The second showing of the company at the National Performing Arts Centre, following on from its inaugural Turandot, was the only other Far-Eastern opera in the repertoire, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. An interesting choice, considering the enmity that traditionally exists between China and Japan; but the first night coincided with extensive news coverage in the Chinese press of a three day state visit that President Hu Jintao was making to Japan, with many photos of him being greeted by Emperor Akahito. While some in the West might ignorantly muddle these two totally dissimilar cultures, the universality of the opera's theme--the disgrace of a local woman by a foreigner, seemed to chime with the audience by evening's end. Nevertheless, it is time for the National Centre of Arts to change its tune; and despite Puccini’s 150th birthday, the repertoire needs to be opened up to give the fledgling company a chance to master more diverse stylistic challenges. After all, the parade of Western ‘exotic’ operas, depicting an imaginary Far East, is a short one. What could possibly be next: Saint-Saëns’ La princesse Jaune, Gluck’s Le cinesi or Lehár’s The Land of Smiles? Perish the thought!

The production was a collaboration between the NPAC and the Central Conservatoire of Music; and their student orchestra, under the baton of Li Xincao, had a much stronger grasp of Puccini’s idiom than the ad-hoc band and maestri assembled for Turandot. Tempi were flexible and organic, and even though the woodwind were uneven, some lovely phrasing was apparent, even if the string sound did not have the heft and polish to make the sound-world appropriately sumptuous. Considering how new the Western tradition is to most people here, with audiences listening to Mozart and Beethoven as if new, the successful assimilation of such a nuanced idiom as Puccini’s is incredibly impressive. 

Gary Burgess’s production was conventional, though the concluding scenes of both acts delighted with visual coups. The opening out of the house in Act One to a neon-moonlit Japanese garden was picture-postcard romantic (intricate and effective designs by Dai Yannian) and the conclusion, with a rainstorm and Cio-Cio-San’s blood staining the water while Pinkerton sang his final calls from the rear of a departing ship, was arresting, even if it diffused the claustrophobic tension of the ending, where, ideally, one wants to focus on the plight of Butterfly alone. Burgess missed a trick, too, by bringing the curtain down between the two scenes of Act Two. The drama at the end of the Humming Chorus was palpable and the audience’s rapt attention was broken by the break, with chit-chat heard through much of the following intermezzo.
At the premiere (May 8), Zhu Ailan gave a multi-faceted performance, demonstrating an elegant sense of line and breath-control and a real grasp of the quicksilver changes of mood in the second act--ranging from the guying of Prince Yamadori, to the delight and desperation of the long scene with Sharpless, culminating in a touching rendition of the ‘geisha’ aria. She did lack the biggest of guns, though, both vocally and dramatically for the sighting of the ship and the moment of realization in the last scene, though in the last she was not helped by a lack of conviction from director, conductor and orchestra who seemed not to trust Puccini’s expertly timed silences, and rode roughshod through them. Zheng Yun’s Suzuki, who absolutely lived her role, was a powerful foil for Butterfly. Vicente Ombuena Valis’s Billy Bunter-ish Pinkerton, was devoid of both vocal and physical allure; and for this reason, the first act hung fire.  Robert Hyman’s Sharpless, after a tentative first act, came into his own in Act Two with his long, crucial scene with Butterfly. Of the supporting cast, Ye Qu Ling’s Goro and Peng Kang Liang’s Bonze were notable. 



Since the razzle-dazzle surrounding the opening of the National Centre of Performing Arts in Beijing in March 2008, and attendant discussions about a resident opera company for Beijing, there have been slim pickings for Western opera lovers, with only an Aida from Cairo and a revival of the opening Turandot, interspersed with a few concert performances since last summer. Now, running from April to June, there is a festival of opera, both Western and Chinese, with new productions of Tosca and La bohème, co-productions with La Fenice (Madama Butterfly) and Parma (Rigoletto), a revival of a Carmen from China National Opera house and a third outing for Turandot, plus a concert performance of The Flying Dutchman by the China National Symphony Orchestra, recitals, seminars, and education events. 


