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.

Haochen Zhang recital

Date: December 12, 2015
Location: Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, The University of Hong Kong.

Janáček – From the Street
Schumann – Kreisleriana Op. 16
Beethoven – Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, Les adieux
Scriabin – Poèmes, Op. 69 No. 1 & 2, 32 No. 1
Ginastera – Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 22

ENCORES

Mozart – Rondo alla turca (arr. Volodos)
Brahms – Intermezzo No. 2 in A major

Haochen Zhang (piano)

One would assume that Haochen Zhang, who studied under Gary Graffman at Curtis, would perform with the sort of exuberant showmanship and unrestrained virtuosity that often define the performing style of Graffman’s other two star pupils from China, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. That would have been fine, to be sure, as plenty of people are willing and happy to buy tickets to witness the perfect execution of that performing style. In this winter evening at HKU, Zhang offered a similar stomping execution, and then some. There were moments when Zhang flashed with more superficial thrills than musical sensibility, and there were other moments when tempo was modified more for frivolous excitement than for phrasal cohesion. For the better part of the evening, however, Zhang seemed singularly focused on slowly and tastefully unveiling each composer’s music, with audible evidence where he deferred to each composer’s dynamic and tempo signatures, especially in Kreisleriana and Les adieux. With Kreisleriana, Zhang collated various passages, each depicting a varying personality of Schumann’s subject matter (that would be Hoffmann’s Kreisler), with a kaleidoscopic alteration of texture. In Les adieux, Zhang provided a compelling contrast between the lyrical Abwesenheit and the more sonorous Das Wiedersehen. Whereas Lang and Wang often seem to treat the piano as an interpretive intermediary, Zhang’s approach to the keyboard this evening seemed more symbiotic, as if there is equal significance, and substance, between a willing pianist and a willing instrument. Here, the Steinway & Sons concert grand produced a gorgeous sound, with crisp tones at the upper registers and a steely support at the lower registers. Curiously, the middle sections got muffled up, especially on pedals in the Janáček. One would assume that to be an odd characteristic of the instrument. On more attentive listening, this peculiarity could (possibly?) be explained by Zhang’s tendency to overlap his transiting chords under pedal, which created a momentary whiff of cloudiness which then led to a muffling sensation. This overlap would create an incredible audible effect in dreamy music, but the non-linearity could irritate some. Elsewhere, the Beethoven could have sounded less like Rachmaninoff and more like, let’s say, Beethoven, but overall, Zhang’s meticulous and analytical effort paid off with a desirably practical amount of sincerity and authenticity. In the Ginastera, Zhang curtailed some of that analytical rendition and permeated the air with a more relaxed spontaneity. The choices for his three encores: Rondo alla turca a la Volodos, Brahms’ Intermezzo No. 2 in A major and a short Mozart sonata segment revealed not nearly as much technical notoriety as a strategy and desire to earn a reputation as a pianist with, more than just showmanship and virtuosity, a varied and versatile repertoire.