Posts Tagged ‘Tokyo New National Theater’

The first word I could hear while on entering the auditorium of the New National Theatre today was “escalator” and I thought that those ladies were referring to the new ones in the lobby, but then I saw a couple of them on stage.  “Aren’t you performing Nabucco today?”, a man asked one of the ushers. “Yes, sir”, she answered in a very professional tone. “But why there is a department store on stage?!” “It seems that this is the modern way of staging an opera”, she repressed a smirk. “Aaah…”.

The New National Theatre has had its share of stylized stagings, but it seems today many members of the audience are going to google the word “Regietheater” for the first time. In any case, the program had an explanatory text in which you could see side by side pictures of Zeffirelli’s and Calixto Bieito’s stagings of Verdi’s Aida. I am not sure if I truly like Graham Vick’s new production of Verdi’s Nabucco, but I am grateful for not seeing choristers in Life-of-Bryan costumes trying to walk like a Babylonian. Most of all, I am glad that Mr. Vick had intended his production to the Japanese audience. I am not sure if he understands it or even really had something to say, but he did get it right that many of those in the the National Theatre watch and listen to opera as if it had nothing to do with their lives, but rather as a a) traditional, b) foreign; c) respectable entertainment. I am no sociologist, but I would rather believe that in many points, audiences in Japan could relate more directly to it than those in Milan or in Munich. You’ll only need to read Japanese newspapers to see my point.

In any case, there is a shopping mall on stage. Well-dressed people are drinking their cappuccini, fidgeting with their Iphones and buying Italian designer items. There is a beggar with a “the end is near”-sign, but nobody seems to notice him, until he grabs a passer-by, strip her from her overcoat to reveal her funkier clothes. She is Fenena. Later a gang of terrorists in pig masks would invade the mall led by some sort of Tracy-Turnblad-meets-the-bride-of-Chucky (Abigaille). Then you realize that: a) the Hebrews are the consumerists; b) the shopping mall is their temple; c) the Babylonians are the Die-fette-Jahren-sind-vorbei terrorists (they basically mess things around and place them in funny places) who put them in a hostage situation. As much as the no-fourth-wall approach could be interesting, this scenario does not really go with the plot. In Verdi’s Nabucco, we first witness the Babylonians in Jerusalem breaking down the Kingdom of Judah and then, and then in Babylon as the established power with an army, the power to pass laws etc etc, while the Hebrews are reduced to an oppressed “nation without a state” with no one to protect them but their invisible and very abstract God (as the Babylonians more or less would describe it). I can see that Mr. Vick wishes us to have a fresh look into the situation – and I would guess that he finds the Hebrews as portrayed in this story some sort of uncongenial conservative bunch – but his reversal of values requires so much suspension of disbelief that in the end you just give it up: if the Hebrews are here the bourgeois clientele of the shopping mall and the Babylonians are the terrorists, where is the police? I mean – the terrorists are not the State and therefore have no right to resort to violence. So they are criminals, right? So, where is the police? Also, how come Zaccaria the beggar “belongs with” the mall clientele? Why would the clientele follow his lead in the first place instead of just calling security to escort him out? Finally, since we are adapting the story to give it a second layer of meaning, why God’s lightning is just good, old meteorological lightning? I mean, the anarchistic terrorist leader would loose his sanity because the shopping mall was struck by lightning? Well, that was enough for  the biblical Nebuchadnezzar , but he really meant it when he declared that he was God when that happened… Also, the option for  literal lightning makes the collective conversion in the end of the opera hard to take. In the libretto, Nabucco regains his sanity as a miracle once he accepted God in his heart. Is it what happens here? Seriously?! Once you stop caring about these “details”, there are somethings to enjoy here: Paul Brown’s realistic sets are extremely convincing, the underage offender Abigaille is an interesting take on the role and the choristers are very well directed.

