Das Rheingold (in Concert)

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.

Guillaume Tell

Date: July 6, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

Guillaume Tell: Michael Volle
Arnold Melcthal: Bryan Hymel
Walter Furst: Goran Jurić
Melcthal: Christoph Stephinger
Jemmy: Evgeniya Sotnikova
Gesler: Günther Groissböck
Rodolphe: Kevin Conners
Ruodi: Enea Scala
Leuthold: Christian Rieger
Mathilde: Erika Grimaldi
Hedwige: Jennifer Johnston

Bavarian State Opera
Dan Ettinger, conductor
Antú Romero Nunes, director

Guillaume Tell seems to be enjoying a mini renaissance after years of neglect (outside of Pesaro anyways). New productions have popped up recently in Amsterdam, Liège and Torino, and more new ones will be staged in Cardiff, Graz, Monte Carlo and Covent Garden. Part of it is due to the Florez-led revival of Rossini appreciation, but part of it is simply a matter of time: a tragic overdue.

Florez, as good as he has been in Rossini roles, would have no business in Rossini’s last opera. The major tenor role here, Arnold, belongs to a heavier lyrical voice, delivered in Munich majestically by Bryan Hymel, who is fashioning himself as the go-to person for French grand operas, having recently done Robert in Robert le diable and then Aeneas in Les Troyens. Between his Aeneas in 2012 and now, Hymel’s French diction has improved remarkably. With Asile héréditaire, he brought down the house with incredible breath control, fiery output, and pulsating pacing. More importantly, he delivered not with voix mixte but with a full and punchy voice.

The set, by Antú Romero Nunes, has nearly nothing other than enormous tubular pipes that descend, spin and angle to assemble into shapes, in a stage concept not unlike Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met. For example, in the militarization scene, the pipes would descend and present themselves as though they are gun barrels. In Altdorf, the chapel is depicted with pipes angled at each other, as if presenting themselves as two slanting sides of a chapel roof. Trees in the forest are depicted with plenty of the pipes floating sturdily in midair. The difference here is that, unlike Lepage’s concoction, the pipes are not treacherous walking hazards. Nor are they making crackling noises that inhibit listening. In other words, the pipes are not so obtrusive as to affect the listening experience; it is simply a way, albeit an expensive one, to define a set and make an impression.

As Jemmy, Evgeniya Sotnikova was fine, sweet and persuasive. Michael Volle, in the eponymous role, was fine dramatically but couldn’t muster enough tonal color and lyrical beauty to be a truly great Rossini singer. More problematically, his voice often disappeared in the ensemble. Erika Grimaldi sang with sweet expressiveness in Matilde’s aria Sombre forêt, or rather Selva opaca – she was flown in as a last minute replacement for the indisposed Marina Rebeka and could only sing the opera in Italian (she is currently singing the Hapsburg princess in Graham Vick’s production in Torino). Dan Ettinger was a steady hand and delivered what Rossini promised: dramatic grandeur and joyous bliss. Some overt massaging of the score was done: the overture, instead of being played at the beginning, was moved to after the intermission, before which much of Act III has already been done and up to the shooting of the apple. However, in some perverted ways, this rearrangement worked, as the pulsating Swiss Soldiers March served to provide a cliff-hanger of a drama to the apple shooting scene. It also provided some context to the fascinating composition, which heretofore was relegated as an inconsequential show piece. Traditionalists be damned.

