Pelléas et Mélisande

Date: March 15, 2018
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Arkel: Alfred Reiter
Geneviève: Leah-Marian Jones
Pelléas: Jacques Imbrailo
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Mélisande: Jurgita Adamonyté
Yniold: Rebecca Bottone
Doctor: Stephen Wells

The Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera

Lothar Koenigs, conductor
David Pountney, director

Pelléas et Mélisande, unlike Tristan und Isolde, is not an opera about its eponymous characters. The main character is Golaud — Mélisande’s husband and Pelléas’ half-brother — who could not come to terms with the force of destiny. Golaud would witness (and cause) the title characters to die, survive the both of them, yet be unceremoniously dismissed by Arkel as an after thought at the drama’s end. There is no hero, nor is there even a scripted downfall of the hero. The opera’s characters — and we — are all shaped and swept away by destiny. If Debussy’s free-flowing harmony does not already drive home the point that his is not, or is unglued from all influences of Wagner’s, the characters’ destiny most certainly does.

Where Golaud is central to this framework, Pountney’s production brings Mélisande more to the fore. The implication does not necessarily divert attention entirely away from Golaud, but the effort seems to put Mélisande on equal footing. The production set includes a spiraling tower in the middle of the stage, surrounded by a moat of water. The spiraling tower is fashioned in the form of a 50-feet tall skeleton topped with a skull the size of a small sedan. This skeleton tower remains there for the entire opera, and must surely signify something: that people (mostly men) traverse in and out of the skeleton throughout the opera probably signifies a carcass of a woman being trampled upon constantly, as though a stone-faced woman is to be raped so repeatedly as to have lost what remains of her soul and spirit, leaving merely the physical being to be ravaged. Could that be Mélisande? Dozens of chains hanging from the rafters above signify the entrapment of something. Could a spirit be entrapped in a spiritless physical being that reincarnates? In Pountney’s framework, the answers to the above seem to be in the positive: Mélisande is a recurring spirit being brought out by the shepherd. When she dies physically, her child is literally reduced into a puff of smoke, just as Debussy’s music resolves to a close. During the scene when Yniold is looking for his ball, Mélisande reincarnates as the stone that Yniold is unable to turn over. Yniold, focusing on the ball, is probably oblivious to this fact, but Pountney here seems to tie Mélisande as a morphing spirit of nature. If the stone in Debussy/Maeterlinck’s vision is to depict a world where no one can see let alone control his destiny, Mélisande in Pountney’s treatment seems to transcend above and beyond that. The fact that Mélisande is looking at the audience, smiling, while fiddling the ball away from Yniold, seems to suggest that Mélisande is in it with us — the audience. She may not be dictating fate, but she, and the audience, already knows the truth that Golaud so desperately wants to know: that fate shall run its course. Here, the reincarnating Mélisande is not comparable to Kundry precisely because she is also in it with the audience.

Jurgita Adamonyté’s voice were gentle, while her diction was easy on the ears. Jacques Imbrailo nurtured his lines with security and lyrical beauty. If Pelléas was a youthful representation of Maeterlinck himself, then, by Imbrailo’s depiction, Maeterlinck was certainly an innocent, blossoming young man ready to be loved and love. Violence to woman is horrific enough, but Golaud’s violence to a pregnant woman was here so repulsive, no matter how familiar the opera is to the audience, as to cause a few gasps from the auditorium. Christopher Purves’s Golaud simmered with remorseless evil. His voice was stentorian yet delineated with care, especially when he presented his departing recitatives. Where Rebecca Bottone’s voice lacked depth, she compensated with careful nourishing of Yniold’s lines. Bottone should excel in smaller houses, perhaps in Mozartean/Purcellian roles. Unlike other Arkels who would typically use rhythmic precision to accord a more devilish angle, Alfred Reiter’s portrayal was more free flowing and, to his credit, more agreeable with Debussy’s musical intention. Lothar Koenigs did a remarkable job shaping Debussy’s lines with aplomb – dramatic enough to stir, but not overt enough to draw attention. There were short bursts of moments when the orchestra sounded assertive, almost Wagnerian, especially during the scene changes, but overall it was sublime, lingering in a comfortable and non-obtrusive dynamic range.