This is my second Nabucco conducted by Paolo Carignani (the first one was in Munich) and, if my memory does not play me a trick, I find this performance superior. I was going to write that the orchestra this afternoon sounded as an orchestra entirely different from the one that played in the New National Theatre’s Aida and Tannhäuser – and the reason is very simple: this is the Tokyo Philharmonic  while Aida and Tannhäuser had the Tokyo Symphonic. This seems to be an evidence that larger-scale works should always get the Philharmonic. Today, the orchestra basically had SOUND. And that made all the difference in the world, especially when those musicians proved to be engaged in the drama, keeping up with some fast tempi. While Carignani cared for beautiful sounds first in Munich, here he seemed primarily concerned in keeping things exciting and animated, which is always a safe option in this repertoire. When one listens to Riccardo Muti’s studio recording, one finds that there are moments when one can find some dramatic depth in nobler phrasing in key moments and attention to detail, but that would be an unfair comparison anyway.

Abigaille is such an impossible role that pointing out this or that shortcoming in a singer is an entirely futile exercise. Does Marianne Cornetti make something of Verdi’s excruciating demands? Yes, with great distinction, I would add. Her voice is not the kind of flashy Italian soprano with big chest notes and piercing acuti one would expect to find here. Moreover, she is sometimes caught short when things get too Semiramide-esque but, except for a rather breathless Salgo già del trono aurato, she proved to be very much mistress of her resources, singing with unfailingly big, round and warm tones, admirably homogeneous throughout her range. One could observe that her singing lacked verbal specificity (especially in comparison to Renata Scotto in Muti’s recording), but her almost Mozartian poise in some fiendishly passages made her Abigaille more “human” than what I am used to hear (Anch’io dischiuso un giurno particularly touching without ever being schmaltzy). This very generous artist showed great abandon in her stage performance too – costumes and blocking showed her in her less glamorous (to put it mildly) but she seemed to relish the opportunity to give herself entirely to the experience of performing this role in such an approachable way.

As Fenena, Mutsumi Taniguchi proved to have a very interesting mezzo – the sound is dark and has a slightly veiled quality until it opens up in a gleaming and very firm top register. Oh dischiuso è il firmamento was beautifully and sensitively sung. Tatsuya Higuchi (Ismaele) has an attractively hued tenor with some piercing top notes, but he is over-emphatic in his phrasing and, as many Japanese tenors, operate in a very taut – but not thin – high register. This was a good afternoon for Lucio Gallo too, probably the best performance I have ever heard from him. He was in very firm and rich voice and, although his baritone is not as voluminous as those of many famous Verdian household names, it projected easily in the auditorium. He alone could highlight Verdi’s parole sceniche as singers in this repertoire are supposed to do and often ventured in soft singing that verged on falsetto sometimes. As his Abigaille, he seemed very comfortable with the stage direction – their scenes invariably being this performance’s best moments. I am afraid, though, that Zaccaria is not Konstantin Gorny’s role – it is indeed a very difficult role, but he found it hard to pierce through the orchestra and, when he did, the sound was often fluttery and curdled. He never cheated, though, and never showed himself less than fully engaged, but the part requires a nobler and ampler sound.


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I don’t know how people managed their private affairs in the days of Ancient Egypt, but whenever I see Verdi’s Aida I have the impression that even Anne Baxter and Yul Brynner in Cecil B. DeMIlle’s The Ten Commandments seem more believable in comparison. By saying that I don’t mean that there is anything wrong in Aida, but I usually have the impression that a less “museological” approach tends to give all characters a more three-dimensional profile. When you drown them in pyramids, horses, obelisks etc, they tend to disappear in the context and their predicaments end up seeming very small in the context. For instance, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1998 production for the New National Theatre is basically the pocket version of the Met’s production, with the further disadvantage that the awkward Spielleitung makes it all even less convincing – Aida and Radames barely look at each other in their scenes; Amonasro conspires with his daughter 60 cm away from the Egyptian king etc etc.

The grandiosity is, unfortunately, reduced to the sets and costumes. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra sounded rather thin throughout, brass largely dominating the ensembles. Conductor Michael Güttler should be praised by the way he kept ensemble clear, opted for an a tempo-approach and built his interpretation even with a matte orchestral sound. I have the impression that the reduced volume was found to be a convenience for the cast too and, unexciting as things tended to be, they were often clean and well organized.

