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.

La Boheme

Date: October 18, 2012
Conductor: Daniel Oren
Production: Damiano Michieletto
Location: Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai.

This Boheme production, co-funded by the Salzburg Festival and the Shanghai Grand Theatre (in association with Shanghai Opera House), premiered in Salzburg earlier this summer. One of the production’s performances became international news when Jonas Kaufmann stepped in at the very last minute to replace the voice of an indisposed Piotr Beczala.

Director Damiano Michieletto reframed the 19th century Parisian story in a contemporary form more attuned to the attitudes and lives of young people today: artists who wear blue jeans, leather jackets and work boots, and shoppers who horde shopping carts. In Scene I, the artists’ garret was a bachelor’s pad of living essentials, trash, and little else. The Latin Quarter of Scene II was depicted as giant Lego blocks, a la Carthage in Covent Garden’s Les Troyens, and was surrounded with projections of animated Google maps. In Scene III, a food truck parked along a snow-covered, desolate highway to nowhere, while drunken party merrymakers stumbled across and towards their way home. When Rodolfo cried out Mimi’s name towards the end in what would be the entire production’s most poignant moment, various background screens were projected with images of fogged-up windows, on which a hand spelled out Mimi’s name. As the orchestra played the opera’s final notes, the hand wiped the name away, as if paralleling heroine’s doomed fate. Several in the audience gasped in tones of sadness.

The production was not without issues. The artists’ garret, spanning the entire proscenium of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, lacked communal intimacy that one would expect in the scene. More troubling, however, was that mechanical scene change began even before Scene I ended, as the background props angled sideways to make room for the Lego blocks while the two leads were deep into O soave fanciulla. These stage movements were visually impressive, and perhaps served to show the spatial and temporal transition from the artists’ private space to the public fanfare. However, these movements also stole much limelight away from the all-important interaction between Rodolfo and Mimi, as well as their beautiful music.

With a crisp but pinched voice, Jose Bros, as Rodolfo, sounded more bel canto than verismo at the beginning, though his voice warmed up enough by Scene III to deliver Puccini’s delicious passages with more dynamic vibrancy and emotion. Fiorenza Cedolins sang her Mimi with a comfortable top and robust dynamics, but with so much power that her galactic voice frequently overwhelmed Bros’s. Marco Caria had a solid outing as Marcello, providing vocal heft and emotive security as Rodolfo’s sidekick. Zhang Jianlu (張建魯), sounding slightly coarse and throaty, came across as composed and thoughtful in Colline’s short but dramatically critical soliloquy. Guo Sen (郭森) outshone all her counterparts as Musetta by phrasing her lines diligently and acting with an impassioned gusto. Dramatically, she was properly giddy and playful in Scene II, and sullen but compassionate in the opera’s final scene. Deservedly, Guo received the most fervent applause at the curtain. This performance was also a homecoming of sorts for Guo — before building a successful career in Europe, she studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and was a performer at the Grand Theatre’s grand opening back in 1998. The Shanghai Opera House Symphony Orchestra had moments of brilliance spoiled not only by occasionally unbalanced dynamics in the brass section but also by the overwhelmed lower strings. Daniel Oren’s conducting was akin to dragging an overweight elephant over thick mud, especially in Scene I. Oren also displayed a rough time holding together the tutti passages of Scene II. To his credit, after the intermission and till the end, he managed a brisk pace and fine cohesion.

The October 18 performance in Shanghai marked the official opening of the 14th Shanghai International Arts Festival. As was customary in China, plenty of VIPs showed up and their presence be acknowledged, including the art-loving Hua Jianmin (華建敏), the deputy chief of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and Han Zheng (韓正), Shanghai’s mayor. The opera was preceded by a half-hour, lavish ceremony replete with fancy disco lights, and an a capella group singing bubbly songs of unity and prosperity. The irony could not be more fitting after the opera, when the audience filed back to the subway station nearby and was greeted by dozens of homeless eager to find fleeting warmth and refuge.

Scene 1, La Boheme. Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 2, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 3, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

The homeless, inside the subway station next to the opera house. The similarity between this scene and the last scene of Boheme is profound.

La straniera

Date: July 16, 2012
Conductor: Pietro Rizzo
Production: none; concert performance
Location: Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich.

At this point in her career, Edita Gruberova needed to prove nothing. Yet, at the age of 65, she made her role debut as Alaide in Bellini’s rarely performed La straniera. Gruberova still showed flashes of the brilliance that made her the queen of dramatic coloratura for a good part of last century. Her voice was still acrobatic, her tone was still crystal clear, and her timbre was imbued with the kind of melancholic sadness that made the listener sympathetic to such tenderly Bellini heroine as Alaide. Her diminished vocal resources were audibly evident but well managed. As the evening wore on, her voice warmed up enough to allow her to be more dynamically liberal and therefore, more dramatically liberated. Yet, Gruberova misfired miraculously at the beginning, especially in the Scene VII duet with Jose Bros when she was practically half a semi-tone flat for nearly the entire number. Her pitch problems continued to pop up throughout the evening, though slightly less so after intermission. Her Italian intonation was at times too artificially ornamented, as if, whether consciously or not, to attempt to sound more Italianate. She also tended to scoop at the horizon of a sustained, loud high note, though to her credit she nailed Bellini’s high notes of pianissime just fine. Some of these pitch inadequacies were simply inexcusable, yet there was this aura about her that made us want to believe that her presentation was deliberate, and therefore necessarily carried dramatic implication. In this regard, Gruberova was intense and fiery, even on a concert stage.

The rest of the cast was not comprised of your average run-of-the-mill singers. Jose Bros, as Arturo, sounded brilliant and round. Sonia Ganassi, as Isoletta, sang with passion and full projection. Paolo Gavanelli received a long, genuine applause at the end of Meco tu vieni, o misera, in which he set ablaze the Gasteig with hot-blooded emotion and a stentorian heft. Pietro Rizzo tried to muster all the sound and character from the Münchner Opernorchester and chorus, but the vastness of the Gasteig seemed eager to eat up much of Rizzo’s characterizations. They would have done better at Prince Regent’s Theatre.