Eugene Onegin

Date: March 17, 2014
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Tatiana: Ke Lvwa
Onegin: Yuan Chenye
Lensky: Jin Zhengjian
Olga: Weng Jopei
Triquet: Lu Zhiquan

NCPA Orchestra and chorus
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexei Stepanyuk, director

In its 230-year history, the Mariinsky has never co-produced an opera with an Asian company. Until now.

Opening the 2014 NCPA Opera Festival was NCPA’s co-production with the Mariinsky of Eugene Onegin, which premiered last month at the new Mariinsky. The all-Russian cast at the premiere was here in Beijing to sing at the opening on March 14, while a fine line-up of local singers took over in the alternate evenings. Maestro Valery Gergiev conducted the resident orchestra at the NCPA.

Maestro Gergiev could not have found a better time to be away from his homeland, at a time when Russia was embroiled in its tussle with Ukraine over the Crimean peninsula. The audience in Beijing, with a significant Russian contingent, was protective and rabid in their reception of the maestro, even before a note has been played.

As the curtain drew up, hundreds of sharply colorful balls were littered and stationed perkily across the stage, as if saying that the place where these characters live is abundant with harvested crops and happy returns. A white swing was placed on stage right, where villagers would swing happily back and forth in their spare time, while a white table on stage left was where villagers would savor the fruits of their harvests. In director Alexei Stepanyuk’s vision, Tatiana’s world before Onegin’s rejection was one of simple pleasures, where sky was blue and fruits were plump and round. The costumes, by Irina Cherednikova, presented a civilized community where happiness was reflected in dress colors and plenty was the norm. Set designer Alexander Orlov seemed consciously ready to paint his props to reflect not just the lifestyles of his characters but, as the drama moves on, also the slippery slope of Onegin’s psyche that Pushkin so wished to project. The colorful garden scene soon gave way to Larina’s country house, with a more subdued, sandy white shade, and then to Gremin’s palace which was painted mostly in a rich but almost lifeless marble black. In the final scene, Onegin and Tatiana were standing in front of a black curtain, as if foretelling that there was nothing left between the two characters. When Onegin finally saw his fate, the curtain drew up, revealing an empty and dark stage with just enough light to illuminate fading puffs of smoke. In parallel was Onegin’s faded prospects and ultimate demise. This mechanism was a stroke of directorial genius, as if Stepanyuk was saying that the curtain of the eponymous character’s fate was finally revealed – one of nothingness. The rest of the curtain work was noteworthy: by drawing two curtains from either side at different speeds, and one curtain dropping behind them from atop, Stepanyuk was able to frame, like a camera shutter, the focus of each scene’s beginnings and endings, as if to intensify and focus on particulars of the drama. Especially poignant was the drawing down of the curtain at the end of Act II: when the orchestra scurried to a close, the curtains zoomed in on a hapless Onegin kneeling on stage left, intensifying Onegin’s singular moment of loneliness and guilt.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s production was not without flaws: it was not entirely obvious at which point Lensky turned from mild jealousy to intense rage, as it, together with Onegin’s flirtations with Olga, seemed to have happened in a split second. That hastiness seemed to rob the audience of quite possibly the most important dramatic turn in the opera. By utilizing those framing black curtains, the rest of the stage had to be set slightly upstage (about 10 meters from the pit), meaning that some of the singing was a little too far back and not ideal, especially in the vastness of the NCPA.

Jin Zhengjian, as Lensky, did not start well. In his duet with Weng Jopei’s Olga, his upper-middle registers struggled with noticeable breaks, and did not have enough vocal power to counteract Weng’s voice, which was not big to begin with. A slow start did not, however, ruin a fine end, as plenty was left in his vocal tank for his all-important Act II aria, which he rendered admirably. As a stage actor, Jin was dutiful but lacked some necessary fire to make him stand out as a dramatic lead. Yuan Chenye’s Onegin had no such stage presence issues, and his silky smooth timbre caressed Tchaikovsky’s phrases elegantly. He did find breathing problems in Onegin’s treacherous long phrases after Tatiana finally rejected him, leaving audible but forgivable gaping holes in his output. Relative newcomer Ke Lvwa, as Tatiana, had the moment of her life. Her portrayal was sincere without looking acted, occupied without looking self-indulgent. Her voice bloomed with a supple sweetness and her top was warm and secure. In the letter scene, her Tatiana was at different times giddy, hopeful, annoyed, and flushed with youthful love. Based on this performance alone, Ke should be on her way to international stardom. The Russian words from most of the singers sounded a little too artificially chewed, but that was to be expected from the all-Chinese cast. Lu Zhiquan, as Triquet, devastated his lines with questionable French diction not unlike Martin Yen mindlessly chopping vegetables, but as a stage actor Lu was loyally entertaining.

