Pop, jazz and rap

Karen Mok @ JZ Festival

Date: October 20, 2012
Location: Shanghai Expo Park, Shanghai.

Against the backdrop of the Bund, the JZ Festival Shanghai offers two days of non-stop music making on eight stages in the former Shanghai Expo site. Jazz musicians from all around the world, including international names such as trumpeter Roy Hargrove and local jazz jewels like Golden Buddha (金佛), participate in this jazzy love affair. The lineup also features an unlikely participant – Karen Mok – a pop singer from Hong Kong better known in the Chinese-speaking world for her long legs and outrageous, Gaga-like wardrobe than a jazzy voice. On JZ’s stage, her stage mannerism was clearly more pop diva than Ella Fitzgerald – at one point while singing she ripped off her rock star-esque leather jacket to reveal a tight, glittery tube dress that juicily flaunted her bodily goods. As she rollicked and frolicked on stage, and as she maintained sustained arousing contact with Xia Jia (夏佳)’s grand piano, Mok would easily be mistaken as Roger’s very badly behaving Jessica. Her timbre was serviceable, but exhibited neither a smoky, sultry texture nor a unique register that typically defines each jazz singer. In the few instances where she attempted at scat singing, the melodic train would come out sounding rehearsed and emotionally flat. As an artist, she excelled by being extremely engaging and communicating – with her killer seductive gaze handily roping in her audience. Her rendition of A Fine Romance was playful and rhapsodic, while a jazzified version of Cloudy Day, one of her top pop hits, oozed with melancholic solitude. Her supporting musicians: Lawrence Ku on guitar, Bei Bei on drums, and Xia on keyboards, were top-line folks in the China jazz scene who dutifully provided accompaniment, albeit arguably underutilized. This evening would mark Mok’s first live jazz performance in her storied pop career, and while on stage she announced, to approving delight of the fans, that her latest recording project would be an English jazz album to be released in January 2013. Her fans should take note.


Shanghai/Oren: La Boheme

Date: October 18, 2012
Conductor: Daniel Oren
Production: Damiano Michieletto
Location: Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai.

This Boheme production, co-funded by the Salzburg Festival and the Shanghai Grand Theatre (in association with Shanghai Opera House), premiered in Salzburg earlier this summer. One of the production’s performances became international news when Jonas Kaufmann stepped in at the very last minute to replace the voice of an indisposed Piotr Beczala.

Director Damiano Michieletto reframed the 19th century Parisian story in a contemporary form more attuned to the attitudes and lives of young people today: artists who wear blue jeans, leather jackets and work boots, and shoppers who horde shopping carts. In Scene I, the artists’ garret was a bachelor’s pad of living essentials, trash, and little else. The Latin Quarter of Scene II was depicted as giant Lego blocks, a la Carthage in Covent Garden’s Les Troyens, and was surrounded with projections of animated Google maps. In Scene III, a food truck parked along a snow-covered, desolate highway to nowhere, while drunken party merrymakers stumbled across and towards their way home. When Rodolfo cried out Mimi’s name towards the end in what would be the entire production’s most poignant moment, various background screens were projected with images of fogged-up windows, on which a hand spelled out Mimi’s name. As the orchestra played the opera’s final notes, the hand wiped the name away, as if paralleling heroine’s doomed fate. Several in the audience gasped in tones of sadness.

The production was not without issues. The artists’ garret, spanning the entire proscenium of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, lacked communal intimacy that one would expect in the scene. More troubling, however, was that mechanical scene change began even before Scene I ended, as the background props angled sideways to make room for the Lego blocks while the two leads were deep into O soave fanciulla. These stage movements were visually impressive, and perhaps served to show the spatial and temporal transition from the artists’ private space to the public fanfare. However, these movements also stole much limelight away from the all-important interaction between Rodolfo and Mimi, as well as their beautiful music.

With a crisp but pinched voice, Jose Bros, as Rodolfo, sounded more bel canto than verismo at the beginning, though his voice warmed up enough by Scene III to deliver Puccini’s delicious passages with more dynamic vibrancy and emotion. Fiorenza Cedolins sang her Mimi with a comfortable top and robust dynamics, but with so much power that her galactic voice frequently overwhelmed Bros’s. Marco Caria had a solid outing as Marcello, providing vocal heft and emotive security as Rodolfo’s sidekick. Zhang Jianlu (張建魯), sounding slightly coarse and throaty, came across as composed and thoughtful in Colline’s short but dramatically critical soliloquy. Guo Sen (郭森) outshone all her counterparts as Musetta by phrasing her lines diligently and acting with an impassioned gusto. Dramatically, she was properly giddy and playful in Scene II, and sullen but compassionate in the opera’s final scene. Deservedly, Guo received the most fervent applause at the curtain. This performance was also a homecoming of sorts for Guo — before building a successful career in Europe, she studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and was a performer at the Grand Theatre’s grand opening back in 1998. The Shanghai Opera House Symphony Orchestra had moments of brilliance spoiled not only by occasionally unbalanced dynamics in the brass section but also by the overwhelmed lower strings. Daniel Oren’s conducting was akin to dragging an overweight elephant over thick mud, especially in Scene I. Oren also displayed a rough time holding together the tutti passages of Scene II. To his credit, after the intermission and till the end, he managed a brisk pace and fine cohesion.

The October 18 performance in Shanghai marked the official opening of the 14th Shanghai International Arts Festival. As was customary in China, plenty of VIPs showed up and their presence be acknowledged, including the art-loving Hua Jianmin (華建敏), the deputy chief of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and Han Zheng (韓正), Shanghai’s mayor. The opera was preceded by a half-hour, lavish ceremony replete with fancy disco lights, and an a capella group singing bubbly songs of unity and prosperity. The irony could not be more fitting after the opera, when the audience filed back to the subway station nearby and was greeted by dozens of homeless eager to find fleeting warmth and refuge.