WNO’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo credit: HKAF.

Ballet and dance

Anna Karenina

Date: February 23, 2018
Company: Ballett Zürich
Choreography: Christian Spuck
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Anna Karenina: Viktorina Kapitonova
Count Vronsky: William Moore
Alexei Karenin: Filipe Portugal
Princess Betsy: Giulia Tonelli
Betsy’s companion: Wei Chen
Levin: Tars Vandebeek
Kitty: Michelle Willems
Stiva: Daniel Mulligan
Dolly: Galina Mihaylova
Vronsky’s mother: Anna Khamzina
Countess Ivanovna: Mélanie Borel
Seryozha: Isaac Wong Hei

Christophe Barwinek, piano
Lin Shi, mezzo-soprano

Additional music on soundtrack

Modern choreographers, when interpreting Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, often choose to focus on the love triangle between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin, because the emotions boiling among the trio overflow with plenty of material for one full evening of entertainment. Rarely would a choreographer venture deep into societal and philosophical aspects of Tolstoy’s work, simply because these concepts cannot easily be interpreted by dance motions. Take, for example, Alexei Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky. Most of the stage actions center around Anna, and her relationships with Vronsky and Karenin. When Ratmansky veers off, he tends to focus on what affects Anna personally. The corps is mostly used as sugary glazing to move the story along or, in the case of the elaborate horse racing scene, as a standalone, show-off-your-corps sort of spectacle. Secondary characters are given very little stage time, and they, when finally onstage, rarely partake in any choreography of significance.

Christian Spuck, in a Ballett Zürich production that opened the 46th Hong Kong Arts Festival, attempts something more ambitious. His production gives greater prominence, as well as more feature choreography, to three other pairs of characters: Stiva and Dolly, Princess Betsy and her consort, and Levin and Kitty. (By contrast, Ratmansky’s production for the Mariinsky hardly features these characters with much if any intensity.) As the ballet opens, readers of the novel would instantly recognize Stiva the adulterer and Dolly his despondent wife. The two characters would for the rest of the ballet hop on and off stage, with short bursts of intricate choreography to expose their relationships – abrasive enough to be emotional, sometimes even militant, but never enough to cause, unlike Anna’s, irreversible road to infamy. By repeatedly bringing the pair back, even as Anna’s life begins to crumble, Spuck perhaps wants to juxtapose the difference between these two adulterers: society back then would overlook adulterers like Stiva who nevertheless cause no irreparable damage to family and society (through the immense will of Dolly, to be fair), but would come down harshly on people like Anna whose extra-curriculars are certifiably her family’s – and herself’s – wrecking ball. Daniel Mulligan’s deliberately arrogant ballet stances and ignoble steps elaborated the outward and animal instincts of Stiva to great dramatic effect. The gutted facial expressions of Galina Mihaylova’s Dolly, most of which were directed towards the audience as she was left alone re-calibrating what remained of her dignity, made us wonder whether she would be better off choosing a Schopenhauerian escape from society once and for all?

Tolstoy makes Princess Betsy the anti-Orthodox, anti-Buddhist archetype, the sort of socialite with lax morals who would neither admit being nor associate with one: she of course snubs Anna as soon as society starts abandoning the latter. Curiously, she and her consort, aptly danced by Giulia Tonelli and Wei Chen, are given the most classical, conventional steps and sequences; perhaps supported pirouettes and classic arabesque lines cultivate the impression that Spuck is intentionally trying to contrast this pair, or at least deviate artistically, from the rest. Tonelli was a graceful dancer, with all the properly nefarious facial expressions. Chen gave Tonelli rock-solid anchorage as she pirouetted next to him, and elevated his dramatic significance in the act by naturally weaving himself into the action through eye contact and timely gestures.

