Monday, February 28, 2011

REVIEW: The Threepenny Opera by the Berliner Ensemble

Academy of Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, Sunday February 27

I went to this Berliner Ensemble performance after getting very polarized feedback about it. The people who like it, love it; and the people who dislike it, hate it. I do see where they are coming from.


In 1999, The Threepenny Opera made an appearance in the Hong Kong Arts Festival. It was a production by the China National Youth Theatre and it was performed in Putonghua and I cringed. A year before that, Robert Wilson made an 'appearance' in the Hong Kong Arts Festival. He was the director of Tom Waits' The Black Rider and it was performed by the Thalia Theater Hamburg and I swooned.


Robert Wilson and The Threepenny Opera seem like a perfect match. One can only imagine and get excited on the possibilities of how Wilson will explore and make the most out of the Brecht’s material and gestus style of acting that Brecht was famous for. The gestus style in which the combination of body language and facial expression is purposely used to construct meaning and communicate a message is somehow in parallel to Wilson’s anti-natural style. So, will this Wilson-Brecht combination (forget Weill) be a breathtaking breakthrough to behold?



The production started off very promising. The purpose and intent was clear. Wilson casted actors of different shapes and sizes, then have them costumed severely to make them even more distinctive. Mrs. Peachum was given a generous butt, Brown was given skinny pants to emphasize his lanky figure, Lucy was given a triangular dress. And when the costume can’t do the job, gravity defying hair shapes were used. This was done so well that in silhouette alone, one can pick the characters out from the line up. On top of that, each actor was given a signature mannered walk as they paraded across the stage, making them a bit more than two-dimensional… BRILLIANT.


What came after were hits and misses. I can’t help but feel that in a lot of times, the production was more about Wilson rather than Brecht. As for Weill, hardly any actor on stage can actually stick to the notes accurately no matter how good the accompanying ensemble was. The production was full of antics and effects and very little in psychological insights to the material. It wouldn’t have been too bad if all these antics and effects were integrated to move the plot onward, instead they appeared more like segments on their own, done for the sake of showing off, thus making the production feel very slow. By getting rid of the interval between Act I and II, it also made the work felt very lopsided.

It was a visually stunning production… but it was not good theatre. What seems just right in The Black Rider, was just too much for The Threepenny Opera. The Threepenny Opera alone is of such depth and clarity that any emphasis to create more meanings and create more messages just seemed vulgar.

March 1 2011 -

P.S. My review elicited very interesting feedbacks, almost as polarized as this show! If you have been to the show, please tell me which group do you belong to. My point? Theatre needs audience... I want a bit of paying patron perspective :-) I decided to do a bit of tallying and here's so far the results:

  1. Left during interval: 4 people
  2. Dislike the show: 4 people
  3. Like & dislike the show: 4 people
  4. Like the show: 7 people
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The Threepenny Opera
A play with Music in a Prologue and Eight Scenes
by Bertolt Brecht after John Gays The Beggar's Opera
Music by Kurt Weill

Creative Team:
Direction/Stage/Lighting Concept: Robert Wilson
Costumes: Jacques Reynaud
Music Directors / Repetiteurs: Hans-Jorn Brandenburg, Stefan Rager

Cast includes:
Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum: Jurgen Holts
Celia Peachum: Traute Hoess
Polly Peachum: Christina Drechsler
Macheath: Stefan Kurt
Brown: Axel Werner
Lucy: Ann Graenzer
Jenny: Angela Winkler
Filch: Georgios Tsivanoglou

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

REVIEW: Cecilia Bartoli - Sacrificium

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Thursday February 24


It was another wonderful night from the amazing Cecilia Bartoli. This time, she dedicated the whole evening singing arias from her album Sacrificium, which won a Grammy a week and half ago in the category “Best Classical Vocal Performance”.

In Sacrificium, Cecilia Bartoli explores the astonishing world of the ‘castrati’. In her words, “The age of the castratos was one of the most dazzling and remarkable in European music history. Seldom have there ever been such a complete fusion of sensuousness and splendor, form and content, poetry and music, and, above all, such a perfection of vocal virtuosity, as was achieved in the glory days of the Baroque era. The legendary art of the castratos continues to exert its fascination even today, and despite the great human sacrifice it exacted, a new assessment of this extraordinary period is surely justified.”

The album features almost entirely of world-premiere recordings; and highly likely that these arias also made their Asian-premiere performance last night. Accompanying Bartoli in the album is the Il Giardino Armonico (Italian early music ensemble) led by Giovanni Antonini. Last night however, the virtuoso pianist Sergio Ciomei not only accompanied Bartoli but also played a few solo pieces. Ciomei’s Scarlatti pieces were divine; he imbued them with his own character that made them sounding fresh and unexpected. While Ciomei’s piano was at its best, I can’t help but yearn for the baroque ensemble sound I found in the album. The piano worked so well with the 19th century Italian and French songs (February 22 concert) that it enhanced and gave a sense of intimacy to the whole program. In contrast, the piano almost sounded lagging behind the finery and grandeur of the singing in Sacrficium.