Scene 1, La Boheme. Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 2, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

Scene 3, La Boheme.  Photo originally from Salzburg.

The homeless, inside the subway station next to the opera house. The similarity between this scene and the last scene of Boheme is profound.


Cologne/Stenz: Wagner’s Ring in Shanghai

Date: September 16 – 19, 2010 (first of two Cycles)
Conductor: Markus Stenz
Production: Robert Carsen
Location: Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle looms over the city of Shanghai for the first time, thanks to the German government who brought Wagner’s music to Shanghai as part of its contribution to the Shanghai Expo 2010. Often labeled the “Green Ring”, this decade-old Robert Carsen production lends itself to a parable of the perils of untamed industrialization. The production, executed by the Cologne Opera, therefore also fits the “Better City, Better Life” motif of the Expo, which highlights the importance of sustainable economic development amidst our continued quest for rapid modernization.

The premise of the “Green Ring” rests upon the idea that the irresponsible mining of this precious natural resource sets in motion an inevitable tragedy as civilization becomes consummated by the excessive abuses of its agents, just as Alberich’s robbery in the Rhine triggers the series of events that lead to the fall of the status quo. In Carsen’s eco-minded vision, the irreversible purgatory wasteland, as revealed in the Norn scene, marks the predestined conclusion to an era where the illusion of free choices turns out to be excesses that destiny will eventually rein in, just as Wotan’s seemingly free choices are, after all, limited by the laws governing his conscience and the Gods. The freedom to industrialize, to contract and to rise at the expense of others has its consequences. And the singular consequence in Carsen’s allegory remains that profligacy, no matter what form, will eventually meet its due. While Carsen does not show any inkling of an alternative, his execution reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s argument that the Ring is essentially a socialist’s critique of industrial society’s excesses and travails.

Musically, Markus Stenz managed a tight reading of Wagner’s score. Unlike Karajan’s Ring or Knappertsbusch’s Ring or Boulez’s Ring, this Ring did not follow 20th century’s personality-filled declension of Wagner’s work. Nor did Stenz seem to be the kind of conductor who tries to insert his own nuances and mannerisms into the music. Rather, he proved to be a faithful pace-keeper, exercising plenty of control and keeping Wagner’s wheel rolling without calling unnecessary attention to himself. The orchestra was well balanced and didn’t sound strained, despite having to perform, with no obvious change in its main lineup, over four straight evenings. Not forgotten but most certainly forgiven, the only major blemish in those four evenings was a glaring mistake with Siegfried’s leitmotif, as the hero entered the Gibichung palace, which sounded horrifically misplaced, both contextually and texturally, and suggested nothing to anticipate Siegfried’s entrance.

Greer Grimsley presented a Wotan who was tortured as fate unfolded around him. In Das Rheingold, the American bass-baritone unleashed a roaring lord of the Gods, with a fantastic and secure top. His lower registers proved more problematic as he was unable to project elegant lines without sounding feeble and un-godly. He recovered mostly in the second and third evenings and, in particular, delivered one of the most memorable and fatherly mountaintop executions heard in years. As Loge, Carten Suess was badly cast as he possessed a pretty, almost boyish lirico spinto sound that lacked the heroic juice expected of the powerful demigod of fire. Martin Koch’s Mime was badly cast for exactly the opposite reason: Koch’s voice was too heroic and had too much of a projection, sounded like Hagen, and left one wondering what went so wrong in the casting department. Catherine Foster’s Brunnhilde was fabulous, even though the top C in her battle cry scene was rendered with too much of a staccato, a manner that seemed a bit artificial and almost too disconnected.

Lance Ryan, the reigning Siegfried at Tankred Dorst’s production at Bayreuth, sang a fabulously courageous Siegmund. He began the spring duet with aplomb and composure, and contributed much sappiness before Astrid Weber’s Sieglinde joined the melodic party. After taking a day off, Ryan returned as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. He did not disappoint by navigating the technically impossible third act with plenty of gusto and with apparently zero effort. To top the night off, he lengthened the top note in “Hoihe”, with Stenz happily indulging his tenor for the extension. The showmanship could be repelling to some, but it’s difficult to argue against listening to a supremely confident Siegfried who can carry his voice into the far corners of the house.

If Grimsley’s voice was moribund but serviceable, Stig Andersen’s certainly was not. To be sure, Andersen’s voice was a refined one, and plenty of evidence could be found showing a methodical meticulousness in his phrasing and breath control. Unfortunately, that refinement seemed pointless as Andersen’s voice, perhaps due to age, was drowned out by the weight of the pit sound. In Siegfried, he labored through in the eponymous role with some visible strain. When Andersen seemed comfortable enough, he lacked any blood-boiling thrill. In the last scene, his voice was, understandably so, severely frayed after four hours of competitive singing, but was so drowned out by Foster’s fresh Brunnhilde that the soprano sounded as if she consciously tried to gear down for a less disturbing dynamic imbalance. Scatters of boos were directed at Andersen at the curtain calls, though they were largely overwhelmed by a warm response that seemed as much to laud Andersen’s performance as to devastate the unnecessary negativity, as if to prove the point that no Siegfried who could labor through four-plus hours of heldenlabor should be maliciously trashed.

By my book, there is no such thing as a bad Ring, and this one is no exception. A truly excellent Ring, at least to me, encompasses great musical execution, spectacular pyrotechnics (of which there was plenty), and a stage that, as James Levine has said many a time, lets Wagner’s story tell itself. Carsen’s green allegory could sometimes be distracting, but it neither impedes the music nor the singers who attempt it. By those counts, this Ring is a most excellent one.

Ring in Shanghai.

Wagner's Ring in Shanghai.