Some of the most beautiful choreography in the entire production is given to Levin and Kitty, especially when they reconcile in the fields and during their wedding. The stage in these scenes is minimally decorated, with sparsely decorated tree trunks nonetheless brightly lit with optimistic color tones. In perhaps the evening’s coup de théâtre, audience gasped with excitement as the pair, portrayed by Tars Vandebeek and Michelle Willems, rode on stage on a bicycle, oblivious to the world and material life. This is not Lise and Colas riding on a bicycle and happily waving at an audience; this moment belongs to Levin and Kitty, and themselves alone. If Spunk intends on channeling a Schopenhauerian aesthetic ideal, or at least magnifying Tolstoy’s agrarian spirit, this is the moment.

Now we are left with the choreography between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin. Nothing was particularly awe-inspiring, and the only jaw dropping moment came during the love-making scene between Anna and Vronsky, where the undressing of Anna was more vulgar than was sensual, outdone only by the two frolicking and rolling on stage with such brutalist ugliness that, if deliberate, could only be explained as a brilliantly concocted contrast to the aesthetic ideal of Levin and Kitty. Again, Spuck could be forgiven for channeling Tolstoy here. Viktorina Kapitonova, as Anna, was a great dancer with confident steps and beautiful lines. Her arm placements, stunning as they were, felt luxurious yet natural. Her portrayal, save for those forgettable love-making moments, was entirely believable. Her dissolution scene, filled with intense pain, made a lasting impression. William Moore, as Vronsky, and Filipe Portugal, as Karenin, were two dependable lifters and committed stage actors, but Spunk has cast aside the characters by giving them very little bravura moments to shine.

Musically, some of the most poignant moments are handed to Levin – Rachmaninov’s depressing Op. 26-12 Noch’ pechal’na (The Night is Sad) was rendered when he was rejected by Kitty. Vandebeek’s possibly unintended fall to the ground towards the end of Levin’s solo weighed even more somberly on that destitute moment. Levin’s music upon his first return to the farms was the contemplative Rachmaninov’s Ne poy, krasavitsa! (No not sing, my beauty), Op. 4-4. Both songs were beautifully sung by Li Shi, to the fine and dreamy piano accompaniment of Christophe Barwinek. These two watershed musical moments are where the ballet production is also weakest – the drama seems completely driven by music and voice, and not necessarily by Spuck’s choreography or stage direction. By giving more prominence to other characters, the ballet company has more slots to show off its talent, but at the expense of finding time to fully develop each character to its full dramatic capacity. The impossible task of trying to explain Tolsoy’s masterpiece with totality remains unfulfilled, but Spuck can certainly not be faulted for the lack of trying.

Ballett Zürich’s Anna Karenina. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Ballet and dance, Theater

Cecilia’s Rhapsody

Date: March 18, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Blue Ka-wing – The Invisible S
Ata Wong Chun-tat – Très léger
Rebecca Wong Pik-kei – Nook

This contemporary dance program brings together three works in response to “Cecilia”, a short story about Hong Kong’s urban landscape that launched Hong Kong writer Dung Kai-cheung’s career twenty-some years ago. Blue Ka-wing’s piece, divided into multiple segments, questions whether the body matters in this world. In one segment, two dancers, with their bellies on the floor (actually, on a glass podium positioned mid-stage) and their hands and legs flapping around, are caricatured as instant message-typing goldfishes swimming aimlessly in a fish tank, to the waltzy music from Disney’s “Up”. Meanwhile, music switches intermittently into abrupt sequences of Stockhausen-like pulses, whereby the dancers jump up and take turns to embrace, slap at, or just look at each other. In another segment, the two dancers take turns to physically abuse each other, whether by slapping, kicking or pinching severely, as if alluding to some uncomfortable realities of modern society. Overall, the theatrical presentation here is quite memorable, but the dance language is too varied, and ultimately muddled.