Maestro did magic with the orchestra, which, though not Mariinsky golden, sounded as good as ever. Gergiev’s phrasing of the Tchaikovsky score was mellow and smooth, like Fred Astaire skating on dance floor. The brass section, especially the horns, sounded obedient and delicate. In both the letter scene and Lensky’s aria, the oboe’s line floated with an inspired lyricism and tonal beauty. While no fire has been fired (so far) on the other side of the world in Crimea, I think Gergiev should unleash more musical fire from the upper strings, but overall the evening was a pleasurable one.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act I, Scene 1. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act II, Scene 2. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk's Onegin, in Beijing. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

Alexei Stepanyuk’s Onegin: Act III, Scene 1. Photo copyright: Mariinsky Theatre.

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The Barber of Seville

Date: July 18, 2013
Conductor: Pier Giorgio Morandi
Production: Pier Francesco Maestrini
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Beijing Opera Festival continues with Barber, Rossini’s opera buffa that has graced opera houses for more than a century. Director Pier Francesco Maestrini offers a cartoonish vision of 17th century Seville fixated with organic modernism. Set designer Zhang Wu obliges, and creates something akin to a microcosm of Gaudi’s artistry. Buildings would bend and curl irrespective of perspective, as if viewing a version of Seville through an ambiguously curved mirror. Actors would inhabit the stage with outrageous postures and outsized movements as though Maestrini was to purposely redefine the perspectives between physical structures and those who live in them, a la Gaudi. Figaro was sung by Liao Changyong, an established baritone in Greater China who nevertheless found limited fame elsewhere. His voice was dependable and carried heft, but lacked an embellishing charisma that one would typically assign to Figaro. Take his all-important cavatina at his stage entrance: he sang almost every note without fault, delivered all the requisite dynamics, but seemed to languish dramatically, whether physically on stage or tonally as a voice. When the great Tito Gobbi attacked the same aria, he delivered with a fiery confidence and a kind of innocent humanity that seemed lacking in Liao’s roboticism and seeming indifference. In comparison, Geraldine Chauvet’s Rosina was more serviceable and more “human” as a Rossini voice. Antonino Siragusa was not my favorite bel canto singer, and he proved it here in Beijing with an uncharacteristic voice and a murky coloratura. All problems amplified when he attacked Almaviva’s final (optional) aria, “Cessa di più resistere”, which JDF revived to astounding success a few years ago and capable tenors tried to follow but rarely came close. This evening, Siragusa sounded hopelessly strained, with too much nasal congestion and not enough clarity in phrasing. In the technically impossible phrases in allegro, Siragusa was barely catching up to the music of the orchestra. To Siragusa’s credit, he provided slightly more visual drama than JDF’s “park and bark” by providing some authentic twist moves. Chen Peixin’s Basilio swamped the stage with clarity and stentorian heft, and proved catalytically comedic. And then there was Bruno Praticò. Praticò was supposed to appear in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, but had to bail out at the last minute, due to an alleged hip injury. The premier basso buffo of our age, with his deliberately Donald-Ducky walking posture, invoked laughter as the Doctor merely by walking across the stage. Perhaps due to age, his upper registers languished without bel canto’s requisite clarity, but his middle registers beamed with a punching firepower in forte and a careful embrace in piano. He even memorized a few Chinese words in his recitative, to the delirium of the capacity audience, some of whom couldn’t help but stood in a jaw-dropping awe as he counted, slowly but surely, and in Mandarin Chinese, the pieces of paper left by Rosina after she wrote that fateful letter to the Count. Barber rarely fails to invoke a jolly good mood, and this performance overall bears no exception.

Pier Francesco Maestrini's Barber in Beijing

Pier Francesco Maestrini’s Barber in Beijing.

Nabucco

Date: May 22, 2013
Conductor: Eugene Kohn
Production: Gilbert Deflo
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Nabucco is widely accepted as the work that Verdi finally matured to his own. When Verdi composed it, it was not long after his wife Margherita died of encephalitis. An angle of redemption is thus widely interpreted to exist in Nabucco – one of spiritual renewal and enlightenment. When tenor Placido Domingo attempted the baritone title role as a septuagenarian, could he be invoking a similar angle of redemption too?