Before the start of the concert, there was an announcement that Bartoli was having a cold (memories of The MET came flooding back), BUT she will perform. To be honest, I didn’t hear any difference between the two nights that I have heard her. In both nights, her voice was gorgeous and her singing was a not a bit less stunning. What was absolutely fascinating with Sacrificium is how Bartoli tried to present herself less womanly (more castrato-like). While she wore a red gown in the previous concert; this time, she stepped onto the stage wearing black knee high boots, black tight trousers, white raffled shirts, black vest, black cape and a black feather hat. Instead of a curtsey, she bowed after each round of applause. I love the way how she made the concert so theatrical. Every time she came out after a break, she would be wearing one less piece of clothing… first it was the hat, then the cape, then the vest, then suddenly instead of shedding her boots or pants or shirt (cough), she came in wearing a glamorous hybrid gown/pants attire, then she worked her way up again by adding high standing feather collars… UTTERLY CHARMING!

Now, I can’t wait to see what will be the festival opening program next year… especially since the Hong Kong Arts Festival will be celebrating its 40th year!
_____

Cecilia Bartoli
Sacrificium
Sergio Ciomei (piano)

Program:

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in E, K380 (Instrumental Piece): Andante

Nicolò Porpora
Come nave
(aria of Siface from Siface)


Riccardo Broschi
Chi non sente al mio dolore (aria of Epitide from Merope)

George Frideric Handel
Passacaglia in G minor and Sarabande in D minor (Instrumental Piece)
Lascia la spina (aria of Piacere from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno)

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in C, K159 (Instrumental Piece)

Leonardo Vinci
Cervo in bosco (aria of Climaco from Medo)

Leonardo Leo
Qual farfalla (aria of Decio from Zenobia in Palmira)

Francesco Araia
Cadrò, ma qual si mira (aria of Demetrio from Berenice)

Nicolò Porpora
Usignolo sventurato (aria of Siface from Siface)

George Frideric Handel
Scherza in mar la navicella (from Lotario)

Leonardo Leo
Allegretto in G minor (Instrumental Piece)

Benedetto Marcello
Allegro in G (Instrumental Piece)

Antonio Caldara
Quel buon pastor (aria of Abel from La morte d’Abel)

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in B, K262 (Instrumental Piece): Vivo

Leonardo Vinci
Quanto invidio la sorte...Chi vive amante
(Recitative and aria of Erissena from Alessandro nelle Indie)


Nicolò Porpora
Nobil onda (aria of Adelaide from Adelaide)

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

REVIEW: Cecilia Bartoli - Romantic Songs from 19th Century Italy and France

Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Tuesday February 22

The first time I heard of Cecilia Bartoli was also the first time I saw her perform live, it was also my first time to visit The Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was in Cesare Levi’s Magritte-inspired production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in 1997. I remember that right before the opera started, somebody went onto the stage and I heard everybody moaned. I didn’t know what was happening until the guy started to talk about Bartoli is not feeling well, BUT she will still perform… then there was a unison sigh and spontaneous applause.



During the performance, I do remember thinking her coloratura was spectacular and attributed her breathy tone to her not feeling well. Beyond the voice, her performance was sincere, animated and jolly. Since then, I have bought every single CD I can find with her in it. As for the breathy tone, feeling well or not, it is there and I don’t care.

Another opportunity to see her perform live came in 2003 when she released her Salieri album. I flew to Paris and arrived on the day of the concert. When I went to pick up my internet booked tickets at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, I was informed that the concert was cancelled. At that moment, the tiredness from the flight and the shock was too much that I literally needed to seat down… After 30 minutes of total devastation, I went to Opera Garnier to see Paris Opera Ballet in a Balanchine program while my mind and heart was still wishing it was Bartoli on the stage… singing and not dancing of course.


The whole rational for such a long introduction is to get across that I am a frustrated star-struck fan and my expectations are high. As for Hong Kong Arts Festival’s official opening performance with Cecillia Bartoli singing Romantic Songs from 19th Century Italy and France, it was an unqualified success!

The program was varied and generous. In a lot of recitals and recordings, these type of songs would have been a mere casual vocal exercise, usually rendered plainly while the listeners hang their appreciation on the melody. Not with Bartoli, each song was explored and mined; and each word was sculpted and painted. She presented the carefully crafted program with vocal finery that expose the true character of the songs and reveal little stories, that no matter how simple, seems suddenly relevant.

In this live performance with Sergio Ciomei matching Bartoli in temperament, one gets that extra dimension of having a glimpse of her personality; and hers is endearing and genuine. At the end of the concert, she gave in to 3 encores of which Xavier Montsalvatge’s Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito is my favorite. Her final encore was Handel’s Lasica la spina cogli la rosa. Needless to say, it was gorgeous, so gorgeous that I felt that it was the perfect goodbye and hope that she wouldn’t do another encore… and she didn’t… perfect!

_____
Cecilia Bartoli
Romantic Songs from 19th Century Italy and France
Sergio Ciomei (piano)

Programme:

Gioacchino Rossini
Or che di fiori adorno
Beltà crudele
Anzoleta dopo la regata (From La regata veneziana)


Vincenzo Bellini
L'abbandono
Il fervido desiderio
Vaga luna, che inargenti
La farfalletta
Dolente immagine di Fille mia
Malinconia, Ninfa gentile
Ma rendi pur contento


Gioacchino Rossini
Canzonetta spagnuola
L'esule
La danza


Gaetano Donizetti
Il barcaiuolo
Amore e morte
Me voglio fà ‘na casa


Gioacchino Rossini
L'Orpheline du Tyrol
La grande coquette

Pauline Viardot
Havanaise
Haï luli

Georges Bizet
Tarentelle
La coccinelle


Manuel García
Yo que soy contrabandista (From El poeta calculista)

Maria Malibran
Rataplan

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Monday, February 21, 2011

REVIEW: Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan


City Hall Concert Hall, Sunday February 20

The consistently clean and restrained approach of Masaaki Suzuki gave their performance an honest and meditative quality.