Tosca and La bohème were both double cast with westerners and Chinese-born singers in the lead roles, each had a run of four performances on consecutive nights. Tosca featured Natalia Ushakova and Marcello Giordani on the first night. Both the Chinese singers in the second cast have sung regularly at Covent Garden. Zhang Liping, a celebrated Cio-Cio-San and Lucia, ventured into heavier repertoire than is usual for her. On April 16th she gave a detailed traversal of the title role, with good diction and an insightful combination of temperament and vulnerability, though her voice sounded a little small and lacking in lower register heft. Fans of tenor machismo had a field night with Dai Yuqiang’s Cavaradossi: his effortlessly projected voice filled the vast auditorium, making a meal of his top notes- the second-act Vittoria! was thrilling - yet he delivered a honeyed and sotto voce E lucevan le stelle. He has stage presence and if he were to tone down a propensity for tenorissimo ham would be all the stronger as an actor. Zhang Yalun looked every inch a sinister saturnine Scarpia, yet his diction was occluded and the voice disappeared in the middle – he was out-sung by CuiZongshun, doubling as Angelotti and the Gaoler. The Shanghai Opera House orchestra is China’s pre-eminent opera band; under Li Xincao ensemble was exemplary and many details of the piquant orchestration registered, even if they did drown out the stage on occasion. Alas, everyone was sacrificed to a horrendous, locally conceived production which re-assembled neon-lit religious iconography from the first act in different dispositions for the remaining acts. It is unwise to divest the stage of all props in Act Two, and after executioners resembling extras from Doctor Who I feared the worst: Scarpia disappeared offstage to find pen, ink and desk to write the safe-passage and Tosca was obligingly handed a large knife by a figure in grey who wandered in, presumably from Bergman’s Seventh Seal. The act ended with Tosca gesturing shamanistically at a huge chandelier that obligingly flickered off. Worse was to come in the last act, set in a parapet-free starscape dominated by a huge neon-cross. The Shepherd Boy was a teenage girl in bunches and white dress who appeared at the front of the stage, looking as if she were auditioning for Annie. At the conclusion, Death-a-la-Bergman reappeared at the end, descending inside the cross, in what looked like an elevator, to embrace Tosca. My thirteen-year old daughter, whose first Tosca this was, turned to me and said ‘You didn’t tell me Tosca gets abducted by aliens’. Now that might have been dramatic. 

La bohème was given a similar double-cast run of four performances. At the last performance (May 4) the opera was halted at Mimi’s entrance by an altercation of ushers with walkie-talkies, who were yelled at by the conductor. Rodolfo and Mimi’s arias, and the duet made little effect, as the principals were evidently rattled. Later, Yao Hong as Mimi settled into a sensitive portrayal and she lived up to her reputation as China’s finest singing actress. Warren Mok’s Rodolfo displayed a ringing top, but some discomfort around the break, resulting in inconsistent projection and choppy phrasing. The bohemian interplay was detailed and amusing, with a rakish Schaunard from Liu Song-Hu and a plangent Colline, Zhan Zhi-Jing, but the show was stolen by Ma Mei’s Musetta. It was not really the right voice for the part, a huge lustrous sound more dramatic mezzo than spinto, but she devoured the stage.  The orchestra was on good form, galvanized by Lu Jia, who had clearly internalized the score and who conjured up a wealth of dynamic and dramatic contrast, far better than his casual interpretation of Turandot at the house’s opening last year. Chen Xin-Yi’s production was misleadingly marketed as a Rent-style updating to Beijing’s thriving 798 district: a huge industrial village that has become the fulcrum for the exploding art market and a major tourist destination. The evening started with a playful film of four Italian singers landing in Beijing, being greeted by Italian speaking Chinese customs officials and conveyed to an industrial loft space in 798.  Confusingly, the curtain rose on a huge loft that wasn’t quite contemporary enough, with a Chinese cast dressed in 19th century Parisian costumes: in short it was a sub-Zeffirelli cop out, with highly spectacular sets that necessitated lengthy pauses between the acts, killing the momentum of the evening, with amateurish direction of chorus and extras in the Café Momus scene.