As a tenor during his prime, Domingo has excelled and been widely acclaimed in roles that require shades of baritonal qualities, such as Lohengrin and Siegmund. Domingo’s slightly baritonal timbre afforded him to excel in those roles, but also led to critics to suggest that he was never a tenor to begin with, especially, albeit perhaps unfairly, when the tenor began to transpose down in the twilight of his tenor career. As a baritone, Domingo’s top notes effuse the sort of fluidic, airy ring that differentiates a tenor from a baritone. In the middle registers, where Domingo sounds best, his voice nurses a timbre that is both velvety and coarse (in a controlled kind of way). As Nabucco, which turns out to be Domingo’s first stage performance in China in nearly thirty years (that did not include a private concert performance of Simon Boccanegra in Beijing a couple of years ago), his finest dramatic moment was at the end of Act II, when he started to look and act with an exacting, almost haunting, confusion. In “Dio”, Domingo sounded caringly paternal, while Leo Nucci sounded, in comparison, though not in any disparaging way, somewhat dismissively possessive. The major difference was effectively one of interpretation, not necessarily one of vocal output. Any suggestion that Domingo was singing baritone roles so that he could redeem towards his true self seems rubbish. In my opinion, Domingo simply feels that he was ready to interpret these baritonal roles dramatically, and has both the support of his tessitura (though not necessarily the perfect timbre and delivery) and house directors. Surely, why not?

The role of Abigaille has confounded many singers in the past. Sun Xiuwei (孙秀苇) portrayed a daughter whose fury was eventually usurped by an un-containable guilt. When she was furious, Sun’s facial expression was monstrous. In her final scene before her ultimate downfall, she looked spent but seemed ready to accept her fate. Vocally, Sun’s liberal mannerism could be irritating, but that was the least of her problems. Sun had pitch problems for much of the night, especially in the upper registers where she tended to flat going into most of her top notes. In Abigaille’s treacherous lower registers, her voice was practically chewed up by the vastness of the NCPA. A better actor than singer, at least in this evening, Sun was markedly better in her Act I focal point – the more dramatically expressive cavatina – than in the subsequent, the more technical, cabaletta.

Li Xiaoliang (李晓良) towered as Zaccaria with a stentorian bass, and provided some of the finest singing of the evening. In his Act I cabaletta, he lit up the stage while encouraging the Jews to rebel against the invasion. In the supplementary roles, Jin Zhengjian (金郑建) was dutiful and dramatically effective as Ismaele, especially at the end of Act 1 when he blossomed with anger and dismay while being wrongfully accused. Yang Guang (杨光) gushed with melancholic sadness as Fenena.

The production was not particularly impressive but serviceable with occasional interesting moments, including when Nabucco orders the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, whereupon a slow-motion projection depicting temple bricks falling down on the upstage scrim was powerfully effective. Kohn was a little dragging at the beginning but picked up pace in Act III. The orchestra was thin in the strings and suffered some mistakes in the brass, during much of Act III, as well as in Fenena’s Act IV numbers.

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing

Placido Domingo, as Nabucco in Beijing.

Marco Polo

Date: September 21, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Choreography by Chen Weiya

Marco Polo, a dance drama, is a cooperation between the NCPA and China Oriental Performing Arts Group, one of the premier commercial art enterprises in China.

Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, visited China during which Kublai Khan ruled. The dance drama, expanding upon this episode, is structured as a love story between the Venetian merchant and Khan’s daughter. As the two falls in love, Marco Polo is also awed by the great inventions and virtues of Chinese society. The story ends when Khan decides to give away his daughter in a diplomatic marriage to maintain peace.