The production turns out to be a dark and cynical take on the idyllic themes of love, family, liberty and country. Act I comes with no dances, as would be expected from this Rossini opera. The showy grandeur and Schiller’s emphasis of nature seem coolly assailed by the listless roboticism of the tubes. Yet somehow the sheer presence of the gigantic tubes defines the scale of the opera without the need for an elaborate set and/or a show-stopping dance scene. Equally, the destructive nature of the tubes serves somehow to highlight an important theme in Schiller’s omen: that of the unpredictable and destructive power of the political man. In that respect, as perverse as it may seem, Nunes and Munich found an interestingly workable formula.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra

Date: February 18, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

The 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival swung to a fantastic start with help by the Cologne musicians and maestro Markus Stenz. The evening was headlined by Sabine Meyer, who mechanized a rather bland Mozart clarinet concerto K.622. Meyer’s performance was not particularly objectionable, but neither was it particularly memorable. After the interval, the 100-strong Cologne wolf-pack filled the stage (by my count, five dozen strings, three dozen winds, six percussions, two harps and two keyboards) to deliver a jaw-dropping rendition of Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Another dozen or so wind players were offstage to perform the short but juicy hunter motif.

While the piece has subtle references to Strauss’ own Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner’s Parsifal, the symphony’s chief driving force is its programme: in twenty-two sections, the piece describes ascent to and descent from the Alpine peak. Along the way are thickets of rich forests, glaciers, brooks, mists and a gigantic storm. Doing homework prior to the concert has its rewards: while some music would seem like cinematic music (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the rest points to intricate details about nature: when woodwinds glide through their arpeggios, one could sense the motion of a virginal spring brook meandering away from the Alpine glacier. When brass starts to pounce, a raving storm is unmistakably at hand. Even without prior knowledge of Strauss’ programmatic focus, much enjoyment could be had by watching the musicians work through passages of glorious music. Watching the percussionist accelerating his arms to ratchet the wind machine, during the symphony’s storm section, was singularly the most dramatic (and wild!) experience one could enjoy inside an enclosed concert hall. Warm brass basked cuddly warmth and a yolky hue onto the meadows of lush strings. Cologne’s overall playing painted a sprawling Alpine dreamscape where movements evolved naturally, not hurried. Equally, Stenz was the consummate leader who unified the sound from over a hundred musicians into coherent scenes with precision and detail.

With the Strauss, nothing was short of superlative. But two encores that followed were a revelation altogether: the Vorspiel to Act III of Lohengrin, followed by a voice-less Walkürenritt in Die Walküre. Both beamed with regal luxury and breathed with furious detail – so much so that no evidence of exhaustion due to one hour of Strauss playing was left to trace. (Then again, a serious opera orchestra like Cologne would have gone through more than one hour (or two!) of intense Wagnerian grind by the time these two Act III gems are played: see my Cologne Ring review here.) Their playing was so fresh and detailed that it would not be entirely inappropriate to call it a master-class of Wagnerian musicianship. The Hong Kong Philharmonic shall take note. It was nevertheless a pity that the Cultural Centre’s main organ, a Rieger Orgelbau, was unused in the Strauss; a smaller and less impressive one on stage was used instead, allegedly because the Rieger could not be tuned appropriately to Cologne’s slightly higher concert pitch.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong, with Markus Stenz. (Copyright: Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra)

Götterdämmerung — first reaction

Date: July 31, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

As I walked down the Green Hill, I heard from numerous people from the audience that this particular performance will likely go down in history as the one that received the longest boos in Bayreuth ever, bar none. The displeasure, mostly aimed at director Frank Castorf, lasted nearly 15 minutes. A lady sitting one row behind me, a septuagenarian who said this was her 20th Ring production, said she has never booed in her previous nineteen but felt compelled to do so this time around.

Here is a truncated list of things that would irritate most Wagnerians: there was no rope in the Norn scene at all, not even anything remotely analogical or symbolic in nature. When the rope broke per the libretto, there was no visual cue whatsoever. Even the Norns seemed unconcerned by its breakage, a most significant turning point in the Norn scene. Hagen spat water a la voodoo witchcraft, in remotely tangential reference to Alberich’s curse. Notung did not even make a stage entrance at all this evening, nor did Grane. The funeral pyre was wimpy for the gigantic set. And amidst all these, save for a few oil barrels, where was the connection to the quest for oil, which seemed such an alluring concept at the beginning of Das Rheingold but became dead in the water towards the end of Götterdämmerung?

