Opera

NCPA/Chen: La Traviata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Opera

NCPA/Lü: Elixir of Love

Date: June 26, 2010
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Franco Ripa di Meana
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Production imagery, Elixir of Love.

Closing out this year’s NCPA Opera Festival was Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s opera about a poor peasant falling in love with a beautiful landowner.

Brilliantly crafted by stage director Edoardo Sanchi, the set provided a cheery platform on which Donizetti’s comic elements were realized. Dulcamara’s entrance was faithful to the script, as the comic quack was descended in a keg-like wicker basket – figuratively attached to a painted cardboard balloon, and hung spectacularly in mid air via the stage’s fly system. Props and set pieces moved across the stage in parallel to the proscenium front, and often times without masking. But such nakedness allowed the music to flow while allowing the audience to keep abreast of the changing set. This was especially evident in the Act I sequences in which the drama switched between the peasantry public and Adina’s more privileged abode.

Huang Ying, having previously sung Giannetta at the Met opposite Angela Gheorghiu’s Adina, debuted as Adina, the beautiful landowner with which Nemorino the poor peasant fell in love. Her acting was cute but never corny, as many Adina would tend to be. Vocally, the Chinese soprano held beautiful trills, while her tonal voice beamed with an Italianate brightness and mellowness. Her rendition of Prendi, per me sei libero, was simply sublime, for which she received handily the most enthusiastic audience applause of the evening.

Guan Zhijing, whose fine acting made his Dulcamara quite lovable, also delivered plenty of nice, aggressive vocal lines. Belcore was sung by Yang Xiaoyong, whose strong, powerful voice provided much gravity and anchor weight to the evening’s music. Rounding out the supporting cast was Ma Min, whose Giannetta was cute and mischievous, and whose singing was supple, infused with an adorable, quintessentially bel canto beauty.

Nemorino was sung by Fan Jingma, who sounded nervous during his first big number, Quanto è bella, quanto è cara. His delivery was throaty and weak, and didn’t really pick up substance until, perhaps sensing some urgency, Una furtiva lagrima, which was solid but nevertheless uninspiring. After the famous romanza, his voice was set ablaze, as if the burden of that big aria was finally out of the way, and proceeded to show hints of what I believe to be his real forte – a lirico spinto voice that is more suitable for heavier roles in the repertoire.

Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting was a highlight of the evening, especially during Nemorino’s big Act II aria, where a melancholic shade of violet purple provided the background to a white light-lid, art deco moon backdrop. That shade of purple slowly turned into a more lively maroon blue, just as Adina began her confession aria, as if breathing life to Nemorino’s deflated ego.

The biggest trouble of the evening remained in the pit. There were multiple times when Lü Jia had a rough time trying to synchronize what was sung on stage and what was played in the pit. In Che vuol dire codesta suonata, the opera’s main chorus number, the conductor was basically scrambling to put together coherence, which was clearly absent as the orchestra was at least a full beat slower than the chorus. Nevertheless, there were pockets of brilliance, including the bassoon solo during Nemorino’s Act II aria, which handed in a solemn, measured rendition that was as delicious as anything I’ve witnessed for that piece of music. There were some fantastic oboe and flute lines, too, but they were small consolations to what sounded like a train wreck from the pit.

Elixir of Love, final scene.

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Opera

NCPA/Chen: Carmen

Date: May 13, 2010
Conductor: Zuohuang Chen
Director: Francesca Zambello
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello takes bow in the premiere of NCPA's new production of Carmen.

Francesca Zambello’s new Beijing production of Carmen, commissioned by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, was a resounding triumph. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto, based on the eponymous novella by Prosper Mérimée, was realized by Zambello’s international team in all its gripping drama and theatricality. British set designer Peter Davison built an elephantine set that, at each point of its unveiling, triggered collective gasps by an awed audience. Costume designer Susan Willmington and lighting designer Benjamin Pearcy, both Brits, provided plenty of peppery visual stimulus. An ebullient cast obliged, and delivered an enthusiastic and sumptuously pleasurable stage performance.