© Julian Grant 2009  

BEIJING – November 2009


Hopes that director Zhang Yimou would score a double triumph by producing Turandot (which he directed at the Forbidden City in 1998) and the National Stadium- better known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ – (where he staged the opening of the Beijing Olympics last year), were stymied by the vastness of the venue. Despite a 1000 sq. meter backdrop in the shape of a palace, and some colourful, if clichéd projections, the 91,000 seat architectural landmark (over half full) swallowed up the enterprise, reducing the singers to microscopic figurines. The sound amplification was problematic, though Dai Yuqiang and Raffaela Angeletti as Calaf and Turandot attempted to contribute voltage to an uninvolving event. A sizeable portion of the audience slipped away in the final act. The local press proclaimed it a success – much needed as the National Stadium has almost no bookings and there is talk of turning part of it into yet another shopping centre. This production will feature at Shanghai’s Expo 2010 and a world tour is threatened. Londoners, wary of the post-Olympics fate of costly piles, take note. 


Beijing’s annual music festival this year played host to an impressively varied international programme, including Claudio Abbado, Bang on a Can and a Mendelssohn series. It opened on October 10th at the Poly Theatre, a congenial medium sized theatre, with the Savonlinna Festival production of Verdi’s Macbeth. The China Philharmonic and Shanghai Opera Chorus acquitted themselves well under Savonlinna’s artistic director Jari Hämäläinen, and despite Ralf Lånbacka’s tame production, the predominantly local audience responded to an unfamiliar opera with enthusiasm. Amongst strong performances, Jaakko Ryhänen’s bluff and resonant Banquo, and Michele Kalmandi’s Macbeth stood out. The Lady, Cynthia Makris, lacked resonance below the stave, but her coloratura was exciting, and she commanded the stage with glamorous and devious presence, capping her performance with a luscious top Db.


Last summer at the NCPA, an international opera convention focused on government policy underlying the building of opera houses. China wishes to engage with the West’s cultural centres of excellence, and the NCPA has embarked upon an ambitious roster of joint productions with European houses. While erecting monster buildings to house a western art form well past its prime may seem baffling, all the more problematic is the lack of indigenous work to fill them. The NCPA has embarked upon a commissioned series of new, western style operas, of which Xi Shi is the first. Xi Shi is one of the four legendary ‘great beauties’ of Ancient China, most of whom caused kingdoms to fall. She lived in the Yue kingdom during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC) and was offered to the conquering King of Wu, who neglects his kingdom on her account and is murdered by his generals. The exiled King of Yue returns to his country intending to make Xi Shi his concubine, but his jealous wife intervenes and forces Xi Shi to drown herself.  I was intrigued by a ‘grand opera’ reconstituted for the present day. The result made me ponder just what it is that the Chinese absorb from exposure to ‘western’ operas. The result was not so much reactionary as something reconfigured from misunderstood ritual: a night for Meyerbeerian effects without causes. Arias were highlighted, occupying pride of place in the lavish programme book, so we knew that they were coming, with text, and even music for one, printed. No matter what dramatic context (a rape and pillage scene was suspended to allow Xi Shi to deliver a folk-song!) all their conclusions were climactic with applause-cadging high notes. The audience, led by claques, obliged. All arias were sung flat out at the footlights, and most choruses too. Lei Lei, the composer, is not a name known on the musical scene here and one can only wonder how he landed the commission, considering the broad choice of others with originality and skill.  Operatic craft was lacking. Surely the Puccini parade shown at the NCPA should have taught him something. The score was largely innocent of any thematic argument, and harmony and orchestration were inept. The orchestra more or less disappeared at moments of high drama, leaving the singers confronting each other parlando, often in uncomfortably low registers. One attempt at an ensemble was aborted quickly. Ends of scenes, in contrast to arias, were irresolute and inconsequential. Presumably prior knowledge of the story was assumed, as the narrative was unclear, but engineered to encompass as many ‘western’ opera situations as possible: a coloratura roulade over a jewel box, a Mimì death moment, a Nessun Dorma outburst and many patriotic postures acquired from Verdi. The distinguished cast (including Zhang Liping in the title role) played this to the hilt. Dai Yuqiang, tenorissimo-in-residence here, rattled the rafters as the exiled King of Yue, showing admirable conviction expressing his frustration in exile by risibly dismembering a rather elegant nightstand with his sword. Yang Xiaoyong played the villainous King of Wu with a Snidely Whiplash snarl. Wu Bixia dignified the role of Zheng Dan, friend of the heroine, with clean coloratura and vivacious presence, but the Amneris-like timbre of Zhu Qiuling was wasted on the ill-written role of the Queen of Yue. All soloists and chorus were prey to suspect intonation, but I would put this down to the tinny orchestration, which never supported the voices, and made the usually excellent Shanghai Opera Orchestra sound threadbare. There were spectacular designs by Huang Haiwei, dried ice, ruby-clad clog dancers and platoons of soldiers (sounding somewhere in-between The Pirates of Penzance and The Music Man) who took their marching cues, not from the recent 60th anniversary of the Communist State parade, but from Mel Brooks. The audience cheered madly at the finish.