It is difficult to not know Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan as their recordings (47 volumes on Bach alone) are frequently featured in classical music magazines. This is my first time though to hear them perform live. Opening the concert was Bach’s Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, BWV72. While the orchestra had an immediate cohesiveness, it took a while before my ears got used to the choir. Whether the choir sounded thin or small, the uncertainty quickly faded away.

In Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV159, all the four soloists sang. The one that stood out for me was the English countertenor Robin Blaze. I saw his Royal Opera House debut back in 2003 in Handel's Semele as Athamas. My impression of his voice was that it was a bit small, but it had a rich and mellow tone to it. In this performance, that same rich and mellow tone was there but this time, his voice has no problem floating above the orchestra.

In contrast, I had difficulty hearing Czech soprano Hana Blazíková clearly; and this is most apparent in Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn'ihn, BWV1127 wherein the score features a soprano line with mainly continuo accompaniment. When heard though, the voice revealed an exquisite and clean tone.

The highlight of the evening came in the form of Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV147. All instrumentalists and singers gave an inspired performance that slowly crept into the contemplative core of this listener. By the time the music ended, applause just seemed unnatural.


_____
Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan

J S Bach Cantatas
Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, BWV72
Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV159
Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn'ihn, BWV1127
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV147


Soprano:
Hana Blažíková
Countertenor:
Robin Blaze
Tenor: Gerd Türk
Bass: Peter Kooij
Conductor: Masaaki Suzuki

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

REVIEW: De Waart’s Mahler 6 with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra


Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Saturday February 20

In celebration of the centenary of the death of Gustav Mahler, the HKPO brought the tragic 6th, which uses the biggest orchestra he ever employed. The tragic ending of the 6th has been seen as a surprise given that it was composed at what was seemingly (or should be) the happier moment in Mahler’s life. Mahler had married Alma Schindler in 1902 (the 6th was composed between 1903 to 1904), and his second daughter was born during the course of the piece’s composition.


According to Alma Mahler, the 6th is about Mahler’s life, BUT not only about what had happened, but also about what will happen. Apparently, Mahler was so horrified by his musical vision during the dress rehearsal of the piece that he sobbed uncontrollably at the backstage. In fact, so horrified that one of the three hammer-blows was removed and not performed, so as not to tempt fate.

With such an explosively emotional piece, a conductor may choose to provide a drama or melodrama, appeal for emotional bleakness or emotional blackmail. I for one prefer a more restrained performance free from overkill sentiments, as it usually comes across more honest and less manipulative. Gladly, that was what Edo de Waart provided in this full-house concert. The playing was remarkably unflashy which brought through the clarity needed to translate the personal despair coherently put down in music.

To be very honest, my friends and I are not exactly Mahler’s greatest fans. In fact, a few of us were bitching about Mahler and the 6th prior to the concert… well, by the time the final bars erupt fff, we were exchanging culpable looks. As for me, this is the best Mahler I have ever heard from HKPO.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

REVIEW: Hobson's Choice by the Birmingham Royal Ballet


Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Friday February 18

Hobson's Choice is a delightfully woven piece of theater that celebrates everything English... north, at least.
I had a bad day at work (yes, I do work), and this ballet was the perfect remedy. Everything seemed to work together beautifully. It reminded me of Cole Porter's songs in which the words and the music are so perfect for each other.
In this case, the music by Paul Reade was appealing and unpretentious; while the choreography by David Bintley has a beautiful balance between dance and mime, solo and ensemble work that gracefully weave through the music. Bintley endowed the ballet with gorgeous pas de deux's and witty social observation. How he developed each character and how he made them interact with each other was superbly and creatively handled. Production and costume design by Hayden Griffin was gloriously opulent, effective and practical, while the lighting by John Read consistently kept the atmosphere northern.

Most lead dancers were technically secured, but all were dramatically excellent. David Morse’s Henry Hobson was a grumpy, foolish and incorrigible drinker. Gaylene Cummerfield’s Maggie Hobson was suitably frumpy and wise with beautiful and restrained line. Robert Parker made a shy and lovable Will Mossop matched with techniques and boyish charm. On the other hand, I did wish to see a better Albert Prosser as Jonathan Payn hid his dance behind his clumsy character. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, led by Paul Murphy, provided a vivid and colorful performance.

February 20 2011 -
P.S. I just want to be clear that if you are looking for any artistic breakthrough or creative innovation, this ballet will not cut it. Simply put, if this is a movie, this may be a box-office hit, but will not win ANY of the Oscars.
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Hobson's Choice
A ballet in three acts (after Harold Birghouse's play Hobson's Choice)
Asian Premiere
Birmingham Royal Ballet

Creative Team:
Music: Paul Reade
Choreographer: David Bintley
Designs: Hayden Griffin
Lighting: John B. Read

Cast includes:
Henry Hobson: David Morse
Maggie Hobson: Gaylene Cummerfield
Vickey Hobson: Carol-Anne Millar
Fred Beenstock: Matthew Lawrence
Albert Prosser: Honathan Payn
Alice Hobson: Victoria Marr
Will Mossop: Robert Parker
Live Accompaniment: Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Conductor: Paul Murphy

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

REVIEW: Simon Trpceski with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Cultural Center Concert Hall, Saturday February 12

"Simon Trpceski was tsunamied by the HKPO", I tweeted during the interval.