Choreographer and director Chen Weiya (陈维亚) has said that Marco Polo is not an attempt to completely retrace the story of Marco Polo the merchant, but an attempt to find and express “the surprise, cheer and passion of a westerner when he discovers oriental culture.”  In that respect, Chen’s work is a triumph: the production presents the cultural and technological advances of the Chinese, basking the entire civilization in a courageous, advanced light. In the second Act, dancers acted as Chinese printers and showed Marco Polo how the printing press worked. Two dancers acting as a Chinese medicinal master and an acupuncture model engaged in an impressive pas de deux-like sequence where the master would flip, roll, wrap the model into different positions and showed the traveler how the positioning of the needle affected nerves and muscles. In another ensemble sequence, half a dozen consumers in a noodle shop moved in unison, excited by the mastery display of a master chef pulling and twisting noodle dough in an expertly acrobatic display. Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo, and Yin Shuo (殷硕), as Khan’s daughter, had numerous jaw-droppingly impressive duets, including one in the penultimate scene when she was about to leave him. In that scene, his display of enormous physical strength, tempered by his haplessness in her impending departure, provided a succulent counterpoint to her portrayal of an outward frailty but an inward strength — that strength coming from knowing that her sacrifice would spare the life of thousands of her subjects.

Zhang Qianyi (张千一) composed the score, with crisp rhythms and smooth junctures that bridge one scene to the next. Some musical themes evoked memories of Elmer Bernstein and Virgil Thomson, especially in those scenes where Marco Polo was shown traveling great distances to the east. The third Act, which revealed the state of war and the emotional turmoil generated by the impending diplomatic marriage, referenced some thematic and militaristic elements in Shostakovich’s Fifth and Eleventh symphonies. Set designer Gao Guangjian (高广健) provided an overly splendid display that highlighted the figurative rather than literal realities of Kublai Khan’s dynastic glory. Lighting designer Vladimir Lukasevich was a master painter of light, shading Gao’s set with superbly effective emotional colorings.

Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo.

Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo.

Dancers in Kublai Khan's palace.

Dancers in Kublai Khan’s palace.

Yin Shuo, as Kublai Khan's daughter.

Yin Shuo, as Kublai Khan’s daughter.

Rigoletto

Date: August 28, 2011
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Stefano Vizioli
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Rigoletto returns to the NCPA after two consecutive years of monstrous box office. Desiree Rancatore and Leo Nucci flew in for two of this year’s four performances, but the TFS, having heard the duo thrice in the past two years, opted for one of the other two performances with an all-Chinese cast.

Yuan Chenye (袁晨野) delivered a vocally masterful performance as Rigoletto. His stentorian voice easily carried over the Lü Jia-directed NCPA Orchestra. Yuan’s timbre was somewhat monotone, but was saved by the size of his voice and his passionate stage presence. Xue Haoyin (薛皓垠), as the Duke, had an Italianate voice, combining rich colorings of uttered syllables with a bright, crisp sound. His acting denied him a flawless outing, as he did not seem comfortable singing and acting at the same time. His beautiful, seductive lines in Bella figlia found very little in common with his stiffened body on stage, making the audience wonder whether Maddalena was merely seducing a singing but otherwise lifeless Roman sculpture. Yao Hong (幺红) had a questionable evening as Gilda. Her voice lacked control, as evidenced by various overparted top notes in Caro nome and then in Si, vendetta! She also looked visibly strained as she navigated those higher registers. Nonetheless she attempted the optional E-flat at the end of the third Act quartet, to the bewilderment of some audience members. Song Wei (宋委), with her candied visage and foxy body, had all the visual qualities of a seductive Maddalena, but her intonation proved average and the size of her voice remained so small that she and not Yao was the weakest link in that quartet.

Stefan Vinke as Lohengrin in Beijing

A reader has alerted me to the bio page of Stefan Vinke at Bayreuth’s website. According to the page, Vinke is scheduled to sing the title role in Lohengrin, in a brand-new NCPA production in Beijing which I noted on this site earlier. Having heard Vinke as Tristan in Hong Kong earlier this year, I’m confident the new Beijing Lohengrin will be in good hands.

Vinke’s bio page at Bayreuth’s website: http://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de/fsdb_en/personen/14734/index.htm

I Sing Beijing

I Sing Beijing” is a program run by the Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts and funded by the well-connected Confucius Institute. The program enables foreigners to take a one-month intensive music and language immersion class in Beijing, followed by a performance at one of Beijing’s premier performing halls. This year, the graduating performance will be held at the NCPA, on August 18. I look forward to hearing the fruits of this wonderful program!

The 2011 participants aren’t exactly novices in singing. In fact, there’s one Adler fellow, a couple of winners at recent regional Met National Council auditions, and plenty others who have done duties at various reputable houses around the world. Here is the inaugural list of invitees:

Maria Antunez, Soprano
Hometown: Charleston, South Carolina
Training: College of Charleston School of Arts.

