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Posts Tagged ‘Tokyo New National Theatre’

The problem of staging decadence is that the audience has to understand that there have been upper standards at some point. When you are shown something that looks like the dictionary example of “tawdry”, one might wonder why Arabella finds it important to explain Mandryka that the Waldners lead a dubious existence there. In Philippe Arlaud’s obscenely ugly, blunt and superficial staging, even Mandryka’s untrained eyes would not need more than a glimpse of the whole thing to feel that he might be somewhere unashamedly second-rate. In it,  you could take Baron Waldner for a waiter, the Baroness for the owner of a brothel and Arabella for the cashier with the messy coiffure. If someone like Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa had the bad luck to show up in a place like that, a sensible bouncer would escort her out and find her a cab.

Although there is not vulgarity in Anna Gabler’s Arabella, she ultimately fits her surroundings by the absence of any charisma and glamor, both in stage presence and singing. Her mezzo-ish soprano lacks radiance, does not project very well, has a hint of throatiness and sounds bottled up in its high notes. Her legato too can be problematic and the end of phrases are often undersupported and there is a problem of intonation (in the act II duet with Mandryka things went particularly astray). In those circumstances, interpretation here has fallen behind the intent to survive the high tessitura and the heavy orchestration. Anja Nina Barhmann’s Zdenka wouldn’t normally offer strong competition (as every good Zdenka should), but the natural brightness of her voice and her comparatively clear diction put the audience on her side, even if the ability of floating mezza voce eludes her entirely. As a matter of fact, the most testing passages brought upon a piercing and grainy sound that made her Zdenka more hysterical than exalted. Replacing Steve Davislim, Martin Nyvall was truly unfazed by the high notes in the part of Matteo. His medium and low registers, however, lack focus. The tonal quality, truth be said, is far from unpleasant. Even if Wolfgang Koch’s Mandryka is really devoid of charm, his glitch-free, firm-toned singing placed him far above of every other element in this performance. I would even say that his first act was top-notch in richness, volume and sense of line. As almost every other singer in this role, he would get a bit tired in act II, but even then he invariably produced exemplary heroic top notes – yet he seemed increasingly unengaged. If I had to appear in front of an audience with such ridiculous and unbecoming clothes, maybe I would feel that way too. Hidekazu Tsumaya worked a bit too hard for his Viennese accent as Waldner, but acted and sang famously, embracing the misguided directorial choices with gusto.

Although this evening’s drawbacks were various, Bertrand de Billy’s spineless conducting of a Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra matte in sound, unclear in articulation and often clumsy was the ultimate deathblow in Richard Strauss’s beautiful score. And saggy tempi only gave the audience plenty of time to realize the extent to which the composer has been ill-treated in his 150th jubilee.

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Since Les Contes d’Hoffmann is technically the only opera of a composer of operettas, one forgets how it is theatrically and musically difficult. The fact that Offenbach could not prepare a definitive score has a great deal to do with it. As it is, although the various editions around offer different solutions, they all basically try to make it sound less of the patchwork it essentially is: style changes a lot during the opera; the idea of one soprano and one bass-baritone for various roles is as unpractical as having a crowded cast; and the title role is a very tough piece of singing (to say the truth, every role here is far from easy, but the tenor sings far longer than anyone else). The New National Theatre’s present staging, premièred in 2003, uses a composite version – it is basically a generously cut Oeser edition colored by borrowings from the Choudens version (especially in the Giulietta act, where one – most fortunately – can listen to the “inauthentic” diamond aria and the sextet).

Philippe Arlaud’s production has many splashes of kitsch in its acid colors, fake perspectives and cute choreographies. Its overbusyness makes for very little atmosphere and the main characters are often surrounded by dozens of extras. There are some very striking images now and then, but curiously none of them involve the supernatural episodes in the plot, which are very uninterestingly conceived by the creative team. Conductor Frédéric Chaslin too believes in overbusyness – everything here sounded fast and furious. At first, I wished for a little bit more charm and detailed expression, but considering the cast’s limitations, this proved to be a wise decision in a long opera (prologue and epilogue included). There were many moments where singers would be drowned by the orchestra, but judging from what you could still hear from them most of the time, the big orchestral sound was a good trade off.