Davison’s set was sweeping and broad, covering the proscenium’s entire width. When curtain rose for the first act, a street view was revealed with a slight downward slant to the left, as if to highlight the undulating landscape of Moorish Spain. A rectangular well was placed in the middle of the stage, providing an anchor upon which the first act chorus gathered and an excuse for Carmen to wash her legs and breasts and, most assuredly, to flaunt those plump assets. The second act was a mirror image of the first, whereby the first act’s street stage was flipped to reveal its corresponding interior space. A flight of stairs running from the back to the middle of the stage served as the entrance to Lillas Pastia’s inn and Escamillo’s famed entry point. The set for the third act was a revelation: an imposing rocky scene split into two spaces by a torn wall: a dimly lit, cold space where the smugglers gathered with their contraband, and a warmer volume where Micaela initially hid. While Carmen was never about good versus bad, the contrast was obvious, and the comparison apt. The torn wall spectacularly ran the full height of the proscenium, and upon its unveiling at the beginning of the third act, the audience reacted with a series of approving applauses. The fourth act fully utilized the NCPA’s gigantic stage by prominently showcasing a large bull-fight arena piece, with a nearly five-meter, arched passageway serving as Escamillo’s entrance to the ring and exit from stage.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen, was a captivating actor. The eyes of her Carmen were ablaze with lust and mischievousness, while her sexy body movement was suggestive and inviting. The coloration with which she adorned her melodic lines was expressive and, unlike those colorations from many other overconfident Carmens, not so self-important as to appear vain. Her middle voice, while lacking the velvety warmth typical of an engaging Carmen, had plenty of weight and confidence without any audible hint of chest voice. That said, Chavez’s pitch was somewhat suspect: she tended to go sharp whenever there was a high note in forte, and on various occasions she would enter her passage in a slightly misplaced key, especially En vain… amères at the beginning of the third act.

Jean-Luc Chaignaud’s Escamillo was entertaining and dependable. His stage entry in the second act was full of panache, highlighted by his dramatic throwing of his montera across the stage. His vocal entrance, by comparison, was more pedestrian, as he initially had trouble finding a dynamic range that could carry over the orchestra and into the auditorium. That was not his fault alone – the long recession between the top of the staircase, where he entered, and the orchestra was unforgiving and bore some of the blame. As he descended and moved forward, his voice carried through, in a measured display of baritonal confidence. The rest of the supporting cast excelled: Chen Peixin’s Zuniga delivered a bass line that was full and rounded. Niu Shasha and Li Xintong displayed plenty of coloratura skills in the roles of Mercedes and Frasquita: their harmonious duets Mêlons! Coupons! and Quant au douanieraffaire! stood out with plenty of sappy sweetness. Li Hong served up a feisty Lillas Pastia: her acting was charismatic and lively, though her stunning beauty was somewhat a distraction, especially in the scene before Carmen’s initial entrance in the first act, where Li’s Lillas wore the red flower and taunted the soldiers in a prominent, and in my opinion excessive, fashion.

Richard Troxell’s spinto voice was a little on the lighter side but was well polished and ripe. Listed in the programme notes as a lyric tenor, the American’s voice seemed more naturally suited for spinto roles such as Jose. His careful technique allowed him to navigate the more difficult passages with security and ease. His La fleur, in particular, was meticulously crafted and superbly acted. While he momentarily cracked in the bar just before the big aria’s finale, he recovered to deliver a rousing Bb in mezzo-forte, even though he did not manage (or be bothered) to work on the pianissimo. I would love to hear more of him, as Riccardo, perhaps even Manrico and Alvaro if he continues to build more weight to his voice.

Among the singers of the evening, Anne-Catherine Gillet, as Micaela, had the most comfortable command of the vocal instrument. She demonstrated a luxurious yet well-regulated trill, a huge top and an expressive timbre. She was also a capable actor: many of the Micaelas I have seen in the past were so overacted as to border annoying, but Gillet’s Micaela was mellow and lovable, beaming the kind of ravishing affability one typically associates with one’s friendly next door neighbor. Her arias were phrased with passionate individuality, without teetering on self-indulgence. The Belgian, quite naturally, also had the clearest diction amongst the international cast.

The biggest problem of the evening remained in the pit. At times, Zuohuang Chen sounded as if he had tremendous difficulty holding together the NCPA Orchestra, newly-formed just a few months ago. Soloists romped free, creating a horrendously jagged and patchy orchestral output. Even when everything seemed synchronized and balanced, the playing seemed more routine than inspired, and showed none of the sparkle which Bizet infused into the score. The only worthy highlight of the evening was the Toreador song, which was rendered with broad strokes, in a controlled hysteria of festivity and fervor. But a fleeting moment did not an evening make, and the subpar performance was insulting to a largely educated audience whose discontent at the conducting during the curtain calls were scattered but clearly audible, and, in my opinion at least, justified.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Kirstin Chavez, as Carmen.

Note: this is the dialogue version. While the NCPA’s sheer size should really call for the Guiraud version, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the dialogues were transmitted to my balcony seat. Some of the audibility problems had nothing to do with version choice: the beginning of Escamillo’s Act 2 aria was due to design limitation; and for part of the evening, due to an orchestra that loomed too much over the voice.

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