HK Phil/van Zweden: Das Rheingold

Date: January 22, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Wotan: Matthias Goerne
Donner: Oleksandr Pushniak
Froh: Charles Reid
Loge: Kim Begley
Fricka: Michelle DeYoung
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Deborah Humble
Alberich: Peter Sidhom
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Kwangchul Youn
Fafner: Stephen Milling
Woglinde: Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde: Aurhelia Varak
Flosshilde: Hermine Haselböck

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

concert performance

In the span of one month two years ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic went from being an orchestra with hardly any significant footprint in the Wagnerian repertory to one with a couple: the orchestra performed Holländer, with Opera Hong Kong, and then The Ring Without Words a few weeks later, with Maazel conducting. Coincidence does not come by easily, and certainly not in the world of art programming. Any avid follower of the HKPO back then could not possibly escape speculating on the prospect of something more dramatic lurking on the horizon. Without fail, the orchestra announced within a year that it would embark on its most ambitious project in its 40+ years of professional existence: Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Granted, over the past few years the HKPO has markedly improved to become a credible orchestral ensemble under music director Jaap van Zweden. Granted, the “HKPO Ring” would be performed over four years – one opera per year. That being said, one ponders whether making baby steps with Wagner’s other early-in-career romantic works would have been a better choice to get the orchestra accustomed to the physical and mental demands of Wagner’s music, or whether the Ring Cycle should be presented at all to a city that is heretofore, sadly, underexposed to and relatively unfamiliar with the composer’s music. But something must start somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Van Zweden built up the E-flat chord of the opening bars with measured subtlety. His dynamics at the outset was so tightly leashed that one wonders whether he was deliberately trying to recreate the restrained sound of an enclosed orchestral pit. As the evening progressed, Van Zweden loosened much of that restraint, yet seemed determined to staying within a well-defined boundary of volume and exuberance. The maestro, attentive and committed to the score, showed no signs of fatigue despite standing on the podium throughout the evening. His timing at just a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes was fairly mainstream, but sounded slightly draggy during the Rhinemaiden scene at the beginning and the rainbow bridge passage towards the end. Except in respect of these varying tempi, he did not draw much attention to himself, deferring mostly to the singers and musicians. Without a culture of operatic playing – let alone Wagner’s – the orchestra by and large responded well and remained vigilant. Remarkably, the cellos unleashed a rapturous firework during Wotan and Loge’s descent into Nibelheim, and the violas displayed unfettered fury in the subsequent ascent. The 60+ strings stayed focused for much of the evening, with energy level ebbing only ever so slightly towards the end: when Donner is about to unleash his power in the billowing thundercloud, the strings did not manage to support with a corresponding rage. The horns, ever important in Wagner, had a “slip up” (pun intended) during the slippery reef scene, but otherwise compromised nothing of consequence. The woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, complemented with exquisite phrasings and a mystical voicing of their lines.

The ideal Wotan in Das Rheingold should sound confident, if not also slightly spiteful. But Matthias Goerne, in his debut as Wotan, was found sounding a little too sentimental and romantic, as if his character has been journeying forever and ready to face demise (Winterreise, anyone?). Perhaps his characterization today is better suited for the Wanderer in two years’ time. While Goerne gave a worthy output infused with a warm and sumptuous glow, his delivery lacked the sort of expansive projection required if he were to sing behind an orchestra in a real opera house, as opposed to in front of one in a concert hall. Peter Sidhom as Alberich sounded corrosive, dramatic, and well-suited for the role. Whether with a clenched fist while trying to catch the Rhinemaidens, or with a stomping foot during the love curse, Sidhom also managed to inhabit the role and, while reacting to the words and scenes, devoured the space with raw delirium. Kwangchul Youn nurtured a fatherly and buttery voice as Fasolt. With a heart-felt rendition of “Freia, die Schöne”, the Wagner veteran induced plenty of sympathy and awe from the audience (even a botched oboe clunker could not derail his triumph). As Froh, Charles Reid delivered his short stanza with a piercing projection and a shimmering metallic ring.

Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka was the evening’s most unfortunate miscast. The mezzo’s voice was full-throated and feisty, but sounded too much like a Sieglinde or a Kundry not to be a distraction. Kim Begley’s Loge had pitch problems as Loge, especially in the critical thematic passage “So weit Leben und Weben” when he sounded more like an old man droning about a minor league ballgame than an intellectual’s pontification of a man’s noble desire for a woman. Begley somewhat redeemed with lively acting and eye contact with the audience. David Cangelosi’s Mime was adequate but a bit too lyrical and not nearly menacing enough. Deborah Humble presented an Erda that was motherly and gracious, yet assured. Unlike the rest of the cast, who sang in front of the orchestra, Humble appeared on cue in the balcony behind the orchestra, dressed in a stunning velvet green gown. The color of her gown, which matched the concert hall’s green velvet upholstery, as well as her understated entrance on cue, said more about Erda the character than many productions today with luxurious sets possibly could.