Katie Bolding, Soprano
Hometown: Arcadia, Oklahoma
Training: State University of New York at Purchase; Taos Opera Institute; Aub Vocal Institute; Opera Festival di Roma.

Melisa Bonetti, Mezzo
Hometown: Corona, New York
Training: Aaron Copland School of Music.

Nicholas Brownlee, Bass-Baritone
Hometown: Mobile, Alabama
Training: University of South Alabama; Mobile Opera Developing Artists..

Sheila Carroll, Soprano
Hometown: Lock Haven, Pennsylvania
Training: Manhattan School of Music; Westminster Choir College; Université Paris Sorbonne (summer)

Evgenia Chaverdova, Mezzo
Hometown: San Francisco, California
Training: San Francisco Conservatory of Music; San Francisco Opera Theater; De Nederlandse Opera Studio Young Artist Program; Joan Dornemann’s International Vocal Arts Institute; Daniel Ferro Vocal Program.

Prenicia Clifton, Soprano
Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri
Training: University of Wisconsin at Madison; University of Missouri at Kansas City.

Giuseppe Distefano, Tenor
Hometown: Paterno, Catania, Italy
Training: Conservatory “Francesco Cilea”, Reggio Calabria, Italy; Institute “Vincenzo Bellini”, Catania; lessons with tenor Nicola Martinucci.

Ge Han (葛涵), Soprano
Hometown: Changsha, Hunan Province, China
Training: Shanghai Conservatory; Sichuan Conservatory; Zhou Xiaoyan International Opera Center.

Thomas Glen, Tenor
Hometown: San Francisco, California
Training: Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera; Brigham Young University; University of Michigan.

Valdis Jansons, Baritone
Hometown: Riga, Latvia
Training: Conservatory of Parma, Italy; Accademia Rossiniana, Pesaro, Italy; Accademia Pucciniana, Torre del Lago, Italy.

Max Souza Jota de Queiroz, Tenor
Hometown: Recife, Brazil
Training: Universita Federale della Paraiba, Brazil; Scuola dell’Opera Italiana, Bologna, Italy.

Kurt Sanchez Kanazawa, Baritone
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Training: Columbia University; Columbia Music Performance Program; Chautauqua Institute; CCM Opera Lucca, Italy.

Gabriele Mangione, Tenor
Hometown: Soleto, Province of Lecce, Italy
Training: Conservatory of Perugia, Italy; Master classes with Francisco Araiza and Luciano Pavarotti.

Maria McDaniel, Mezzo
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Training: Millikin University; Georgia State University; Chautauqua Opera; Harrower Summer Opera; La Musica Lirica, Urbania, Italy.

Emma McNairy, Soprano
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Training: San Francisco Conservatory of Music; Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute; Opera in the Ozarks; Austrian-American Mozart Academy; The Bel Canto Institute, Florence, Italy.

Julia Metzler, Soprano
Hometown: Glendale, California
Training: San Francisco Conservatory of Music; San Francisco Choral Society; Aspen Music Festival; Idyllwild Arts Summer Festival.

Octavio Moreno, Baritone
Hometown: Hermosillo, Mexico
Training: Houston Grand Opera Studio; Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia; Universidad de Sonora.

Evis Mula, Soprano
Hometown: Tirana, Albania
Training: Academy of Teatro alla Scala, Milan; Academy of Fine Arts, Tirana.

Juliet Petrus, Soprano
Hometown: Farmington, Michigan
Training: University of Michigan; Northwestern University; Glimmerglass Opera American Young Artist Program; Opera Carolina; Sarasota Opera.

Brian Wahlstrom, Baritone
Hometown: San Diego, California
Training: University of California San Diego; Manhattan School of Music.

Wang Chuanyue (王传越), Tenor
Hometown: Kiamusze, China
Training: Central Conservatory; Okazaki International Voice Master Class; Brasov Opera House Training Program, Romania.

Yunpeng Wang (王云鹏), Baritone
Hometown: Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China
Training: Central Conservatory.

Yang Xi (杨皙), Mezzo
Hometown: Fushun, Liaoning Province, China
Training: Central Conservatory.

Yu Guanqun (于冠群), Soprano
Hometown: Yantai, Shangdong Province, China
Training: Shanghai Conservatory, Scuola dell’Opera Italiana di Bologna, Italy.

Zhao Ming (赵明), Bass
Hometown: Kaifeng, Henan Province, China
Training: Central Conservatory; China Conservatory.

Sources: China.org.cn, I Sing Beijing.