The combination of patriotism and high sentiment put the opera firmly in the tradition of the Cultural Revolution shows, or Stalinist grand opera, but without their explicit propaganda or fail-safe formulae. Characterization and psychology were absent. If home-grown opera occurred in say, North Korea or Turkmenistan - isolated totalitarian regimes with cursory access to outside culture, this is what one imagines would be served up. But Beijing is supposed to be emerging as a world power, with artistic aspirations. A major artistic policy question needs to be addressed at the NCPA: if Beijing wishes to be counted with the operatic colossi of the west, what is it doing producing work like this?

Things were redeemed somewhat by Paul Curran’s new co-production of Die Zauberflöte, originating from Norwegian Opera, where he is artistic director, and shared with Opera Hong Kong. The designs and costumes were highly striking, an eclectic mix of Egypt, China, Star Wars and Doctor Who, and direction was straightforward and pacy, faltering only in the second act, where more invention is needed to secure the faulty narrative structure and avoid longueurs. Though sung in German, dialogue was in English, with Papageno ad-libbing in Mandarin, to the delight of the audience. Xxxx’s Pamina was a radical take on the role, more an operetta hostess than the usual passive goody-goody, which worked well except for when the emotions deepen in Ach, ich fuls, otherwise skillfully sung. Eric Margiore’s Tamino overcame a dry start and phrased elegantly, but Brian Montgomery’s somewhat hangdog Papageno was a bit downbeat and sounded tired. Mimma Briganti’s Queen of the Nightdisplayed pinpoint accuracy above the stave, though her tone seemed a little unfocused lower down.. Vocal honours went to Mika Kares, a young Finnish bass, as Sarastro. The chorus was below par in exposed passages, and the orchestra was accurate, if not refined, under Jari Hämäläinen.

© Julian Grant 2009  

BEIJING – Opera Festival- April-July 2010


The 2010 Beijing Opera Festival – in reality a mini-season from April-July comprising a mix of touring and local productions – shows signs of growth and enterprise, with some small scale studio productions with apprentice singers, including Gianni Schicchi, a forum on co-productions, and a growing awareness of attracting audiences unfamiliar with Western opera with talks, school and family ticket offers. 


First came the notorious Dmitri Cherniakov production of Eugene Onegin by the Bolshoi, fast becoming a classic and already much featured in these pages. Ekaterina Scherbachenko, recent winner of Cardiff’s Singer of the World competition, found a withdrawn quality in Tatyana, but despite a securely voiced account, seemed anonymous on the vast NCPA stage. Roman Shulakov, doubling Lensky and M. Triquet seemed out of sorts, until his big solo. Vladimir Sulimsky’s Onegin and Mikhail Kazakov as Gremin gave the most assured performances. A committed ensemble cast, dominated in Act 1 by the stellar Makvala Kasrashvili as Madame Larina, worked its magic for me, if not for the Beijing audience, who texted and fidgeted throughout and many escaped during the intervals. A more extrovert brand of Western opera is more to the taste of the local audience, who thrill to Italianate squillo and verismo thrills, which Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece does not supply.  Last season’s execrable new piece Xi Shi was repeated, and nearly foundered, as a new orchestration failed to materialize at the eleventh hour, and the noticeably tinny original had to be endured again. 