I had never heard Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz before and I cannot tell if his voice usually sounds as colorless and devoid of squillo as this afternoon. I hope not. In order to send some sound into the auditorium he had to work really hard. Fortunately, he has enough stamina to run a marathon. In the Giulietta act, his middle register was raspish and grey-toned and the low notes were long gone, but he could still muscle up for his high notes without any hesitation. His French is quite passable and he tried to avoid excessive Italianate-ness. It must be said that he has charisma and the perfect attitude for the role, acting with true abandon.

His three love interests were cast with Japanese singers. Hiroko Kouda (Olympia) is the only survivor from the 2003 cast. Her voice is a a little bit richer than one usually hears in this role, but she tried – not without some strain – some very high options. There have been more coruscating Olympias on stage and in records, but Ms. Kouda deserves praise for the intelligent way she portrayed her character’s mechanical nature without tampering with musical values. Keiko Yokoyama (Giulietta)’s soprano has a basically interesting color, but her method involves too much pressure and, even if it seems voluminous enough a voice, imperfect focus does not grant it enough carrying power. Moreover, the role does not fit her placid personality. Although the part of Antonia is on the high side (and the trills off limits) for Rie Hamada, her complex, extra-rich soprano with a touch of Martina Arroyo and sensitive, musicianly phrasing made her the most interesting singer this afternoon.

The Nicklausse, Angela Brower, has a soprano-like mezzo, modest in size but bright enough to pierce through. She is at ease with French style and has good pronunciation of Racine’s language. Hers was a congenial, pleasant performance. Mark S. Doss’s voice is one size smaller than required for the bad-guy roles and a bit curdled in tone, but he is an intelligent singer who offered the best French in the cast, athletic divisions as Dr. Miracle and even managed a smooth Scintille, diamant.  This is an opera without unimportant roles and one could have had some imports from France to add some spice. In any case, someone minimally acceptable for the role of Crespel.

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Andreas Homoki’s all-purpose staging of… in the Komische Oper, this was Richard  Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, but here in the Tokyo New National Theatre it is supposed to be Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Anyway, I’ll walk you through the checklist – the color palette is limited to white/black/gray, there is only one set that comes apart at some point, there is a great deal of stylization/anachronism going on and singers are kept very busy throughout. To be honest, the production is 10 years old and I cannot say how many original ideas by Homoki are still in use. In any case, Spielleiter Yasuhiro Miura has done his job: in this sugar-rush approach – throngs of extras involved – everybody seems to be in the right place at the right time with the right motivation. It is all most uninterestingly efficient – and the animation from the cast is not of much help here.

“Animation” is the keyword to describe Ulf Schirmer’s conducting too, keen on fast tempi, crispy accents and regularity of pace. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra was seriously tested in what regards clarity by the unrelenting beat, but never gave up trying. This has given the performance some spirit – and even if dazzling accuracy would have been welcome, I would choose spirit over mechanical correctness anytime… What the conductor seemed to be rather careless about was his singers. At some times, I wondered if there had been any full rehearsal, for ensembles were invariably poorly balanced and synched. Sometimes a singer would sound unhappy about the tempo chosen for his aria; in other moments, he or she sounded as if he or she would have benefited of some guidance in style by the conductor. If this were a cast of exceptional abilities, maybe the magic would have operated by itself.

Mandy Fredrich has many advantages for the role of the Countess Almaviva: her voice is clear and uncomplicated and, having dealt with the role of the Queen of the Night as early as in last year’s Salzburg Festival, does not seem to find anything in this part really high (actually, she sing her own high notes better than almost every Countess I have ever seen live). She can also produce very clean Mozartian lines and has crystalline diction. But – and again this is a big “but” – the voice has a cold, uncongenial tonal quality and she too often sounds prosaic in moments in which she should sound simply scrumptious (the entire Porgi, amor, for instance). Her Susanna, Kanae Kushima, on the other hand, is very congenial – her voice has a smile and she knows what kind of woman Susanna is. However, faulty intonation and technique (she desperately needs a plausible solution for her low register) make it very hard to enjoy her performance. Deh vieni, non tardar was below amateurish. If a soprano has so little affection for this lovely piece of music, she should not be singing this role. Ukranian mezzo-soprano Lena Belkina (Cherubino) too made very little of her arias – she and Mozart are not really best friends. Levente Molnár’s baritone has an attractive Thomas Allen-like color and – some “acting with the voice” apart – is quite stylish. He can be clumsy in some key moments, but something must have gone seriously wrong during the Count Almaviva’s big aria. The stretta was all over the place. As Figaro, Marco Vinco produced the right endearingly goofy impression – native Italian being a great advantage. The voice unfortunately has a muffled, not very youthful quality.

