Posts Tagged ‘Hui He’

Taking profit of the Japanese tour of the Teatro alla Scala, the NHK Music Festival has invited the Milanese opera house for a concert performance of Verdi’s Aida, which was actually taped (both in audio and in video by NHK). Last week, Dudamel has proved to be an exemplary Verdian conductor in a staged performance of Rigoletto. This evening he proved he can be even better than that. During the first half of the concert (acts 1 and 2), I could not help thinking of how the audience reacted while hearing to Karajan’s Aida back then in Salzburg, in the sense, of hearing a great conductor who has seriously studied the score and, with the help of a fully engaged team of musicians, produced a revelatory (even if often slightly flawed) experience. I don’t think that I will be able to explain everything I could admire this evening – the ideal balance (upfront woodwind, perfectly blended brass and strings, even in large ensembles), once again the complete eschewal of vulgarity, the always dramatically alive accent, the control of rhythmic flexibility (masterly transitions, even those usually accepted as abrupt), the singing string section and the knowledge of the right moment to become Toscaninian in excitingly precise ensembles in very fast pace. The fact that the chorus from La Scala has such full-toned tenors, sopranos and altos with rock-solid bottom notes makes it even more admirable. I mean, this was TRULY exciting.

However, if I have to be honest, burning from both ends, this candle ran dangerously short after the intermission. First, singers began to give signs of fatigue. That required some adjustments, especially in what regards volume from an orchestra playing on stage. Although the whole cast had big enough voices, some of them had a lyric quality that already required adjustments. Act IV was a lesson of how to produce exciting orchestral sound without drowning singers in voluminous orchestral sound, La Scala’s bright and flexible strings coming up handy at these moments.

I have seen Hui He’s Aida here in Tokyo last year. I understand, therefore, she was not in her best voice today – intonation had its dodgy moments, the not entirely comfortable passaggio downright problematic this evening, a very evident physical effort entirely new in my experience with this singer. The problem became more evident after the pause, but she took profit of her late entrance in act IV to recover in time for an exquisite closing scene. All that said, even by this evening’s standards, Hui He is still my favorite Aida these days: her voice is lovely, her mezza voce is soaring, her Italian is now beyond suspicion, she phrases with the mastery of portamento of a Caballé and – even if her engagement is a bit artsy – it is far preferable either to the cold cleanliness or the anti-musical, supposedly Italianate histrionics usually accepted as Verdian style. This evening’s Amneris was Daniela Barcellona, a singer I would not expect to find in this role. Although her mezzo is sizable, it is not a dramatic voice in any way. She does have very strong technique and is a singer incapable of anything unpleasant to the ears. As a result, with great help from the conductor, she offered a sensuous, dignified and elegant Amneris this evening, who managed to be vulnerable without any loss of strength in the Judgement Scene, after which the performance was interrupted for thunderous applause. For those used to the likes of Dolora Zajick, that might have sounded too elegant, but the point is: she did not tried to sing against the grain of her mezzo and thus was able to offer something convincing and coherent to her voice and personality.

Spanish tenor Jorge de León has a very solid voice, capable of some very powerful high notes, but very limited in dynamic or tonal variety. He has clearly listened to Franco Corelli’s recordings as Radamès, but cannot emulate his ability to effortlessly shift to mezza voce. All in all, his is a very unproblematic account of a difficult role, and that is no mean accomplishment. The role of Amonasro is a bit on the high side for Ambrogio Maestri, but his is a very substantial voice that produces the right impact in key moments. Marco Spotti was a stentorian if not always immaculately sung Ramfis, while Roberto Taglavini showed a bit more nuance but less volume as the King of Egypt. In the small role of the Priestress, Sae Kyung Rim showed a beautiful, clear voice.


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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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Although Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is said to be one of those operas in which everything depends on the singer taking the title role, the truth is that most of us have almost invariably seen sopranos who are not ideally cast from one reason or another. However, if the production is interesting, the conductor knows how to play the right effects in the score, the tenor is congenial and the soprano is a good actress, has lovely enough a voice and is intelligent enough to build an interpretation, one calls it a successful Butterfly. But what if you finally have a singer born to sing this role, but nothing else – can you call this success?


Chinese soprano Hui He is the real thing. Since the days of Mirella Freni, no other soprano in my experience evokes such girlishness, such naiveté and such loveliness while filling the hall with streams of bright and creamy sounds. The comparison with Freni is no coincidence – as the great Italian soprano, Hui He has an exemplary control of passaggio offering an ideal focused, crystalline and spontaneous sound in her middle and low registers. However, rich and true as her acuti are, they could be a little bit easier and forwarder. This does not affect her ability to spin exquisite shimmering mezza voce at will. When it comes to interpretation, sometimes one feels that efficiency rather than dramatic engagement is the keyword. I would have to see her in another role to make my opinion – for Butterfly, the reserve sounds authentically “Japanese” somehow. Something that deserved a bit more work is her Italian pronunciation. Although it is clear that she understands the text and offers now and then clever word-pointing, her enunciation should be crisper and more idiomatic. Some will point out that she does not look a 15-year-old girl – a problem shared by many sopranos in this repertoire. Although overweight teenagers are growing in number, audiences are only convinced by the sylphlike variety. To make things worse, kimonos are unkind to curves. Nevertheless, Hui He knows how to move graciously and, in her understated way, is quite acceptable in the acting department.


The rest of the cast does not reach these standards. Dmytro Popov’s baritonal tenor is desperately in need of high harmonics. His voice sounds bottled up and his high register simply does not flow or project into the hall. The tone itself is pleasant and rich, but do not expect nothing new during the performance – note one sounds exactly like all the others until the end of the opera. Ulrike Helzel’s mezzo soprano is extremely pleasant and she sings with good taste and imagination, but the role requires a voice a bit larger than hers. Veteran Georg Tichy is an engaged Sharpless, but his baritone sounds a bit worn these days.


In any case, even if the cast were really bad – or even if it were excellent – one would never be able to redeem this Butterfly from Juraj Valcuha’s indigent conducting. The catastrophe did not take long to be noticed – it would be impossible to realize Puccini’s creative use of counterpoint in the opening bars, so tangled and grayish the orchestra sounded there. When no famous tune was in sight, everything seemed shabby, uninteresting, lacking forward movement. The performance was decidedly below the level of the Deutsche Oper. In some sense, it was perfectly matched to Pier Luigi Samaritani’s 1987 production. Two short moments of inspiration apart, it just looked like the high-school-pantomime-version of Madama Butterfly. I know that the plot does not allow much creativity – but, once you decide to be “traditional”, please focus on detail. My advice – get a flight to Tokyo and visit the Kabuki Theatre. They know everything about doing a great job without breaking with very old and complex traditions.

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