Ata Wong Chun-tat’s piece begins with a dancer, dressed in a geometrically awkward costume that seems precisely to un-flatter the human body. Dancer Mok Chun-tung’s weighty body seems to reinforce this idea, though it must be noted that Mok, being a theater-actor by training, shows dancer-like flexibility and endurance, not to mention well-defined facial expressions, in his captivating solo. In the background, the soundtrack begins with a primitive sequence of long electronic pulses and ends with a soppy Cantopop song, played through a portable deck player held up on stage by a performer. In between, Chan Tze-wing renders live music with a cello while donning a long black dress and sitting on the shoulder of a lifter (hidden within the dress). This musical development, from the primitive to the commercial, seems to mirror the gradual increase in sophistication of the dancers’ movements during the piece, as though the choreographer wants to describe a developing humanity, probably in relation to Dung’s urban visualization of the city. If the piece is meant to be thoughtful and broadly contemplative, it succeeds theatrically and visually. But as a piece of dance theater, the language here seems too broad, with neither a lasting impact nor an all-encompassing glue that brings the various body movements under a cohesive thesis.

Of the three pieces, Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook” offers the most coherent dance language and the most satisfying mix of dance and theater. A dark stage is lid with four rows of LEDs across the depth of the floor, with two on the floor and two hanging above them. Dancers Alice Ma and Takao Komaru display a well-rehearsed partnership where two body weights counter each other with seamless perfection just as they move freely across the stage. The two dancers mostly dance apart, but when they are together they are mostly connected through a piece of red dress (worn on Ma). At times Komaru would grab one end of the dress and swing violently, flying Ma’s body across the stage. Dancers would occasionally wrap their heads in the red dress and be led by the other, as though human relationships, no matter how beautiful, could at times find one side to be suffocating and subservient. When the dancers move together, they offer a most intense eye contact, infused with meanings undefined and unknown, as if alluding to the unpredictable and often dreamy human relationships in Dung’s work. With “Nook”, the overall effect weaving dance and theater together is most cohesive, while the dancers’ performance is most natural, sizzling, and revelatory. Komaru’s solo effort at the beginning, frenetic and muscular, reveals the top-class classical training behind the utmost fluency of his steps.

Alice Ma and Takao Komaru, in Rebecca Wong Pik-kei’s “Nook”. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.


The Makropulos Case

Date: February 25, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Emilia Marty: Annalena Persson
Albert Gregor: Aleš Briscein
Vítek: Petr Levíček
Kristina: Eva Štěrbová
Baron Prus: Svatopluk Sem
Dr. Kolenatý: František Ďuriač
Janek: Peter Račko
Stage Hand: Jiří Klecker
Cleaner: Jitka Zerhauová
Hauk-Šendorf: Jan Markvart
Lady’s Maid: Jana Hrochová

Orchestra and Chorus of the Janáček Opera of the National Theatre Brno

Marko Ivanović, conductor
David Radok, director

Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, based on a play by Karel Čapek of the same name, tackles a topic that is as old as humanity itself: human being’s infatuation with immortality. The heroine, Elina Makropulos has been living for more than three hundred years and, now going by the name of Emilia Marty, is seeking the potion that would allow her to live three hundred years more. As she pursues the secret formula, self-doubt eventually compels her to reject immortality altogether.

Here, Emilia Marty was portrayed by Annalena Persson, whose voice was supple with a molasses-like richness. Big, penetrating and powerful, Persson’s voice reminds us of the early years of another Swedish soprano by the name of Birgit Nilsson. As a dramatic actor, Persson owned the stage with a dominating presence, and that was not just because of a role that demands it. Persson made it a habit to engage those around her with a fiery and penetrating eye contact. Even as she was singing about her past excesses or a lingering meaninglessness of life, she would, via the certainty of a forceful glance, make it known to those on stage, and the audience off stage, that she meant what she sang. As the need to find the secret formula entraps Emilia and robs her of her freedom, the realization that life could go on without it unshackles her and brings her freedom. Here, Persson aptly portrayed this slow but sure transformation through a gradually loosening of limb movements. Through her eyes, one could sense that the aggression that used to overwhelm her in her initial quest for immortality has mellowed into the sort of content fulfillment that reflects more of a winning satisfaction than an appeasing complacency.

