In the bunraku play adapted for kabuki Kokusen’ya Kassen (The Battles of Coxinga), the warrior Watounai and his mother Nagisa are sent to China in order to offer General Kanki alliance in their common purpose of restoring the Ming Dinasty. When they arrive at the gates of Shishigajou Castle, there is a problem: according to the law, foreigners are not allowed inside. Since they have military secrets to discuss, the Chinese propose a compromise: the old lady can come if she agrees to have her arms bound. They are both outraged and Watounai threatens to draw his sword, but Nagisa – “as a Japanese person would do” – smiles. As you can see, it is not from today that the Japanese have disliked public display of emotions. Now imagine the effect of Italian opera on people who work hard to be collected even among friends: Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco claiming vendetta and confessing amore in full stentorian voice as if their lives depended on that in front of thousands of people. At this point you can see the appeal of becoming an opera singer in this country: your job being letting it all out in the name of art. This may sound like wild generalization, but I ask my eight or nine readers – have you heard of a Japanese singer who has distinguished him or herself internationally as a Mozart singer, in the way… someone like Sumi Jo has done?
As it seems, the majority of domestically trained Japanese singers are irresistibly attracted to Verismo and some Verdi… with the possible exception of those who sing with the Bach Collegium Japan. Even when they do sing other repertoire, the pamphlets advertising solo recitals almost invariably show people extravagantly dressed to sing Puccini and Verdi. Displaying feeling through the mastery of immaculate technique, sense of style and absolute grace could be a summary of the art of Kabuki actors, but it is also how a Mozartian singer could be described – this seems, however, to be less appealing a task for someone who could be ultimately letting it rip as Nedda or Canio. I have seen Japanese singers in Mozartian roles in the New National Theatre and I am afraid that it has never been a pleasure (I have discovered some very impressive Wagnerians born in this country nonetheless). I have refrained from posting a review on a Magic Flute without International guest singers from that theater and even more so because I couldn’t make myself stay for the second act.
The reason why I’ve decided to attend to the Idomeneo offered by the Nikikai Opera Company with an all Japanese cast is the fact that I was curious to see Damiano Michieletto’s 2013 production for the Theater an der Wien. As it seems, the genial atmosphere of the Da Ponte opera seems to inspire the Venetian director more positively than opera seria. The single set shows a sand box surrounded by white curtains. In it, we can see remains of war: shoes, suitcases, pieces of furniture. Nobody seems to be particularly happy about Greece’s victory over Troy, but rather gloomy in all shades of grey. This has an effect of having the cast throw things around – while poor Arbace’s job seems to be getting the trash out of the way for the next scene while he sings his long recitatives. When the second tenor finally got to sing one aria, he had already tossed aside 100 pieces of luggage and seemed so exhausted that he could barely get to the end of his phrases. This unimaginative and bizarrely awkward concept (have I told you that Ilia gives birth to a baby on stage during the ballet music in the end of the opera?) involves Elettra shown as a brainless bimbo obsessed with glittery dresses and high heels (to be used in the sandbox…). This meant that her sensuously expressive aria d’affetto would be transformed into operetta-ish couplets sung off-pitch amidst capers. If the director really wanted to use his imagination, he could have thought of something convincing for Idomeneo, Idamante and Ilia to do during D’Oreste, d’Ajacce.
If there was something positive about this performance, this was Jun Märkl’s conducting. His structural understanding of the score informed an ideal orchestral balance, an absolute control of rhythmic flow, even when he indulged in some well-judged playing with tempo… I feel tempted to write “sense of theatre”, but the truth is that a problematic cast and a not truly virtuosistic orchestra did not allow him real impact. In any case, the Tokyo Symphony gave the maestro its best and occasionally played with gusto. I cannot say something similar of the Nikikai Chorus, who lacked discipline and couldn’t cope with the solo demands (here given to a reduced group of choristers). The edition adopted today involved none of the arias cut in the Munich première (but for the above mentioned D’Oreste, d’Ajacce), the excision of Arbace’s Se il tuo duol and a large chunk of the scene with the High Priest, the use of one of the longer versions of the utterance of the Oracle and a reduced ballet music.
Now the singers. I have to assume that Yukiko Aragaki (Ilia) must have been seriously indisposed this afternoon. Her soprano is produced with a piercing metallic edge with occasional saccharine off-focused almost white-voiced moments (which I suppose to be attempts at shaded dynamics). Pitch and note values were too often imprecisely handled and, judging the effort to produce what Mozart wrote, the misguided exercise in ornamentation should have been duly avoided. Chikako Ohsumi’s Elettra was an alternately admirable and infuriating experience. Nature gave her an echt Mozartian soprano drammatico: it is bright, but not light; rich but well-focused; and it runs to its high notes without any effort. One can see that there is a Donna Anna hidden somewhere there, but there are problems with technique (unsupported low registered, her natural high notes become tight with pressure, there is a lot of sharpness going on there…), with style (problematic legato, tendency to peck at notes and truly ill-advised fondness for upward transposition…) and with discipline. There were moments where everything was in the right place and the effect was indeed amazing, but those were unfortunately always short-lived. It made me sad to see such potential going awry. Takumi Yogi (Idomeneo) is in comparison technically more finished: he has very long breath and, even if the coloratura was smeared here and there, he tackled the florid version of Fuor del mar less perilously than some famous tenors. However, he is not an elegant singer and very poorly acquainted with classical style, singing emphatically and stolidly most of the time. In his invocation to Neptune, where I can guess that the conductor had said something like “please attack the notes CLEANLY”, he showed how better the whole performance could have been if the same care had been used elsewhere.
I leave the best for last. I have seen Makiko Yamashita sing small roles in the New National Theatre for a while and have always enjoyed her warm, fruity mezzo and wished to hear her in a major role. Idamante is a tough piece of singing and although her Italian is a bit lifeless, she inhabits a different stylistic and expressive world from the rest of this cast. She is a natural Mozartian singer who phrases with poise and musicianship, only challenged by the high tessitura. As it was, both arias tested her sorely and she only made it to the end out of diligence and knowledge of her own limitations. I am not convinced that she doesn’t really have the high notes – they are there begging to be used, but it seems that she should work on her breath support to accomplish that. In any case, the artistry and the loveliness of tone are already there.