Latonia Moore has an interesting voice -big, rich, creamy, homogeneous and well-focused. She has a good grasp of Verdian style and is congenial and engaged. She managed to float her mezza voce in key moments, but one noticed that this tested her breath support. Until the Nile Scene, her performance was actually very compelling, but O patria mia showed her nervous and a bit out of sorts. She did found her way back after that but one could see that she was tired. She never gave up on her Aida, but the spontaneity never really came back.

I had seen Marianne Cornetti only once as Brangäne and have read that she has since then increasingly tackled soprano roles. One can hear that in her Amneris. Although her voice has an undeniable mezzo quality, it does sound these days a bit lighter and higher than what Amneris requires. As a result, she was often underpowered in key moments and, when she should unleash powerful acuti, they ultimately sounded rather creamy than percussive. In any case, she did not go for the virago approach, husbanding her resources in a more subdued and even subtle performance. She did get away with that until the Judgment Scene.

Carlo Ventre has a pleasant voice, warmer than most tenors in this repertoire. He did not seem to be in a good day – sounding tired from moment one. Legato was not the keyword here and everything seemed a bit emphatic and sometimes blunt. When he found a congenial phrase, he could produce some very powerful high notes. Yasuo Horiuchi offered a fiery performance as Amonasro, too often rough-toned for comfort, but exciting in an old-fashioned way anyway.

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2013 is Wagner’s bicentennial: opera houses that can afford a staging of the Ring are all of them doing that; those that cannot are doing their best. Calling this revival of Hans-Peter Lehmann’s 2007 production a “commemorative event” would be pushing it a bit far; the New National Theatre has been staging one Wagner opera a year for a while, and Tannhäuser is it this year. Last year’s Lohengrin got at least a smart new production (the one in which Jonas Kaufmann was supposed to sing), an adjective I cannot use to describe this one. Think of columns of ribbed plexiglass/aluminum moved about by a bunch of stage hands, cold lamps, slide projections and some kitsch-y pseudo-medieval costumes – no, it is not a cos-play competition at the entrance of Iidabashi Station! But if you guessed that, it was quite close to what you could see on the stage of the Tokyo Opera Palace this afternoon. To make it worse, Personenregie could be summed up like this: “Elisabeth, bounce around, then stop it when everybody draw their swords”, “Venus, play with your cape; when you’re annoyed, raise your arm”; “Tannhäuser, act ‘drunk’; when you’re embarrassed, kneel down” etc. I won’t waste anyone’s time with the ballet… but, YES!, the Paris “edition” was played today.

This is the second time I hear conductor Constantin Trinks – and the experience is very different from the first time. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is not exactly a Wagnerian phalanx – the string sections basically sounds too thin for this kind of music and the dynamic range is somewhat limited – and I have the impression that the maestro decided to give propriety pride of place. As a result, ensembles were clean, texture was clear, every musician had time enough to tackle their parts (especially singers, who did not even need to look at the conductor for an extra breath pause), but after five minutes you could tell how the next page of the score would sound. Saying that the performance was slow-paced (it often was) does not explain it all – often experienced conductors opt for a slower pace when they notice that their orchestra cannot cope with what they had in mind, but the audience should not notice that they are being served the second-best option. It might take Furtwänglerian talents to offset an orchestra’s weaknesses, let alone turn them into something of a “feature”, but the fact if that if there is no drama, there is no Musikdrama. And one felt each uneventful second of this performance passing.

I had never heard Meagan Miller before and cannot tell if today was a bad-voice day, but what I heard did not make me feel eager for a second time. It is a big voice with some healthy top notes, but the tone is curdled and piercing without being properly focused, there are moments of tremulousness, low notes often abrupt and phrasing not always elegant. She had her moments – unfortunately both arias were blowsy and gusty – her mezza voce soared beautifully and effortlessly in the big concertato in the end of act II, for example. The adoption of the long Venusberg scene paid off in the casting of Elena Zhidkova as Venus. When one thinks of a Russian mezzo, one generally pictures something like Elena Obrastzova in his or her mind. Not the case here – hers is not a gigantic dramatic voice with a powerful vibrato, but rather a middle-weight forceful, perfectly-focused voice with an extremely well-connected bottom register. One could  hear in the occasional moment in which she was caught off-steam why Wagner called it a soprano part, but she handled the climactic top notes adeptly, producing rich, round sounds rather than pushing and screeching. There are more characterful Venus around, but Zhidkova’s sensuous voice and solid technique are more than praiseworthy. I cannot forget to mention Tomoko Kunimitsu, a full-toned yet boyish Shepherd. A beautiful voice.