Janáček’s rhythms for the opera are precise and energetic. Emilia’s final aria is as close to a bel canto “mad scene” as one would have it. Brass stirs with multifaceted polyphony, on top of which rest intricate layers of rapidly-firing winds and strings. This has the effect of dramatizing Emilia’s transformation and the earth-shattering meaning behind it. Here, Brno’s orchestra, led by maestro Marko Ivanović, showcased the score with a lively briskness and measured urgency. Percussion section engaged with gripping intensity and ripping accuracy. The rest of the singing cast was dependable with their good singing and fine acting. Jan Markvart’s caricature of the jocular figure of Count Hauk-Šendorf delighted the crowd with Viennese operetta-like facial expressions perfect for the role. The production is classically done: at Dr. Kolenatý’s office, every piece of furniture, the walls and the lamps were meticulously handcrafted to take us back to the 1913 office realism that Čapek has well prescribed. The staging and lighting were ample and luxurious without seeking to overwhelm or take the limelight off of the music and the stage drama. In most productions, the secret formula would be destroyed. But here, Emilia simply wrinkled the paper containing the formula, threw it on the ground without destroying it. By leaving a can of worms ready to be re-opened, director David Radok created his only significant departure from the standard treatment of the opera’s ending, but in a way that gives us food for thought without demeaning it.

Makropulos Case by National Theatre Brno. Photo credit: National Theatre Brno’s website.

Ballet and dance

Mixed Bill / Das Triadische Ballett

Date: February 21, 2017
Location: Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Balanchine – Allegro Brillante
Duato – Jardí Tancat
Siegal – 3 Preludes, Rialto Ripples
Gerhard Bohner, after Schlemmer – Das Triadische Ballett

Bayerisches Staatsballett II

The appointment of Igor Zelensky as Ballet Director at Bayerisches Staatsballett in 2016 means that his predecessor, Ivan Liška, would either leave or be reassigned elsewhere. Liška, who has for nearly two decades overseen the ballet company’s rise into a formidable company with equal emphasis on classics and modern, has since taken up directorship of the junior company. Liška’s new appointment may be seen as a downgrade to some. But in many ways, Liška’s new appointment could very well point to his personal ambition to raise the prominence of the junior company and, given Liška’s stature and prominence, Munich’s desire to become a magnet for young rising stars. Many of these young stars were vividly featured this evening.

As the feminine protagonist in Richard Siegal’s choreography, to popular tunes by George Gershwin, Margarida Neto dazzled with a fantastic display of athletic finesse, precision timing and theatric artistry. Witnessing Neto’s acrobatic athleticism was liberating and revelatory. Her demeanor revealed an inner-self that is rebellious at heart. A contemporary whom she would readily look up to would be Natalia Osipova. Her three male counterparts were dutiful and humorous, but as they jumped en tutti with Neto it was clear that Neto exhibited superior control of timing (in relation to music) and muscles (in achieving elevation). I would not be surprised if Neto soon finds an offer as soloist in the senior company or elsewhere.

If Balanchine’s choreography chiefly demands technical mastery of the individual steps, Bianca Teixeira and Francesco Leone, the soloists in Allegro Brillante, were more than competent in that regard. Teixeira displayed strong arched back and good pointe work, while Leone was a solid partner with effortless elevation. Crucially, both were musically inclined and ready to dance to the music rather than to a list of steps. The rest of the ensemble revealed a well-rehearsed junior company in which jumps were in sync and positions were well-aligned. Liška should be proud of their effort overall.

