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.


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

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.

Opera, Orchestral music

St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

Chamber music and recital

Joyce DiDonato

Date: May 6, 2015
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Arguably the most anticipated program of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, Drama Queens, is also its last. The program, which has been on tour all over the world for the past few years and featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, offered a vocal compendium of high drama of the royal characters in 17th and 18th century operas. The collection of lesser-known laments/arias is procured from a repertoire that, at least in this part of the world, deserves more play time on the recital circuit.

On purely technical grounds, DiDonato has not demonstrated the sort of demanding breathing technique and ornamentation execution that one would expect from a tried-and-true Baroque expert. For example, in “Intorno all’idol mio”, from Antonio Cesti’s Orontea, DiDonato’s intense vibrato somewhat muffled the precision of Baroque’s ornamentation. Her timbre radiated with a dramatic warmth, but her phrasings and breathing points were often found to be misaligned with the instrumental background, and could not produce the sort of calibrated exactitude that one would expect from this repertoire. Having said that, DiDonato dazzled in every way. Her voice was assertive and captivating, and the emotion let out from her timbre felt authentic and genuine. Her vocal output, and more importantly her facial expressions, exhibited a vivid cinematic wonder of anger, bitterness, bliss, sorrow etc. In Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s “Da torbida procella” from Berenice, DiDonato handled the impossibly fast coloratura passages with stunning effortlessness and a scorching thrill. In each rendition of the da capo passage, she delighted the audience with varying sentimentality and technical brilliance. Her encore of Reinhard Keiser’s “Let Me Weep” was absolutely riveting, when she caressed her pianissimos as though they were her long-lost baby. Throughout the evening, she would throw out high notes with resolute abandon (by rushing air flow through her larynx) to gain maximum dramatic effect, yet with nary a hint of uncontrolled recklessness that often tires or damages even the most well-trained vocal assets.

Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro supported DiDonato’s vocal efforts with aplomb, and proved to be more than just a reliable accompaniment, especially in the fiery, attention-seeking da capo passage in the Orlandini. DiDonato’s outrageous Mohawk hairdo could use more restraint in temperament, while her flaming red gown, specially designed by Vivienne Westwood for her Drama Queens tour, served as much to wow as, regrettably, to remind us of a raging Kansan BBQ-pit flame. But by all accounts, there was much to be savored in a program that, judging from the frenzied audience response before and after the encores, Hong Kong audience deserves more of.

Joyce DiDonato in Hong Kong.

Joyce DiDonato in Hong Kong.

Orchestral music

LA Phil/Dudamel

Date: March 19, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Mahler – Symphony No. 6

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

The young Mahler was known to be a flamboyant, restless man on the rostrum, with exaggerated body swings and a temperament that could infuriate a few. The more mature Mahler as seen this evening mellowed down considerably, with condense and more economical movements. Dudamel’s development seems to follow a similar path: if the rostrum antics of the young Dudamel was once considered too hysterical and riotous, a more mature Dudamel today seems ready to tame himself and be more introspective regarding interpretation.

Aside from the delirium also known as Dudamel’s hairdo, the Venezuelan conductor was spotted this evening with smaller, less aggressive though no less sharp movements. His body, used to swing wildly and violently in an unreviewed Mahler 1 concert more than five years ago, seemed more at ease and at peace with the music. The subtler movement did not necessarily mean his leadership less interpretative: that only seemed to suggest that Dudamel did not feel necessary to use an amplified body language to get his message across, whether to his orchestra or to the audience studying his every move. Dudamel’s Mahler 6 could be combative and violent (Allegro), introspective (Andante), vibrant and lively (Scherzo), and dark and nerve-wrecking (Finale). The hammer blows, executed by a percussionist climbing a flight of stairs to the top of a box the size of a minivan and slashing a hammer onto it, felt brutal and nihilistic. The imagery of a man in polished tails, hammering away at a gigantic wood box in a concert hall was both a visual and a spiritual revelation. Specifically, music could not be dismissed as merely sonic, as if watching an orchestra performing live, within a stone’s throw away, ever was. By the same token, however, a more mature Dudamel should not be seen as lacking vitality — the visual merely became more discriminating, and each movement more profound. The Los Angeles brass painted an acidic, metallic hue, quite American (in the Philadelphia or Cleveland sense) and not quite the same as the warm, golden-hued sound we heard from Staatskapelle Dresden a fortnight ago. The strings were in decent form all night, with a good balance and a clinical execution — perhaps a direct consequence of two decades of Salonen’s institution-transforming directorship. The musicians were like marathon athletes too — able to throw out climax after climax of musical delights throughout the evening, without an inkling of fatigue. The evening’s only major regret was that the Allegro recapitulations were done somewhat as mechanized repeats without much of a change of ideas or even a hint of a desire to change.

The concert occurred just as it was announced across the Pacific that the maestro and his wife of nine years, Eloisa Maturen, were about to divorce each other. Whether the announcement, and surely the personal struggle behind it, could have influenced Dudamel’s conducting and the concert this evening was anybody’s guess. Nevertheless, the maturation of Dudamel, as well as the fine form of the Angelenos, ultimately underwrote a pleasant evening.

Dudamel in Hong Kong.

Dudamel in Hong Kong.