensity. Her Violetta was fragile but poignant, and the frailty she portrayed, especially in that TB-infested final act, begged for sympathy from the audience, as if we were all pères Germont. She navigated Verdi’s difficult lines with ease, especially the myriad of lower registers in Act III that would challenge the most skillful sopranos. Leonardo Caimi’s Alfredo had a boyish visage and a charming quality, though for much of the evening it wasn’t clear where that charm was directed to. There seemed to be a severe lack of chemistry between Zhang and Caimi, and when they finally physically embraced, Caimi looked like he was locked in an embrace with his mother. His voice, slightly more leggiero than desired for the lyrical role, was disastrous when out of control – he visibly strained while delivering the long, high notes in his Quando interchange with Violetta – but caringly delicious when warmed up and projecting, especially in his Act III duet. Juan Pons provided the dramatic tour de force of the evening, delivering a highly subdued but emotionally convincing père Germont. Pons’s voice was no longer as flexible and far-reaching as it used to be, perhaps due to age (he would be 65 this year), but he showed why opera was not merely about singing as he delivered a dramatically mesmerizing and heart-felt reminder to Alfredo, in Di Provenza, about their duty in Provence, and took care to tear himself emotionally apart by how the ridiculousness of the Germonts’ social redemption contrasted pitifully with the eternal presence of human’s frail sensibility.

Chen was in perfect charge of the score: rendering Verdi’s luscious lines with excitement and faithfulness but without drowning out the singers. The chorus, especially in the Act II gambling scene, was in fine form, just as a pair of gypsy girls frolicked with Alfredo’s winnings on the gambler’s table and other guests cuddled in an asphyxiating night of physical abandon. The only slight blemish was a slightly off-key clarinet solo in Violetta’s letter scene in Act II, but that hardly an evening broke.

Act I, Henning Brockhaus' La Traviata. The NCPA, Beijing.

Act I, Henning Brockhaus's La Traviata. The NCPA, Beijing.