Das Triadische Ballett, of course, was created by Oskar Schlemmer during the nascent days of Bauhaus. Dance, which before Bauhaus was designed to express emotions, were reduced into mechanic display of basic geometric forms and movements under Schlemmer. Ballerinas in tutus would move like a horizontally spinning disc. Danseurs would move like robots, with their limbs moving in simple degrees of freedom. If Bauhaus as a design philosophy means to reduce objects into abstract principles of functions and forms, then Das Triadische Ballett is a hugely significant attempt to apply that philosophy into dance. Whether that treatment has any philosophical or historical significance in altering dance thereafter is up to debate (though most modern choreography, including Balanchine’s, probably borrows fundamental abstractions from or reflects such abstractions central to this philosophy), the singular outcome definitely results in something fundamentally different from what the dancing world has heretofore experienced. This Munich showcase is based on a reconstruction by Gerhard Bohner in 1977. In this instance, Hans-Joachim Hespos replaces a soundtrack having works by Tarenghi, Bossi, Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Paradies, Galuppi and Handel, with his own. The mutation is not entirely uncalled for, as Schlemmer himself has proclaimed the work to be accompanied with contemporaneous music.

In contrast with the music in the 1970 reconstruction by Margarete Hastings, which is available on Youtube, Hans-Joachim Hespos’ work is more violent in its usage of atonality and random noise. Tuneless output has the effect of drawing the audience’s attention away from what is presented to what the tuneless noise means. Whether it be (presumably) metallic scratching or beating of random pieces of plastic, that randomness does trigger in the modern mind a corresponding action, focus, or event that may or may not be what the choreographer intends to be. This is perhaps why a continuous rendering of tonal Haydn, Mozart or Handel could better direct the audience’s attention towards the dancers.

Of course, Schlemmer does not intend the piece to be merely about dancers. Costumes form a huge part of the display philosophy. Here, the costumes defer squarely to Schlemmer’s original, where costumes with names like “Sphere skirt”, “Disc”, “Wire Costume” and “Gold Ball” are meant to represent abstractions of the human body which, with their specific material properties, determine the dancers’ every movement. The physical presentation here is formal, without any unnecessary embellishments. Dancers essentially are there to showcase the costumes as models. For the most part they did well, other than an accidental clash between the “Disc”s and the occasional exposé of the dancer’s arm in the “jellyfish” costume, which certainly would not have pleased Schlemmer.

The bigger issue in this Bohner reconstruction is the dark background. While the dark background features movements and costumes more prominently, the overall presentation is too tiring to the eye, especially when the costumes are constantly spotlighted over darkness. Schlemmer calls this “triadic” because he aims to juxtapose presentations in multiples of three, whether it be a reference to the number of dancers, costumes in each segment, or in the dimensionality of the presentation. But it also refers to the tripartite-ness of the presentation — one that is partitioned into yellow, pink, and black. Here, because everything is maneuvered in pitch black, the three partitions exist only in the different costumes, and, ever marginally, in the music composition. Any future revival or reconstruction would probably benefit from the tripartite-ness of the background color, if only to go easier on the eyes. That being said, Liška should be lauded for his bravery and determination to allow such a significant project —  historical in its place in German modern art and modernism — to bear fruit. The Arts Festival, likewise, should be commended for bringing Schlemmer’s adventurism, for the first time, in front of the Hong Kong audience.

Das Triadische Ballett in Hong Kong. Credit: HK Arts Festival website.

Das Triadische Ballett in Hong Kong. Credit: HK Arts Festival website.