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When the curtains opened this afternoon for Damiano Michieletto’s 2011 production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte for the New National Opera, the revolving set with a realistic forest gave me a feeling of déjà vu from Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni from Salzburg. But then I’ve remembered that Guth’s awful production was set inside a house where Don Alfonso had some sort of mesmeric power over the two young couples. The déjà vu happened again when this evening Don Alfonso had a similar episode of telekinesis by the end of the opera. Thank God the similarities ended there. Here we are in some sort of camping resort: Don Alfonso is the supervisor, Despina is the waitress, everybody else is a guest. Are you thinking of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s Youth Hostel production from Amsterdam? Me too, but in the Nederlandse Opera, the sisters and her boyfriends were shown as teenagers whose inexperience accounted for many hard-to-believe plot twists.

Here, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are probably the most down-to-earth people on stage – they take good care of themselves, clean their own camper truck, hold well their liquor and drive themselves the “Albanian” (i.e., “biker gang”) fellows away, when they first “show up”. Why do they behave just like the précieuses imagined by Lorenzo da Ponte? Good question… I have tried hard to see the point behind setting the action in the camping resort, but I could find none other than the fact that Paolo Fantin’s sets and costumes are nice to look at. In his Don Giovanni for La Fenice, Michieletto offered many insights into Da Ponte’s characters in a psychological whirlwind of desire, repression and excess. Here the psychology is cardboard level. Some would say “better so – now he can just tell the story”. Really? Fiordiligi and Dorabella refer to portraits, uniforms, drinking glasses that exist only in their imagination (and in the libretto, but not on stage), Despina’s disguise as a notary would fool only a blind person, among many loose ends. When Don Alfonso starts to use magic powers to hypnotize the group of young people only to end the opera with evil laughs, the audience has already given up to find some sense in all this. To make things worse, in order to accommodate the directorial choices, both finali were trimmed of some good music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (I won’t mention Fernando’s “difficult” opera, for this is an usual sin…).

Yves Abel is a theatrical conductor and also very kind to his cast – even when the tenor tried a tenuto on a high note, impairing the accompanying figures in the orchestra. His tempi were well chosen, vivid and coherent with the stage action, but the orchestra – kept on a leash to make these singers’ lives easier – could phrase with more clarity. A less pellucid tone would add a little bit more spark to the proceedings as well.

Miah Persson’s soprano too has seen brighter days. Now it can sound a bit tight, fluttery and metallic in its higher reaches, but – and considering the role’s formidable difficulties, this is a bit “but” – she does not cheat in florid passages, can sing piano when this is necessary (“mezza voce” would not be the right way to describe it though) and deals very commendable with the lower tessitura. She has very good sense of Mozartian style and is never careless with the text, but the voice itself has very little variety and, even if one hears her well, the results are small-scaled. Her Dorabella, Jennifer Holloway, took a while to warm, but once she reached performance level, offered a fruity mezzo, reasonable flexibility and a winning personality. If she really wants to sing Mozart, she still has to learn Italian and how to sing softer dynamics. Akie Amou has the attitude and the right Fach for Despina, but it seems that the days when the likes of Lucia Popp and Ileana Cotrubas were cast in this role are definitely over.

It is truly refreshing to find in Paolo Fanale a Ferrando with a thoroughly uncomplicated high register and whose vocal healthiness almost never stands between him and proper Mozart style, even if the tonal quality itself has more than a splash of Spieltenor in it. There is a great deal of harmonics in Dominik Köninger’s voice still to be discovered. So far, the sound is still pleasant but rather generic and unmemorable. Maurizio Muraro is a resonant, characterful but unexaggerated Don Alfonso. The cast has no weak link in what regards acting.

PS – On a second thought, there seem to be one development in terms of Personenregie in this staging – Ferrando and Guglielmo seem particularly coy but under the pretext of acting like the biker-gang Tizio and Sempronio, let loose their wild sides (including a homoerotic episode in their post-poisoning “mad scene”), what seems to have made them more sexually persuasive for the Fiordiligi and Dorabella. This could have had interesting results if we could see more clearly the effect of this transformation in their girlfriends. In any case, in order for the girls to have any sort of development (showing Dorabella in high heels… among the ferns of the camping resort is a very awkward solution), they should have had a very different starting point. At least, one that shouldn’t show them so self-aware in the first place. 