The programme gave a chronological perspective of Rachmaninov's compositions, but the uneven performances of the pieces distracted the audience from truly appreciating his development as a composer.

The Scherzo in D minor was an interesting piece on the basis that it is rarely included in a programme. The piece started off perky and promising but slowly became plain.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 was quite a disappointment. Simon Trpceski provided beautifully balanced opening chords, and then disappeared. While the orchestra carries the melody and the piano accompanies it, the orchestra was so loud (not to be mistaken as lush) that the piano doesn't seem to even exist. And when finally the piano surfaced from the orchestra, it just carried on the same blandness the orchestra offered. By the time the first movement ended in C minor fortissimo, I was just too glad. The other two movements didn't improve.

It is very difficult to make the Vocalise sounds bad and the HKPO didn't, but then it didn't do much either. The playing was almost mechanical.

What saved the night was the Symphonic Dances. Whatever the wrong things the HKPO seemed to be doing up to this point suddenly felt right thing for this piece. Edo maintained an excellent control on the speed and gave a performance free of excess sentiments.

_____
Trpčeski plays Rach 2
11 & 12-2-2011 Fri & Sat 8PM

Programme:
RACHMANINOV: Scherzo in D minor
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2*
RACHMANINOV: Vocalise
RACHMANINOV: Symphonic Dances

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Edo de Waart, Conductor
Simon Trpceski, Piano*

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Monday, February 14, 2011

REVIEW: Die Liebe der Danae (Berlin) by the Deutsche Oper Berlin


Deutsche Oper Berlin (Berlin), Saturday February 5

After seeing this production, now I have a better understanding why this opera is not as popular as Richard Strauss' other works. The opera, a concoction of comedy and Greek mythology, lies heavily on three main characters (Danae, Midas and Jupiter), and the vocal demand on them to make this opera flies is vicious. Despite some of the most beautiful Strauss music, they are dominantly gravitated toward the third (final) act.

Manuela Uhl, Matthias Klink


This Deutsche Oper Berlin production by the out-going Indendantin Kirsten Harms, has translated the greek mythology into modern times (1940s?). This is my third opera in Berlin in a week and all three operas (Die Hochzeit des Figaro, Antigona, Die Liebe der Danae) so far were set in modern times, which is fast becoming traditional or norm. Obviously, by translating something of the past to something modern doesn’t necessarily mean innovation anymore and definitely doesn’t guarantee success. In fact in such productions, I have lowered my standard and just hope that the modern set doesn’t interfere with the story development too much; and forget any hope of enhancement a lot of times.

Mark Delavan

In general, this production is stylish in an interesting way. King Pollux, Danae’s insolvent father, was represented by having his creditors cart away his possessions. A piano was hoisted upside down and it remained that way for the whole opera. A lot of the stage movements involved the clutching of an orchestral score by the King and the gathering of music sheets by Danae. All these seem to mirror and comment on relationship between the opera and Strauss as it was only after his death (1949) that the first public performance was held in 1952.



Conductor Andrew Litton made the most of the gorgeous music and kept a fine balance to ensure that the singers are heard. Manuela Uhl was a fine Danae and paced herself carefully in this treacherous role. Matthias Klink as Midas sang with beautiful lyricism; and despite a smaller instrument, his voice was focused and effortlessly cut through the pit. Mark Delavan was a proud and virile Jupiter with a voice to match. For some added spice, the four queens (Jupiter’s ex-lovers) were delightful. In general, this was the best of the three operas I have seen that week, but will definitely not be a highlight of my opera life.

_____
Die Liebe der Danae
Humorous mythological tale in three acts
by Richard Strauss

Creative Team:
Conductor - Andrew Litton
Director - Kirsten Harms
Stage design - Bernd Damovsky
Costume design - Dorothea Katzer
Dramaturge - Andreas K. W. Meyer
Light design - Manfred Voss
Chorus master - William Spaulding
Artistic production manager - Christian Baier

Cast:
Jupiter - Mark Delavan
Merkur - Thomas Blondelle
Pollux - Burkhard Ulrich
Danae - Manuela Uhl
Xanthe - Hulkar Sabirova
Midas - Matthias Klink
Four Kings - Paul Kaufmann, Clemens Bieber, Nathan De’Shon Myers, Hyung-Wook Lee
Semele - Hila Fahima
Europa - Martina Welschenbach
Alkmene - Julia Benzinger
Leda - Katarina Bradic
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

REVIEW: Veronika, der Lenz ist da (Berlin) by the Berlin Comedian Harmonists


Komödie am Kurfürstendamm (Berlin), Friday February 4

How does one enjoys a play in German even if one's German was dire? Well, make sure that there is a lot of fabulous singing in it.