Castorf seems to set each evening of the Ring in different situations, each barely related to the other, so much so that any linkage to a prior evening’s event became inevitably broken. For example, Brünnhilde’s rock was three entirely different conceptions in each of the evenings. So was the Rhine. So was Valhalla. In the Ring, because everything is very intricately related to each other via leitmotifs, Castorf’s concept of severing the relationship between the evenings becomes a dangerous proposition in front of a Wagner-manic audience. His signature theatrical devices, including spitting, videos, film references etc., could be visually stimulating, but also distracting in the context of concurrent singing and orchestration. In my view, the best dramatic design Castorf could muster in four days, soon after Hagen’s battle cry, was to have a supernumerary drop a cart of potatoes down a flight of stairs, in tribute to Eisenstein’s revolution scene in Battleship Potemkin. But everybody in Bayreuth already knew that Hagen was about to incite a revolt of sorts, and the Eisenstein reference, while making ridiculous noise on stage and distracting visuals (imagine dozens of potatoes tumbling down a flight of stairs in the middle of the stage), did very little to improve the drama on stage. Castorf was showing off his intellectual knowledge, but for all the wrong reasons.

Singing-wise, Catherine Foster had an outstanding night. She never yelled and had great breath control throughout the evening. More importantly, I think she really embodied the psyche of Götter Brünnhilde — one of dismay, pensiveness, and ultimately determination. Her voice, with a good mix of human frailty but godly security, reminded me of a late-career Gwyneth Jones, who would take calculated but never uncovered risks. Lance Ryan probably still sounded better than most living Siegfrieds, but compared with what I heard in Shanghai in 2010 and again in Münich in 2012, he sounded more aged and tired, especially towards the end, possibly because he barely had any rest between his Siegfried at the Proms and his Bayreuth Siegfried. The rest of the cast was solid, except Attila Jun’s Hagen, whose voice was slightly too lyrical and small for the role. In the end, I don’t think anyone will remember this bicentennial cycle by its singing, except perhaps Botha as Siegmund and Kampe as Sieglinde. The focus, to be forever etched into Bayreuth’s collective memory, would be why a DDR-born director, often lauded for his forward-thinking and uncompromising theatrical concepts, got fifteen minutes of backside whooping, and would likely stand to receive more had the festival staff not turned on the lights inside the Festspielhaus and hurried everyone off it.

Siegfried — first reaction

Date: July 29, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The location is East Berlin, but it bears few linkages, if any, to Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. One of the more important linkages is Brünnhilde’s rock, which physically links the last three operas together. In Die Walküre two days ago, the rock was represented by a video of Brünnhilde resting in a bedroom and a ring of fire not remotely connected to that video — the separation already a questionable choice all by itself. Tonight, Brünnhilde’s rock was a physical log pile underneath the socialist Mount Rushmore. The lack of linkage all but proves with no uncertainty my earlier assumption that each of these operas tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines in parallel to those of Wagner’s Ring.

Unless director Frank Castorf did not bother to do his homework by watching recordings of past productions, he seems intent to let go of a few important dramatic devices typical in previous productions, one of which is Notung’s slashing of something big and significant at the end of the forging scene — “so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!”. Nothing broke at all tonight — in fact, Siegfried did not even attempt to swing or flaunt his newly forged sword at all. In another off-script curiosity, Fafner was killed not by Notung, but by gun fire, whose obscenely loud noise, enabled by what smelled like real gunpowder, not only drowned out the orchestra but also disturbed a few in the audience so much so that one near Door IV Recht had to be assisted out. Some dramatic devices in Act 3 were so absurd that I wasn’t sure if the director was trying to mock the somewhat incestuous relationship between Brünnhilde and Siegfried; or to mock Wagnerians’ typical expectation that the end of the act was supposed to be innocent and beautiful; or, worse, to mock the composer himself.