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If Donizetti and Felice Romani could come back to life and see Japanese TV, they would be surprised to see that Dr. Dulcamara’s lines have more or less the same text of 75% of ads showed in this country: miracle formulas that make you young, beautiful, attractive if you just pay a very reasonable price – and the taste is always eccellente. Maybe for that reason, the New National Theatre decided that L’Elisir d’Amore should be staged in days closers to our own. As Cesare Lievi’s 2010 production is highly stylized, it is difficult to be precise – 1940’s? 1950’s? What is clear is that the approach looks very much like the kind of production of comedy plays one would find in Italian theatres in the 1980’s, 1990’s: the concept is rather a matter of design than of meaning; costumes and sets are clever yet simple, everybody seems to be having the time of their lives and a well-rehearsed cast move about, jump, gesticulate a lot in variations of the theme of “cuteness”. Here the recipe works well, if one overlooks the fact that costume designer Marina Luxardo decided to employ every shade in the Pantone catalog (even in the wig department). Also, the sets turning around the letters L-E-I-S-D-A-M-O-R (the ones in the original Italian title) and gigantic “Tristan and Isolde” books do not seem to be trying to make any particular point other their immediate relation to the storyline.

Julien Salemkour proved to have good instincts for bel canto. Although a smoother orchestral sound would have made all the difference in the world, the conductor could keep everything clear, ebullient and consequent, choosing his tempi  from what makes sense structurally rather than from the mere intent of making everything fast and bright.

Nicole Cabell is a puzzle yet to be solved: her light velvety soprano is homogeneous, flexible and easy on the ear, but seriously lacking projection; she has clear diction, very good Italian and can sing really musicianly, but cheats whenever things get difficult for her. Adina is a role on the high side for her voice and she would often run out steam in tricky passages. For instance, although Prendi, per me sei libero was sensitively and beautifully sung, the cabaletta involved a great deal of adaptation. All in all, it was a congenial if superficial performance, but I do not really believe this is her repertoire. I wonder what is her repertoire – Mozart? Maybe, but that is not the kind of music one can get away with make-do.The second soprano, Kanae Kushima, showed a more typically bright Italianate soprano and, in spite of a very light voice, could be more easily heard in ensembles.  Tenor Antonino Siragusa too has a voice of reduced substance, but still very spontaneous, easy and pleasant. He sings with amazing clarity and cleanliness of line and makes very good use of the text. He could have offered a tad more mellifluous Una furtiva lagrima, but that did not make his light, uncomplicated and funny performance less attractive. Hiroyuki Narita has a forceful baritone and tackles his divisions better than most, but he is often rough-toned in voice and faceless in interpretation. Renato Girolami is quite economical with buffo disfiguring “comic” effects and has both the personality and voice for his role. Finally, the house chorus deserves praise for both their singing and acting.

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In his 2005 production for the New National Theatre, Josef E. Köpplinger seems to have tried to find the Spanish note missing in most stagings of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia – if his “Spanish” touch seems to have been borrowed from Pedro Almodóvar films (well, the “General Audiences” version of an Almodóvar film – the risqué touch reduced to Berta doubling as a brothel’s procurer or something of the kind), it all very much looks like the Austrian view of how Spain is supposed to be – there is an excess of color, decay, edge and ebullience. Heidrun Schmelzer’s revolving sets show Don Bartolo’s house both outside (when it looks realistic, albeit more Cuban than Spanish) and inside (think of a color, it is there). Extras are extremely busy and sometimes you have to make an effort to focus on the main story. As usual in the NNT, characters behave like puppets and you leave the theatre with no new thoughts about the libretto. I know, The Barber from Seville is no Die Frau ohne Schatten, but, well, they could have at least tried…

Some conductors decide how a performance should be before they met the orchestra they are going to conduct. In Carlo Montanaro’s mind, this should be a knockout of a performance – fast tempi, well-defined rhythms in the context of an a tempo-approach, dazzling virtuoso quality from all musicians. The audience heard something an else – the musicians desperately trying to cope with the fast beat, lacking lightness and buoyancy, ensembles very close to disintegrate (the long finale to act I was actually quite messy) and singers without leeway to build a performance. No-one could call this performance boring – it was exciting in a nervous, charmless way. You just need to listen to Claudio Abbado’s old recording for DG to see that it is worth while slowing down for some comfort – if it is not fun for the musicians, it will certainly not be for the audience.