I didn't have much choice actually. I ordered tickets for Die Lustige Witwe, thinking that it was Franz Lehar's operetta. In fact, in the http://www.germanticketoffice.com/ website, it even showed the name and picture of Franz Lehar (though I have to admit that the copy beside it did clearly contradict my assumption). So when I was in Berlin and happened to pass by Theater am Kurfürstendamm, I checked whether I can have a refund. Instead, the theatre offered me Veronika, der Lenz ist da. Upon seeing the name Comedian Harmonists, I knew I will be better off with Veronika than the Widow!

I was pleasantly surprised that I actually quite enjoyed it. The Comedian Harmonists is an all-male German close harmony ensemble that performed between 1928 and 1934 as one of the most successful musical groups in Europe before World War II and Veronika, der Lenz ist da was one of their famous songs. I came to know the name Comedian Harmonists through my great love for group a capella music; and the British a capella group The King's Singers have released a tribute-album to the Comedian Harmonists. Guess what? The first track in the album was none other than Veronika, der Lenz ist da.

The play gave a "more or less" portrayal of how the group started, their auditions, their fame and also their struggle during the Nazi period (3 of the 6-member group were either Jewish or of Jewish descent). The play premiered on December 19 1997 at the Komödie am Kurfürstendamm (Berlin) and has since played throughout Germany. From the hundreds of artists who auditioned for the play came the new group, The Berlin Comedian Harmonists. Aside from the group, there was also an actor who took the various roles from impressario to Nazi officer.

It was not very difficult to understand what was happening on stage even if one doesn't understand German. Of course it does help to know a little bit about the group. The best part of the play was the singing. Each member of the of group was distinct in personality yet integrated harmoniously into a cohesive ensemble. The production was simple and straightforward yet extremely effective. It also paced in a rhythm that kept the story and the songs interspersed throughout the performance.
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Veronika, der Lenz ist da - Die Comedian Harmonists
Premiered in 1997, January 21 to February 20 at Komödie am Kurfürstendamm

Creative Team:
Director - Martin Woelffer
Stage - Tom Presting
Costumes - Gerhard Kropp

Cast:
Ari - Holger Off
Erich - Olaf Drauschke
Roman - Ralf Steinhagen
Harry - Philipp Seibert
Robert - Wolfgang Höltzel
Erwin - Horst Maria Merz
Hans and other roles - Karl Ernst Horbol

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REVIEW: Antigona (Berlin) at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater


Staatsoper im Schiller Theatre, Thursday February 3


I went to the Staatsoper in Unter den Linden just to be confronted by a deserted theatre. Apparently, the whole operation was moved to Schiller Theater so as to facilitate the renovation of the theatre in Unter den Linden, which won't be open again until 2013. Terrible memories of mistakenly going to Covent Garden when the Royal Opera House was under renovation (which has moved to Shaftesbury Theatre) came flooding back! Luckily, I was early and was able to grab a cab to Schiller Theater, which cost me about 15 Euros! Most importantly, I arrived on time.
Kurt Streit (on chair), Kenneth Tarver (holding crown)

It was Tommaso Traetta’s Antigona that I was going to see. I have to admit that I was not familiar with the name Traetta prior to the booking of my ticket. The reason why I chose this opera was mainly because Rene Jacob was conducting it and Bejun Mehta was singing the role of Emone.

Veronica Cangemi, Jennifer Rivera

Traetta was having the premiere of Antigona (libretto by Marco Coltellini base on the tragedy Antigone by Sophocles) at the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, when Mozart was preparing Lucio Silla for the Teatro Regio Ducal. Mozart was 16-year-old and Traetta was 45-year-old. Hands down, at least to me, Antigona trumps Lucio Silla for its consistent musical style, superior story development and theatrical impact.

The production (by Vera Nemirova) revolves around a stage made to look like a beach with a tall lifeguard chair. In front of the chair is a trap door that served as a burial site and tomb. Actually, the concept was not bad; at least it didn’t interfere with the opera; which was a bit on the slow side, just like a lot of opera of its time.

Veronica Cangemi, Bejun Mehta

The Akademie für Alte Musik was excellent under Jacobs, while the chorus sang and acted with very little commitment, almost look unsure. Aside from that, the cast was fantastic. Veronica Cangemi’s Antigona was heartfelt. Bejun Mehta was a stunning Emone, vocally spellbinding and dramatically effective, he has to be one of the best countertenors in the opera world today. Kurt Streit’s Creon was a strongly performed bully. Kenneth Tarver (Adrasto) and Jennifer Rivera (Ismene) finely completed a wonderful cast.

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Antigona
Opera by Tommaso Traetta

Creative Team:
Conductor - René Jacobs
Director - Vera Nemirova
Stage setting - Werner Hutterli
Costume design - Birgit Hutter
Lighting - Olaf Freese
Chöre - Eberhard Friedrich, Frank Markowitsch
Dramaturgy - Detlef Giese

Cast:
Antigona - Veronica Cangemi
Ismene - Jennifer Rivera
Emone - Bejun Mehta
Creonte - Kurt Streit
Adrasto - Kenneth Tarver
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Staatsopernchor

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REVIEW: Die Fledermaus (Dresden) at the Semperoper Dresden

Semperoper Dresden (Dresden), Wednesday February 2

Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus at the Semperoper was a total delight rich in fuzz and fizz!