Ballet and dance

La Bayadère

Date: February 16, 17, 18m, 18e, 19, 2017 (all five performances attended and reviewed as one)
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Choreography by Patrice Bart, after Marius Petipa

Nikiya: Ksenia Ryzhkova (February 16, 18m, 19), Ivy Amista (17, 18e)
Gamzatti: Ivy Amista (16), Tatiana Tiliguzova (18m), Prisca Zeisel (17, 18e, 19)
Solor: Osiel Gouneo (16, 18m, 19), Vladimir Shklyarov (17), Erik Murzagaliyev (18e)
Golden Idol: Jonah Cook (16, 17, 18m, 18e), Alexey Popov (19)

Bayerisches Staatsballett

Hong Kong Philharmonic (orchestra)
Michael Schmidtsdorff (conductor)

La Bayadère was first staged by Marius Petipa in St. Petersburg in February 1877. Many versions were presented over the years, including a significant revision by Petipa himself in 1900, but the most definitive version from which all subsequent productions are based was made in 1941 by Vladimir Ponomarev and Vakhtang Chabukiani at Kirov. This Bayerisches Staatsballett production, reconstructed by Patrice Bart for Munich in the late 90s, was the first German production of the ballet and one that inherited from Ponomarev/Chabukiani. Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden subsequently staged their own, but this Munich gem is the first, and arguably definitive, version in the eyes of Germans seeking a vessel to take them to the exotic Far East.

Bart’s version attempts to tell the entire story at a brisk pace. Solor’s opium sequence, which I usually find dragging and unproductive, is breezed through. Some of the elements, however, are crucially missing. The entire role of the head faqir, typical in nearly every existing version of the ballet, is eliminated. This poses various issues, as he is the crucial link between Solor and Nikiya (that link is now depicted by one of Solor’s friends). Also, without the faqirs, Bart’s Nikiya carries a water jug but with no one to serve to, meaning that the essential piece of theater depicting Nikiya’s compassion and grace is now completely absent. The entire sequence with the faqirs dancing is also removed, as is the Sacred Fire, next to which the two lovers would have sworn eternal love to each other. If not for a newly added variation with Solor, this scene would have no teeth. Even then, the addition, with its airy cabrioles and fast turns, contributes few as it is nothing more than a truncated version of Solor’s big number in the grand pas. Those aside, the story line is quite focused, and the drama flows quite naturally.

Tomio Mohri’s set and costumes take us through a whirlwind tour of the Far East – with Indian, Vietnamese, Burmese and Japanese all rolled into one. The colors of costumes and sets often sharply contradict each other, but this sort of confused and tacky orientalism is not entirely inconsistent with what Petipa, who has never traveled to the Far East himself, would have imagined anyway. The procession in Act I Scene 3, with three wagons, a huge tiger and dozens of dancers on stage, is simply a luxurious spectacle. The Theatre’s small stage (relative to the opulent set) makes some of the pas d’action look tighter than would be desirable. It is entirely possible that, with this being a German company after all, some of the corp de ballet dances are deliberately staggered out of line to increase safety margins. The costumes look gorgeous and meticulously handcrafted, and as they bask under the spotlight, the metallic paint on the gauzy costumes shimmers with majesty.

In the apotheosis scene, Solor, Nikiya and Gamzatti, wearing what seemed to be kimono pieces, reunit spiritually in heaven. That would contrast with the common ending (including the 1900 version in Petipa’s revival) where only Solor and Nikiya join in spirits. Mohri is perhaps addressing this contradiction where just a few minutes ago (in theater time) Solor is still conflicted between the two ladies, as evident in the sensual pas de trois. Nothing has been resolved, whether Solor’s flip-flopping, Nikiya’s murderous instincts or Gamzatti’s subsequent guilt. Could the angry gods let the temple collapse simply because resolution must still be forthcoming? The open-ended-ness deserves praise for its honesty and provides some food for thought. Dramaturgy aside, the effect is stunning, with the three characters moving upstage in white kimonos, imprinted with phoenix(?) pairs. Cloud effect consumes the stage. Minkus’ music draws to an apocalyptic, almost Wagnerian close. At that moment, time seems to have no relevance, and audience holds their collective breath till curtain falls.