Given its relative inexperience in the genre, the HKPO delivered well above expectations. Van Zweden was able to hold everything together with a coherent vision. If there were flaws, some musicians sounded rather clinical in their approach – as if they were playing for a Brucknerian perfection of harmonized cadence rather than a solo leitmotif in a dramatic passage. Some musicians looked (not necessarily sounded) towards the end as though they were relieved to be done with the evening than excited about bookending the beginning of the saga, as Wagner intended Das Rheingold to be. There are rumors that HKPO’s newly appointed principal guest conductor, Yu Long, will eventually bring this “HKPO Ring” to Beijing in 2017. Whether that is true or remains a good idea will depend on how well the orchestra improves upon tonight’s performance. The starting point has already arrived. The gold has been taken out of the Rhine. Yet there is still time.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.


Opera HK/Schaefer: Der fliegende Holländer

Date: October 10, 2013
Conductor: Henrik Schaefer
Production: Adolf Dresen (Volker Böhm revival), with Opera Hong Kong
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

One of the most crucial, albeit brief, moments in Holländer is the back and forth between the Steersmen chorus and the ghost chorus, because it represents the tension between the living and the dead. In this Opera Hong Kong revival of Adolf Dresen’s Düsseldorf production, the ghost chorus was presented via taped recording, leaving the Steersmen chorus singing towards an empty upstage. Dramatically it may not be unreasonable – who can claim that ghosts are visible, if existent at all, anyway – but by using a taped recording rather than a live chorus, the Opera Hong Kong producers (meaning Warren Mok, OHK’s honcho) not only neutered one of Wagner’s dramatic arsenals of the dueling choruses but watered down the opera’s central theme: the archetypal struggle between life and death.

Adolf Dresen’s production was simple and traditional – Act I opened with Daland’s ship parked on stage right. As Steersmen left the scene and the lone watcher fell asleep, Dutchman’s ship slowly rolled in from stage left. Redly lit from within the hull through a metal grid deck, the boat was where The Dutchman entered the stage to the tune of his haunting motif. The rest of the opera revolved mostly around these two ships, save for Act II where ladies spun wheels in what seems like a cotton factory. When The Dutchman finally received his salvation, the ghost ship collapsed in a series of folding mechanical action, not unlike a pirate ship mutilating itself in Disneyland’s water fountain showcase. The set was simple, but mostly conducive to the telling of the opera.

Jukka Rasilainen sounded perfectly fine as The Dutchman but was a relative bore on stage. His visage’s lifelessness seemed to translate onto his voice, especially in “Die frist ist um”. As he reminisced about his longing for death (“doch ach! den Tod, ich fand ihn nicht!”), when he should have been delirious, he sounded like a disinterested math professor reciting passages from a combinatorics textbook. Rasilainen’s Dutchman did not sound like someone who has toughened himself through years of wandering at sea. If he was anxiously trying to communicate a yearning for redemption, neither his visage nor his voice revealed much of that. Manuela Uhl’s Senta was ungrateful to life but found its meaning and destiny when her eyes first met The Dutchman. Her portrayal of this longing was entirely believable. Vocally, she was careful, though slightly too risk averse, in her Act II ballad, but threw everything on the table in her suicidal cries in the finale. Tomislav Mužek’s Erik was smooth and metallic. The voice of Carsten Süss’s lone Steersman was squeaky in his Act I aria, but flourished in his brief outputs in Act III. Liang Ning struggled at times to produce adequate output at Mary’s low tessitura, but seemed to relish her time on stage. Kurt Rydl’s Daland was the vocal standout of the evening – he sounded stentorian but alive, and portrayed a father who was more opportunistic than genuinely evil. His Daland was the morbid Dutchman’s living, breathing antithesis. Compared with past performances, the chorus of the Opera Hong Kong gave everything they could and then some, and sounded better than ever. Yet the men could use more support at tenor, while the women could be more in unison, especially in phrases starting with hissing syllables.

Henrik Schaefer was seen trying very hard at times to squeeze more dramatic action out of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, but the orchestra remained timid and tame – more Lucerne than Baltic if you will. The weak link was not Wagner’s brass, as most would imagine, but upper strings and woodwinds, which sounded like they were playing mood music for a Hollywood movie than for Wagner’s musical drama. In the Overture, for example, motifs from the woodwinds (fate, longing for death etc.) were often buried in a lush sea of supporting harmonic structures rather than standing out on their own. Upper strings often felt thin and under-powered – perhaps the orchestra was simply not used to playing in the pits and unnecessarily tuned down their output upon seemingly hearing themselves too much. If this performance served as any guide, the orchestra surely has much to improve before their fateful date with the Savonlinna voices in Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Lohengrin next year.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.