While in Berlin, I took a two-hour train to Dresden, not only to see the opera, but also to see the opera house. The building was originally built in 1841 by architect Gottfried Semper. The building was destroyed by fire in 1869, but was reconstructed by Manfred Semper (son of Gottfried, as Gottfried was in exile) based on his father’s plan upon the demand of the Dresden citizenry. The building is considered to be a prime example of “Dresden-Baroque” architecture. Before the war, the building premiered a lot of Richard Strauss’ work. The building was destroyed again in World War II. Exactly after 40 years later, on February 13 1985, the opera was rebuilt to almost its original design before the war and also re-opened with same opera that was performed before its destruction – Weber’s Der Freischutz.

The strength of this Die Fledermaus production lies on its staging (by Günter Krämer). At the center of the concept is a red velvet two-seater chesterfield. It was almost as if the chesterfield represented the state, quality and magnitude of pleasure that was happening on the stage. In Act I, a chesterfield was presented at first. While the operetta started to reveal complex relationships, more chesterfields were presented. By Act II at the ball, a gigantic chesterfield was presented, and when I say gigantic, it was really gigantic. There were about 45 people draped on this chesterfield. However, by Act III at the prison office, a chesterfield stripped to its skeletal structure was presented. The effect was a visual delight and most importantly, the chesterfields were integrated seamlessly to the story.


The cast was also a pleasure to witness. They were relaxed and looked like they were having a great time on stage. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen’s Gabriel von Eisenstein was a lovable naughty womanizer who showed that he can move. Adriane Queiroz’s Rosalinde was a voluptuous mature lady whose high notes were as exciting as her amorous plan. Wolfgang Stumph as Frosch seemed to be very funny in his solo long (German) spiel in Act III, either that or the audience was very polite. Manfred Mayrhofer drew a frothy and bewitching performance from the Staatskapelle Dresden.
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Die Fledermaus
Lyrical comedy in three acts by Richard Strauss. In German language.

Creative Team:
Musical Director: Manfred Mayrhofer
Staging: Günter Krämer
Set Design: Gisbert Jäkel
Costume Design: Falk Bauer
Lighting Design: Jan Seeger
Choreography: Otto Pichler
Choir: Christof Bauer

Cast:
Gabriel von Eisenstein: Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Rosalinde: Adriane Queiroz
Frank: Michael Eder
Prinz Orlofsky: Barbara Senator
Alfred: Andrej Dunaev
Dr. Falke: Christoph Pohl
Dr. Blind: Gerald Hupach
Adele: Arantza Ezenarro
Ida: Andrea Schubert
Frosch: Wolfgang Stumph

Saxon State Opera Choir
Staatskapelle Dresden

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REVIEW: Michael Chance with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong

City Hall, Tuesday January 25

This is a review I wrote for Time-Out Hong Kong just before I left for my London/Berlin trip. For some reason, the last paragraph of my review didn't come out. I suspect that my editor who is on vacation right now must have missed it. In any case, here is the last paragraph:

"Britten’s Variation on a Theme of Frank Bridge was the very work that brought Britten to international attention. Britten studied with Frank Bridge and when commissioned to write a new work for the Salzburg Festival, Britten took as his theme the second of Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet, Op. 6, No. 2. Layton drew a performance full of color, variety and nuance, highlighting the original intention of each variation as a tribute to the different aspects of Bridge’s character."



I have to say that countertenor voice is an acquired taste. The renewed interest in early music has definitely seen an increased popularity of this voice. While many new countertenors may have dazzling talent in maneuvering through florid coloratura passages or soaring through high notes, it was English countertenor Michael Chance’s eloquence that set him apart.

To read my review of the concert, just click the below link:

http://www.timeout.com.hk/music/features/39927/michael-chance-live.html

February 19 2011:
P.S. The last paragraph of the review has now been added to the Time-Out Hong Kong online vesrison

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Posted in Time-Out Hong Kong on January 26 2011

Michael Chance Live
4 out of 5 stars

Many new countertenors may have dazzling talent in maneuvering through florid coloratura passages or soaring through high notes, but it was English countertenor Michael Chance’s eloquence that set him apart. Joining him in his Hong Kong debut was English conductor Jonathan Layton and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong.
The concert opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 in E minor, nicknamed “Trauersinfonie” or “Mourning Symphony” because it was reported that Haydn once said that its slow movement should be played at his own funeral. Layton and the orchestra performed with great style and commitment resulting in an even and traditional rendition.

One of Vivaldi’s most gorgeous sacred works for solo voice, Nisi Dominus RV608, followed. While the text is not long, the work is in nine movements. Here, Chance’s singing brought out moving pathos through caringly shaped inflections, while the orchestra played with sensibility and was paced with restraint, keeping the attention focused on the voice.

Meanwhile, in the four Handel arias, Chance’s voice showed a bit of strain in the higher registers, though his breath control was remarkable. His encore piece, Purcell’s Music for a While, further showed his ability to get inside a song and paint each word touchingly.

The concert concluded with Britten’s Variation on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the very work that brought Britten to international attention. Britten studied with Frank Bridge and when commissioned to write a new work for the Salzburg Festival, Britten took as his theme the second of Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet, Op. 6, No. 2. Layton drew a performance full of color, variety and nuance, highlighting the original intention of each variation as a tribute to the different aspects of Bridge’s character.