Various casts took action on stage. Ksenia Ryzhkova was a capable Nikiya who dazzled with exceptional point work and stunningly efficient piqué turns. Other than an unfortunate fall at the very beginning of the February 16 performance, at the moment of Nikya and Solor’s rendezvous, Ryzhkova was outstanding and appeared more and more so as she found comfort in her surroundings. Ivy Amista danced two performances originally slated for Maria Shirinkina, who was a no show (though her husband, Vladmir Shklyarov, was). Amista was Munich’s prima Nikiya more than a decade ago and is well-liked in Bavaria. Her point work has lost some of its brilliance, and she looked tired towards the end of the shades scene. However, she made up with endearing expressiveness, not just with her body language but through that all-telling sparkle in her eyes.

Amista, Tatiana Tiliguzova and Prisca Zeisel shared duties as Gamzatti. All three were in fine form in the role. Tiliguzova had a natural edge with her deeply-chiseled face and, with a lone performance, plenty of reserves to accomplish energy-draining perfect lines and endless attitudes. On February 18, Zeisel fell off point as she attempted multiple double pirouettes after her fouettés in the Act I grand pas coda, but on the next day, probably as a result of sound advice, she took it easy with fluid, upright singles and received thunderous applause. Generous with her smiles, Zeisel carried grace and inner beauty. As a ballerina, her pirouettes were secure and solid, and her acting apt.

Osiel Goueno, Vladmir Shklyarov and Erik Murzagaliyev shared duties as Solor. Goueno jumped without fear, with exceptionally high cabrioles and silent landings. On different nights, he also managed different finishes in his Act I variation. While his barrel turns were technically marvelous, it was his jetés-saut-en attitude sequence that worked up the crowd. Shklyarov, who already has appeared as Solor in a televised Chabukiani/Zubrovsky staging for Mariinsky, shone with fine bravura technique and stage presence. Overall, Shklyarov was a more complete dancer with fine turns, airy jumps and, crucially, dependable partnership with his ballerina counterparts. His arched-back finish to his variations was simply iconic. The young Murzagaliyev had some good individual moments, but for the most part looked out of place in the presence of other dancers. His lifting and partnering techniques could surely improve. Golden Idol was danced by Jonah Cook and Alexey Popov. Cook finished each run with clinical perfection but lacked fearless ferocity, while Popov started his lone outing strong but lost steam in his final sequence of jumps and chaînés turns.

The epic moment of the ballet, of course, was the Kingdom of the Shades. 24 ballerinas descended the double-raked slope with grace and dignity. Towards the coda, and no matter how tired the ballerinas were, they managed to execute instances of temps levés in sync, as if two dozen of them were robe jumping together in perfect synchronization. Their tendus filed with compulsive precision, while their arm posed with beautiful alignment.

Maria Babanina, as music arranger, reworked some of the interludes at the margins to glue the piece, after cuts and additions, back together. The “oompah” style of Minkus, with no pun intended towards the Bavarians, was left in place here. Curiously, the entire music of Gamzatti’s Act I variation was rewritten, though it did not significantly impact the proceedings or the grace of the moment. The Hong Kong Philharmonic performed well below their desired level. Richard Bamping’s rendition of Nikiya’s cello music was absolutely divine, and single-handedly lifted the musical experience. Unfortunately, the solo violin obbligato lines, there to create morbid melancholy, were murdered alive, in utmost physical brutality in all of the five performances. As the violin struggled to hold on pitch, Solor and Nikiya’s finished their shades pas de deux, no matter how well-danced, without a deserved audience response, as if the audience was reacting also to the music. Michael Schmidtsdorff seemed to have a hard time modulating the orchestra’s pace even as circumstances on stage demanded such. As reasonably good as they are as a concert orchestra, there exists a long way before the Hong Kong Philharmonic could be considered a proficient ballet orchestra.


Kingdom of Shades, La Bayadere in Hong Kong. Credit: Charles Tandy via Hong Kong Arts Festival website.

Chamber music and recital, Opera

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


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.