Back in 2009 I saw Stig Andersen as Tannhäuser. He is a Heldentenor of unusual poise (and the voice is still young-sounding and pleasant), but the intervening years had not made the arduous title role easier for him. Rather the opposite. He knows how to balance his resources, but the effort was too palpable to be overlooked. Moreover, most of what had sounded “subtle” in Rome (I mean – his performance in Rome, not Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage) here sounded just voice-saving tricks. In any case, at this stage in his career, it is already commendable that he actually sings the role better than many a younger tenor. And probably more intelligently and expressively. Jochen Kupfer is a new name for me – and one to keep. It is a velvety, ductile, rather large voice with enough dark resonance to avoid any hint of tenorishness. His Wolfram was at home either singing heroically or in flowing legato. There is something stiff in his manners, and I have the impression that he still needs to mature in the part. But do not mistake my words – what he offers now is already worth the detour. Last but not least, Kristinn Sigmundsson (Hermann) was in great shape this afternoon – a flawless performance.  Also, minor roles were very well cast from the ensemble. Actually the “last but not least” should go to the New National Theatre Chorus, which sang very cleanly too.

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Hiroshi Wakasugi’s production of Puccini’s Turandot for Tokyo’s New National Theater tries to deal with many complex issues involving the opera – its incompleteness, its possible inspiration in Puccini’s private life and, most of all, preconceived notions of Asia turning around the idea of Orientalism. The clever if contrived solution is the magic trick named mise-en-abîme. Basically, we are shown an Italian small-town fair where Puccini, his jealous wife and the ill-fated maid who worked for them mingle with local characters. Suddenly, a group of Chinese street artists appears in a trailer to present a show named… Turandot and, with the help of masks, everything is mysteriously transformed in the legendary world of Princess Turandot. When Liù dies, the magic vanishes and the Italian village is back to reality. The ensuing tenor/soprano duet is shown as something like a married couple discussing their relationship. 

Although the whole concept is ambitious, its main drawback is its didactic approach. For example, before the orchestra is allowed to play the score’s first notes, a silent pantomime taking almost five minutes is performed for us to un-der-stand what it is all about. There is also more than one splash of bad taste, especially in what concerns poorly conceived dancing numbers featuring some unspeakable costumes. Also, one might think that there is too much going on stage, some kind of Zeffirelli production on a tin can, but in the end the acrobats and clowns do find some sense in the story and fit into the frame of the spectacle.

The musical aspects are less provocative. Antonello Allemandi does not master the art of blending the sections of his orchestra: strings were too recessed and brass was overloud throughout. However, the less satisfying aspect in his musical direction is the lack of forward movement: the slow tempi tested his cast and the ensembles sometimes sounded noisy and laboured.  

There is something beyond doubt – that Irène Theorin is a dramatic soprano. She has a sizeable voice and, at least in a smaller theatre such as this, her higher register is impressively powerful and firm. She can pull it back for mezza voce when necessary, but the sound is not terribly beautiful. Actually, this is a singer who impresses more when singing her Spitzennoten than during passages in which legato or more immediate beauty of tone are required. Most people expect that the Liù is going to steal the show, but Rie Hamada’s smooth lyric soprano proved to be actually small-scale for Puccini. She could sing her lines all right, but with little reserves of power and some tension in the pianissimi. Walter Fraccaro is a realiable singer who generally coped with the heroic aspects of his role.  However, he seemed somewhat tired right during his big aria. He would regain his strength for the testing writing in the Alfano ending. Among the minor roles, Hidekazu Tsumaya stood out with his firm velvety bass.

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