Satoshi Kyo

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REVIEW: Le Nozze de Figaro (Berlin) at the Komische Oper Berlin


Komische Oper Berlin (Berlin), Tuesday February 1

Actually, it was Die Hochzeit des Figaro because it was sang in German. This and other elements like wooden flamingos, accordion playing, a Jewish double wedding, Batolo singing My Way (ala Sinatra), Countess sleeping in a wardrobe and Marcellina’s yell of ‘Mazel tov!’ have almost made this a totally different opera! It is somehow expected to see a modern interpretation of an opera in Germany, but this one is particularly artificial, different for the sake to be different.

This production by Barrie Kosky managed to make my friend walk out of the half-filled house. The sad part of this performance was that it was all dramatic affectation and very little superior musical performance. Most of the stage actions were contrived bordering slapstick. It felt like the singers were instructed to never let the audience catch them not moving and to impress the audience, the singers have to sing in the most unnatural body positions.

In Act IV, hundreds of apples were poured onto the stage and a sickening sweet smell of apple permeated the theatre. Why? I don’t know. The only extrapolation I can think of is that it tries to imply temptations (ala forbidden fruit)… but then, WHY? It was all too modern deconstruction post-modern for me at least.

There is nothing to rave about the music or the singing. The orchestra did play and the singers did sing, but this production was neither about music nor singing…

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Die Hochzeit des Figaro
Opera buffa in four acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
German text version by Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze

Creative Team:
Musical direction ... Ariane Matiakh
Staging ... Barrie Kosky
Stage designer ... Klaus Grünberg
Costumes ... Marianne Häntzsche, Birgit Wünschmann
Dramaturgy ... Werner Hintze
Choir ... Barbara Kler
Light ... Franck Evin

Cast:
Graf Almaviva ... Tom Erik Lie
Gräfin Almaviva ... Brigitte Geller
Susanna ... Maureen McKay
Figaro ... Carsten Sabrowski
Cherubino ... Elisabeth Starzinger
Marcellina ... Caren van Oijen
Basilio ... Thomas Ebenstein
Don Curzio ... Peter Renz
Bartolo ... Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Antonio ... Hans-Martin Nau
Barbarina ... Anastasia Melnik
Erste Brautjungfer ... Saskia Krispin
Zweite Brautjungfer ... Mechthild Sauer

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Monday, February 7, 2011

REVIEW: Orchestra Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin)


Chamber Music Hall, Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin), Sunday January 30
In celebration of Hans Werner Henze’s 85th birthday, the orchestra chose to perform his Violin Concerto No. 2 for solo violinist, recorded tape, bass baritone, and other instrumentalists, which employs Hans Magnus Enzensberger's text "Hommage à Gödel" and stage antics to make its point. This is Henze's most avant-garde violin concerto and it sounded that. I have to admit that I didn't particularly enjoy this piece. In any case, one would hardly know whether they were playing the right notes or not unless you have the score for it. It was quite amusing seeing Sir Simon Rattle literally counting in front of the orchestra. Guy Braunstein at the violin did his best in performing the required stage antics... not even that could save this piece. Wolfram Teßmer sang with conviction but his voice is a tad small for this hall.

Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kožená

The second half fared a little better, primarily due to the program, Gustav Mahler’s 
Das Lied von der Erde. The strength of the performance lies on the beauty of Magdalena Kožená's rendition. Hers was a voice that was earthy but bright and ample enough to overcome the imbalance of the orchestral sound. Tenor Andrew Staples has a beautiful but small voice. As for the orchestra, they gave a spectacularly lackluster performance.

Performance aside, I find my experience (first time) in the Chamber Music Hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker a bit disappointing. The hall has an arena type layout, which means that only a third of the audience actually sees the front of the performers. I suppose if this layout means better acoustic, it would be alright, but from where I was seated, the sound was very imbalanced. My experience was also affected by a stupid usher (who insisted that I should go to the other hall - Philharmonie) and extreme heating in the hall (I was down to my t-shirt and I still need fanning).

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Orchestra Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kožená
Sun 30. January 2011 8 pm
Chamber Music Hall

To Hans Werner Henze on the occasion of his 85th Birthday

Orchestra Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle Conductor
Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano
Andrew Staples Tenor
Wolfram Teßmer Baritone
Guy Braunstein Violin

PROGRAMME
Hans Werner Henze: Violin Concerto No. 2
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

REVIEW: Love Never Dies (London)

Adelphi Theatre (London), Saturday January 29

What a dreadful piece of theatre. The songs were not too bad, but the story and how it was related was extremely lackluster, it makes a lot of stories in baroque operas sound totally realistic and logical.


Love Never Dies, latest creation for West End by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has lyrics by Glenn Slater and later Charles Hart, and book by Lloyd Webber, Slater and Ben Elton. It is a sequel to the The Phantom of the Opera. The plot is original and Lloyd Webber has stated "I don't regard this as a sequel – it's a stand-alone piece". The musical is set ten years roughly after the end of the original Phantom, Christine Daaé is invited to perform at Phantasma, a new attraction in Coney Island, by an anonymous impresario and, with her husband Raoul and son Gustave in tow. The impresario was of course the Phantom. The point of conflict has not changed, it is still the Phantom vs. Raoul for the love of Christine with bits of side dishes like a son of Christine by the Phantom and Meg's jealousy over the Phantom's love for Christine.

