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WNO ANON March 2014
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Hong Kong and Macau

 

John Allison

 

Exciting though it was to witness the premiere of Huang Ruo's Dr Sun Yat-sen, given by Opera Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, that had not quite been the agenda when I made my travel plans. Originally scheduled as the first Hong Kong performance, the October 13 opening was to have followed a premiere at Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts on September 30, but, only a month before, word came down from Party officials that, as far as the capital was concerned, Dr Sun would be indefinitely postponed. Then the Guangzhou Opera House, which had been scheduled to co-produce the work this month, withdrew as well. Speculation ranged widely as to the reasons why, on the 100th anniversary of Sun's Chinese revolution, which overthrew the Qing dynasty and ended feudalism in China, this new opera should have been cancelled. From Berlin, the New York-based composer's representative insisted that the reason had been political censorship; Beijing cited logistical reasons; others suggested artistic difficulties; in the end, and not before a major sponsor had withdrawn, it looked as if a mixture of these factors had been at play, and that it had perhaps been short-sighted planning to schedule a work focusing more on Sun's love-life than political legacy for the country's National Day.

 

If Dr Sun is not a Chinese-style holiday piece, Opera Hong Kong-whose first commission this was-showed it to be an absorbing work that could still do with some trimming and tightening. The libretto by Candace Chong wisely jettisons much of the detail of the full and scattered life of south China's most famous son, and concentrates on Sun's relationship with Charlie Soong, the wealthy backer of the revolutionary movement who turned against Sun when the latter married Soong's daughter Chingling without his consent-and without divorcing his first wife, Lu Muzhen. All this-sung in Mandarin-has good operatic potential, but it was diluted by a dispensable sideshow of occasional spoken English interludes tracing the story of the exquisite wedding garment given by Charlie to his daughter as a deathbed peace offering; the exchanges between the elderly Japanese owner and an eager American museum curator seemed stilted, though they were the pretext for including the veteran actress Lisa Lu in the show. Some cuts in the first two acts would also help the work, which gets more dramatic in its final, third act, but equally a livelier and more nuanced production than that of Chen Xinyi, a Beijing establishment figure (‘National Class One Director') who turned the chorus scenes into agitprop, might do the trick. Gao Guangjian's flexible set-making a visual motif of picture frames, from the smallest, holding historical images, to the biggest ones shattered amid revolutionary chaos-was a model of resourcefulness, and the costumes by the boutique Blanc de Chine were evocative and detailed.

 

In his first opera, Huang Ruo has sought to develop the synthesis of Chinese and Western elements already found in his previous works; his aim is not so much to mix them as to achieve an organic unity, and-to the extent that here he has composed for Western-style operatic voices singing Mandarin words-he succeeds. His vocal lines are apparently influenced not by traditional Chinese opera but by (local to Hong Kong) Cantonese narrative singing, with one syllable to one note, departing from standard Western vocalism. But the most obvious musical feature of Dr Sun is the scoring for traditional Chinese instruments (Huang has made two versions, with an alternative for Western orchestra), realized here with subtlety by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra under the conductor Yan Huichang. Some of the Chinese reviewers are said to have dismissed this as a gimmick, but this colourful soundworld did not distract from the substance of the work.

 

Opera Hong Kong cast Dr Sun strongly, beginning with the company's artistic director, the tenor Warren Mok, in the title role. With his spinto top and charismatic presence, he commanded the stage as the hallowed ‘Kuo Fu', the Father of the Chinese Republic, while also showing his human frailties. As Chingling, the soprano Yao Hong revealed a bright and lyrical voice in the Liù mould; Yuki Ip sang with warmth and dignity as the first wife. Charlie Soong was portrayed by the soft-grained bass Gong Dongjian with musical intelligence, and his wife was taken by Yang Guang (1997 Cardiff Singer winner), no less. Another prominent singer, the mezzo Liang Ning, appeared in the small role of Shokichi's Wife, present in the scenes for the Japanese couple who gave the fugitive Sun shelter in Yokohama. There were no weak links in the rest of the cast, who helped to make this a successful first operatic commission for Hong Kong and a solid building block in China's expanding repertory of home-grown opera.

 

Both Sun and Mok were much in evidence in neighbouring Macau, where the tenor, also artistic director of the Macau International Music Festival, ensured that the big centenary was reflected on a programme that included the premieres of several new Sun-inspired works. It was this former Portuguese colonial city that allowed Sun to set up as a surgeon after the British authorities had barred his practice in Hong Kong. The festival also had its own anniversary to celebrate, and this 25th edition ranged widely from Rising Sun-The Musical to the Vienna Philharmonic. Also in town was the Lithuanian National Opera, whose production of Der Freischütz (the first in Greater China) was in the hands of one of China's most experienced operatic conductors, Lü Jia. In addition, the company from Vilnius presented what must surely have been first performances in the region of choral music by Lithuania's visionary painter-composer, Èiurlionis.

 

Baroque opera is becoming one of the festival's strengths, not least on account of it being able to perform in the jewel-like theatro dom pedro v, one of the oldest Western-built theatres (1860) in East Asia. Projecting surtitles in Chinese, Portuguese and English, it was the venue for a new production of Acis and Galatea (October 14) that boasted the services of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and hearing such an outstanding period band in this intimate space was a considerable pleasure. Directing from the harpsichord, the Australian-born, Italian-based Aaron Carpenè shaped a superb account of Handel's most effusively lyrical score. In this truly international effort, the Shanghai Opera House Chorus were the nymphs and shepherds, kept busy by the choreographer Gloria Giordano, whose mix of the stylish and naïve suited the tone of this piece.

 

Indeed, this was very much the aim of the Italian director Stefano Vizioli, whose feeling for Baroque meaning and gesture showed in a fluid integration of every component. An often stark stage was beautifully framed, not least by a lavish, flower-embossed curtain suggesting a rather rich and exotic Arcadia. As the set designer and video artist, Lorenzo Cutuli supplied images often taken from nature but frequently abstract, and the general look was witty and playful.

 

In the title roles, John McVeigh was a fresh-voiced Acis, ardent of presence and limpid in the way he shaped Handel's lines, and Yulia Van Doren matched him with her bright and natural-sounding Galatea. Damon-who arrived via hot-air balloon and with two large parrots in attendance-was sung with keen attack by Andrew Bidlack, and this American trio was joined by the German-based Cameroonian bass Jacques-Greg Belobo, whose dreadlocked Polyphemus disclosed a potent voice and good coloratura for ‘O ruddier than the cherry'.   

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