The first new production of the season, Carmen, had a rough rehearsal period, as director Francesca Zambello and her assistant were volcanic ash-bound in Europe, and injured choreographer Duncan Macfarland took charge of the first weeks from a wheelchair. Rumours abounded of a lack of infrastructure at the NCPA, with a dearth of interpreters for the Western production team, and no language coach to help the Chinese singers in the smaller roles cope with the spoken French of the opera-comique version, which in the event, was epigrammatic. Maybe this was why Zambello’s production relied heavily on ideas from her 2006 Royal Opera version, with a premonition of Don Jose’s fate in the prelude, a female Lillas Pastia, and an overly understanding, even submissive Carmen in the final act – which mutes the final confrontation. However, the narrative was unadorned and clear, and sets, and particularly Sue Willmington’s costumes were earthy, striking and intricate. Beijing’s costume shops are fast becoming the destination of choice by the worldwide film industry, attracted by its cheap rates and overworked labour force. On May 13, American mezzo Kirsten Chávez dominated the stage with a well thought through, earthy and sexual performance, though vocally unsettled and inconsistent – the card scene went for nothing, and she tended to sharpness in the higher registers, though the Seguidille and the second act duet with Don Jose revealed temperament and potential star quality.  Richard Troxell gave a committed dramatic performance as Don Jose, but his voice did not ride the orchestra and seemed several degrees too light - the Flower song lacked legato. Best was Anne-Catherine Gillet as Micaela, a quintessentially Gallic voice, with a fast vibrato and appealing touch of lemon, which projected effortlessly through the large house. A dry voiced Jean-Luc Chaignaud seemed uncomfortable in the Toreador song, and was avuncular rather than dashing. Some impressive voices were heard in smaller roles, notably Chen Peixin as a thuggish and dangerous Zuniga, and the interplay in the Act two quintet between Zhang Fen and Yang Yang as Le Dancaire and Remendado, and Niu Shasha and Li Xintong as Mercedes and Frasquita was detailed and vivacious. The NCPA chorus, newly formed this season, acquitted itself admirably. Though Zuohuang Chen is the artistic director of the NCPA, he does not appear to be an experienced opera conductor, being more interested in indicating orchestral detail than coordinating stage and pit. He failed to breathe, or even acknowledge his singers, with the result that there were plentiful and protracted wreckages along the way. A shame, as the orchestra demonstrated rhythmic élan and nuance in the entr’actes. 


Fresh from opening the the Zaha Hadid opera house in Guangzhou, with yet another Turandot, veteran maestro Lorin Maazel was at the helm (June 1st) for La traviata, a revisiting of the much travelled Henning Brockhaus production that originated in the 1980’s with mirror designs by Joseph Svoboda, here updated by Benito Leonori. It was sumptuous and eye-catching, but the desolation of the last act proved elusive. Maazel’s conducting veered from the exquisite (the Preludes to the first and third acts) to the pedestrian: swathes of the Violetta-Germont confrontation hung fire, lacking pace and rhythmic propulsion. Dario Soleri’s suavely phrased Giorgio was not alive to the verbal and dramatic detail that can make this role so compelling, so it was left to the lovers to provide voltage. Mary Dunleavy revealed an impressive range of vocal and verbal colour as Violetta, and she was ably partnered by Arturo Chacun-Cruz’s hot-headed Alfredo, who exuded danger in the gambling scene, and has an ardent slightly baritonal timbre with enviable ease on top. The season concludes with Leo Nucci in Rigoletto (a co-production with Teatro Regio, Parma) and a new L’elisir d’amore.

© Julian Grant 2008