Sierra Boggess, Ramin Karimloo

It is the book that killed the musical. The performances were very good. Sierra Boggess, as Christine, gave a wonderful performance. Since the last time I saw her (in her broadway debut creating the title role in Disney's The Little Mermaid), she has even impressed me more. Despite the high tessitura of the role, her singing was never shrill. Ramin Karimloo, as the Phantom, was also impressive, but may be a tad less impressive when compared to his recording. The beautiful Summer Strallen, as Meg Giry, gave her role just the right voice and mannerisms. Joseph Millson, as Raoul, was the least effective vocally amongst the leads, but what he lacks he offset with his committed acting.

Summer Strallen

The production (directed by Jack O'Brien and set and costume by Bob Crowley) was polished, but it sat in the land of nowhere between grand and sleek when compared with the original Phantom or other shows in West End.

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Love Never Dies
Adelphi Theatre, opened on March 9 2010

Creative Team:
Andrew Lloyd Webber - Producer, Composer, Book and Orchestrations
Glenn Slater - Lyrics and Book
Ben Elton - Book
Frederick Forsyth - Book
Jack O’Brien - Director
Charles Hart - Additional Lyrics
Jerry Mitchell - Choreographer
Bob Crowley - Set and Costume Designer
Paule Constable - Lighting Design

Cast include:
Ramin Karimloo - The Phantom
Sierra Boggess - Christine Daaé
Joseph Millson - Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny
Liz Robertson - Madame Giry
Summer Strallen - Meg Giry
Niamh Perry - Fleck
Adam Pearce - Squelch
Jami Reid-Quarrell - Gangle

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

REVIEW: The Invisible Man (London)

Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre (London), Friday January 28

I considered seeing this play mainly because it was in the Menier (known for its track-record of producing west-end and broadway worthy productions) and one of the cast member was Maria Friedman (a well-known west-end musical theatre actor).

John Gordon Sinclair, Maria Friedman, Natalie Casey
The play by Ken Hill is based on H.G. Wells' classic tale of a man arriving in a village wrapped in bandages. The play was retold in a music hall spectacular manner, where actors acted as if they came right out of a Marx Brothers movie. In general, it was a silly little play, with silly jokes (reminds me of knock knock jokes) and silly special effects. Friedman was ample, but how I wish saw her in a more meaty singing role. One actor worth mentioning though is Natalie Casey. She was absolutely a pleasure to watch, she was constantly at it... being funny without trying too hard.
Michael Beckley
With Christmas already a month past, this almost-pantomime seemed a bit out of place. However, if you are on vacation and in for a good variety of theatre performances, The Invisible Man can actually be quite enjoyable.

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The Invisible Man
13th November 2010 - 13th February 2011

Creative Team:

Directed by Ian Talbot
Illusions by Paul Kieve
Set Designs by Paul Farnsworth
Costume Designs by Matthew Wright
Lighting by Jason Taylor
Music by Steven Edis
Sound by Gareth Owen
Choreography by Sam Spencer-Lane

Cast includes:

Michael Beckley
Gerard Carey
Natalie Casey
Geraldine Fitzgerald
Maria Friedman
Christopher Godwin
Teddy Kempner
John Gordon Sinclair
Jo Stone-Fewings
Gary Wilmot

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REVIEW: Love Story (London)

Duchess Theatre (London), Thursday January 27


Now this is a pleasant surprise. I thought that it would be cheesy and corny, melodramatic and manipulative. Well, I think that it could be the best show I have seen in London during this trip. Love Story, a musical with books and lyrics by Stephen Clark and music by Howard Goodall, is based on the movie of the same title by Erich Segal. It starred Emma Williams, Michael Xavier, Peter Polycarpou and others.

Emma Williams, Michael Xavier

The beauty of this musical is that the creators decided to keep the show short and without an interval. The story move along in a constant pace with smart dialogues and songs that do not keep on repeating the same verses or have showstopping key changes. Everything paced rhythmically until the lovers were confronted with the bad news (she's dying of leukemia) and then there was a prolong silence... silence that did not only let the actors dig deep into their feeling, but also let the audience contemplate the situation... then suddenly, the actors turn toward the stage teary-eyed (but not weeping)... and that set almost everybody teary-eyed also... and a few giggling... Yes, giggling. The effect was so unexpected to some members of the audience that they can't believe that they and their companions were crying... and that set off some embarrassed laughters.

Peter Polycarpou

Emma Williams, playing the role of Jenny Cavilleri, has come a long way since I saw her debut in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She was a proud, edgy but grounded Jenny and her singing was faultless. Michael Xavier, playing the husband Oliver Barrett IV, may be a tad weaker vocally, but was extremely effective and believable actor. Peter Polycarpou, as the father Phil Cavilleri, is one of the best musical theatre actors I have ever seen on British stage. He was equally credible in the funny and dramatic moments.

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Love Story
Duchess Theatre, December 6 2010 to February 26 2011

Creative Team:
Stephen Clark (Writer)
Howard Goodall (Composer)
Rachel Kavanaugh (Director)
Peter McKintosh (Designer)
Lizzi Gee (Choreographer)

Cast:
Emma Williams (Jenny Cavilleri)
Michael Xavier (Oliver Barrett IV)
Peter Polycarpou (Phil Cavilleri)
Richard Cordery (Oliver III)
Jan Hartley (Alison)
Gary Milner (Dr. Ackerman)
Julie Stark (Jenny's Mother)
Paul Kemble (Stitching Doctor)

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