Vocally, Burkhard Ulrich sang all the notes and acted his part, but fundamentally I don’t think he has the right tonal quality, i.e. an exaggerated, mischievous voice, for the menacing role of Mime. Catherine Foster sounded quite fresh and exhilarating, but I found her at times struggling, at least facially if not also tonally, while attempting Brünnhilde’s top notes. Lance Ryan, who is notoriously known to cakewalk the role of Siegfried without reservation, was uncharacteristically weak in Act 1, sounding quite constricted in vocal output, especially next to Ulrich’s booming voice. But from Act 2 onward Ryan blossomed, and even out-sang Foster on several occasions, both in volume and in their duet’s various self-imposed fermatas.

After the final curtain was down, sustained loud boos ensued: the crowd seemed eager to pass on their unanimous verdict, unified, in part, by the execution of some outrageously dubious dramatic devices at the end of Act 3. After the performance and on my way down the Green Hill, I learned a new word in German from people around me while looking at their fuming faces and listening to their raised speech tone, without asking anyone what it means or consulting a dictionary. The word? Furchtbar.

Die Walküre — first reaction

Date: July 27, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The visuals for Die Walküre were tamer, probably due to the whole story now set in a bleak hinterland in Azerbaijan (according to programme notes). The characters, formerly dressed in colorful all-American gear, are now in drab Caucasus fashion. As fashion changes, the characters also don’t seem to transfer from Das Rheingold to Die Walküre, as if each opera tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines that are parallel to those of the Ring.

In terms of singing, Johan Botha proved to be the star of the evening. Botha’s voice was golden, searing with brightness and clarity. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde seemed to have some difficulty at the beginning, including a botched entrance near “Der Manner Sippe…” and a slight tendency to scream when trying to hit top notes from above (when she ascended from her mid tessitura she sounded just fine). Otherwise, Kampe was fiesty and fiery, both vocally and dramatically. When Siegmund was killed by Hunding, Kampe’s Sieglinde exerted a heart-achingly chilly cry, at roof-shattering decibels, that I believe shocked even the most seasoned Wagnerians. Catherine Foster, as Brünnhilde, was a little bit of a letdown. Foster shrieked her way out of some top notes, but more fatally, didn’t sound like she has inhabited the role. Claudia Mahnke, as Fricka, found much better vocal support and projection tonight than last night — her voice portrayed someone with sensitivity and self-esteem, exactly how I would imagine someone in Fricka’s position to be. Maestro Petrenko started rather slowly, sped up towards the end of Act I, and maintained a steady pace till the end.

Das Rheingold — first reaction

Date: July 26, 2013
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

Frank Castorf’s concept is about the quest for oil, and Valhalla seems to be the profit-at-all-cost American oil corporation. The Gods are essentially Texas oil-riggers and/or those who benefit from the mining of black gold. Nibelheim is not so much a physical place as a metaphorical representation of oil profiteering. I shall withhold judgment regarding the production until the end of the cycle, but suffice to say, the production value (in terms of carpentry and overall craftsmanship) is exquisite. Everything from a road-side grocery store to a small road sign is meticulously made and spot on. In that sense, this production, set along America’s Route 66, is extremely visual, and perhaps a bit too visually stimulating. Some of these visual placements seem erroneous, including a sign that says “Wi-Fi here” when the rest of the set seems to point to an era before the dawn of computing. The use of live camera feeds, projected onto a large billboard-like screen on top of the set, reveals Castorf’s desire to give a different point of view to the Ring experience. As stage actors are filmed and projected onto the screen even though they are not singing or belong to that particular moment in libretto, some of these live camera feeds emanate the feel of reality TV a la Big Brother. The orchestra sounded small but compact, as I would expect from Bayreuth’s sunken pit. Maestro Kirill Petrenko seemed more willing to play with dynamics and speed, especially in the orchestral transitions — in a sense, more Furtwängler than Solti.