Roxana Constantinescu’s grainy and smoky mezzo does not always suggest youth and her toying with soprano options are often not really beguiling, but she has very fluent coloratura, easy high notes and rarely sounds mechanical. Her Rosina is rather faceless, but one has never the impression that she is not trying to say something. Maybe in other circumstances. Luciano Botelho too has very clear divisions and a warm, pleasant tenor, but I could bet that he was not in a good voice day; his high register lacked brightness and sounded invariably bottled up and dry. In a role like the Count Almaviva, this is a non negligible shortcoming. I have little hope in Dalibor Jenis’s Figaro, but this was actually the best performance I have ever seen from him. Free from the burden of sounding like a Verdi baritone, he sounded simply more focused and spontaneous. He found no problem in high notes and he is more comfortable with fioriture than most. His unexaggerated interpretation is refreshing and his Italian is vivid enough. He is not terribly funny, though – and I missed a more “classical” poise in his singing. After all, this is technically bel canto repertoire . Bruno Praticò is the kind of buffo whose singing is more a matter of acting with the voice than actually producing flowing and musical phrasing. If his performance is all about comedy effects, he does it with animation and, if someone was actually having a good time on stage, this was him. Hidekazu Tsumaya, as always, was a reliable Don Basilio.

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In order to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and China, Tokyo’s New National Theatre and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts have decided to expand their already existing technical cooperation to the co-production of a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (albeit rather cut, more like what the Germans call “grosse Querschnitt”) for performances both here and in Beijing.

Is Aida a role for a dramatic soprano? This is an interesting question – the range, the length, the need to project above large ensembles suggest something like that, but there is an increasing demand of soft singing and lyric quality as the opera evolves to its end. If one checks the discography and schedules of opera houses, one soon realizes that there are few real dramatic sopranos tackling the role (Birgit Nilsson was probably the most assiduous exponent in this Fach in the last 60 years), but rather what one calls lirico spinto sopranos. Hui He would rather fit into this category – she has sung a great deal of Puccini and heavier Verdi roles in the leading theaters in the world, but Aida is probably her most dramatic venture so far (it seems she is planning to sing Gioconda and Senta). Some have dismissed her Ethiopian princess as lacking power around the passaggio – but I would say that some very famous Aidas have showed the same problem (Leontyne Price, for example). Today she actually sang beautifully – her round, creamy voice projected effortlessly, her high mezza voce is exquisite, she never sang bureaucratically, but rather invested every phrase with imagination and emotion, while avoid coming across too strongly. Her Italian is greatly improved since I last saw her, and she even sounds quite “Italianate” if one has in mind the way Italians used to sing in the 1950’s. She got away with pianissimo in some very tricky passages à la Caballé – and did it with good taste and sensitivity. Given her competition, I would say she is probably the most technically assured and varied Aida in the market these days, the vulnerability playing an important part in it.

Without the Judgment Scene (Radames went this evening straight from Già i sacerdoti adunansi to La fatal pietra), it is difficult to say something definitive about the mezzo soprano. Since Kasumi Shimizu had problems to pierce through in her middle register, I would say that Amneris is a bit on her limits, but she handle her limits very expertly, especially in what regards producing big, powerful high notes. Moreover, she has a very appealing tonal quality, with a touch of Grace Bumbry in it. A very interesting voice – I wonder what she could in German repertoire. Tenor Satoshi Mizuguchi too has a pleasant voice – warm yet bright, but his high register is tight and unflowing. He got tired during the evening and, if his acuti were still very firm, sustaining them cost him a visible effort. Baritone Chenye Yuan has a tiny bit of Piero Cappuccilli in his grainy, dark baritone, but his was a tad short in volume and had his fluttery moments. This is the second time I hear bass Hidekazu Tsumaya (Ramfis) and I am again impressed with the focus and the noble tonal quality.

Although the singing was often exciting, Junichi Hirokami’s kappelmeisterlich conducting often robbed the performance of its excitement. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra’s strings could have a richer sound, and this was particularly felt when brass instruments saturated the sound picture in an almost band-like manner. The conductor did display a welcome sense of organization and cleanliness, but that was much it. One rarely felt the necessary sense of climax building (number one requirement in Verdi) and his a tempo approach often meant that soloists attempts in rubato seemed nothing but lack of synchronicity. Finally, the collaboration of both theaters’ choruses was truly praiseworthy in its warmth and homogeneity.

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