A Colossal Il Trovatore in Beijing

ChinaChina Verdi: Il Trovatore, National Centre for the Performing Arts Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Lu Jia (conductor), National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, 21&23.05.14 (RP)

Manrico: Luciano Ganci
Leonora: He Hui
Conte di Luna: Juan Jesus Rodriguez
Azucena: Marianne Cornetti
Ferrando: Giorgio Giuseppini
Ines: Zhang Xin
Ruiz: Wang Chong

Director/Set Design/Costume Design: Hugo De Ana
Lighting Design: Vinicio Cheli
Projection Design: Sergio Metalli
Chorus Master: Paolo Faimingo

The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) is an enormous, ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by an artificial lake, just minutes away from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The outside public areas are filled with people enjoying the calm afforded by its expansive grounds and the tranquil lake. Readily accessible by Beijing’s modern subway system, it is a performing arts center for the 21st century. That it has a security system akin to those found in many airports is also a sign of our times.

The Opera Hall, one of three major performance venues, is mercifully not on the same scale as the overall structure. It seats 2,416 people. Wood and deep red combine to provide a warm atmosphere in harmony with the color of the walls of the nearby Forbidden City. Having had the luxury of attending both opening night and the second performance of this international cast, I had the opportunity to experience the hall from different vantage points. Sight lines are generally good, although restricted on the extremes of either side of the house. Acoustically it is a bit of a mixed bag: voices are easily heard anywhere that I sat, but the hall does nothing to enhance the voice. It took most of the singers time to adjust to the acoustics on opening night, but by the second performance that was much less of a factor. The English translation is projected above the stage, with Mandarin shown on both sides.

Hugo De Ana found inspiration for this production in the works of the 20th-century Greek-born Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico. The troubadour was a subject that de Chirico returned to throughout his long career. His schola metafisica movement influenced the surrealists and featured abandoned spaces and ruins with colossal, menacing structures. De Ana’s concept for this production is equally monumental in scale. The stage was dominated by enormous columns on their sides, and giant mounted equestrian figures emerged from the walls.  The stage was steeply raked which made for some wonderful stage pictures, but the performers were uncomfortable moving about on it.

In interviews prior to opening night, De Ana stated that his set design for this production was a combination of styles taking the audience to an abstract and poetic space. No truer words could have been spoken. Not only was there the monumental set, there was a scrim upon which symbols of war, flame and the moon were projected. These visual effects were often quite beautiful and atmospheric, but at other times they got in the way. A case in point was the gigantic projection of Azucena’s mother in the closing seconds of the opera. It worked against the drama and the music, not with it. Azucena’s final cry, Sei vendicata,  o madre, just got lost.

De Ana chose to set the action c. 1860 during the Italian Risorgimento, when pivotal battles in Italy’s struggle for independence and unification were fought in Sicily. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who led the victorious forces, was a hero of two worlds, South America and Europe. Argentinian by birth, he spent a large part of his time in Europe, and perhaps De Ana had this in mind when conceiving the production. Southern 19th-century Italy gave De Ana the opportunity to design richly colored costumes, from soldier’s uniforms to elegant dresses for the women. More than a few male gypsies wore red shirts, the garb of Garibaldi’s forces.

De Ana’s stated goal was to bring new visual enjoyment to Chinese audiences, and he succeeded. In fact, his concept would have evoked awe in and brought enjoyment to opera audiences anywhere. I am not sure to what end this served Verdi, but spectacle delights audiences and sells tickets. Verdi, however, requires voices, and here Beijing got a taste of the real thing.

He Hui was born in Xi’an, home of China’s famous terra cotta warriors, and you could sense the pride in the audience that one of their own had reached the pinnacle of the opera world. She has a vibrant, dark sound, especially in the middle and lower reaches of her range, but her voice thins out a bit on top and can turn strident, as was the case in both performances at the end of the Act I trio, Di geloso amor sprezzato.She was beautifully costumed, especially in Act III, where she wore a white gown with flowers in her hair during her impassioned love scene with Manrico. In rich, lilac-colored robes, she melted the heart, both visually and with her luscious sound and beautiful phrasing, in Act IV’s D’amor sull’ali rosee and the Miserere.

Without doubt, the dramatic and musical core of this production was the Azucena of Marianne Cornetti. She is a Verdi mezzo with few peers and no equal on the world’s opera stages. Cornetti is in total command of her voice: her top notes are thrilling, the bottom rich and dark. The dynamic range at her command is remarkable; she even manages a half-decent trill. On opening night and at the subsequent performance, her solo curtain call drew the loudest and most prolonged applause. Audiences know the real thing when they hear and see it.

The connection between Cornetti and the production’s Manrico, Luciano Ganci, was real. Ganci might be playing to type as an Italian mama’s boy, and Azucena does lay on the guilt, but this tenor can act and sing. He had the same connection with his Leonora. He has a beautiful voice with a clear, ringing sound, but let’s hope he treats it with a bit more care than was evident here – I want to enjoy his singing for a long time to come. If his Di quella pira made less of an impact than it should have, that was not due to his singing or ardent delivery but rather the lack of support he got from the pit.

Baritone Juan Jesus Rodriguez has a lean sound, which is not quite the making of a true Verdi baritone. Nonetheless, he knows the style, and what he lacks in vocal heft is compensated for by his fine musicianship and acting skills. He was evil personified. Giorgio Giuseppini, another Verdi veteran, fit the bill as Ferrando. Supporting roles were competently handled by younger Chinese singers, and if fortune smiles on them they will soon be on their way to bigger roles in China and on the world’s opera stages.

The musical and dramatic values demonstrated on stage were not always so evident in the pit.  Maestro Lu paid careful attention to balance: this was a cast of singers who used a wide dynamic range to great effect, and they could always be clearly heard. However, his tempi are erratic, and he is not always mindful of what is happening on stage. The orchestra just did not play well either evening. Frequently whole sections were out of tune. I have never heard a more jarring sound than the whacking away at a metal object that emanated from the pit during the Anvil Chorus: it is still music. The orchestra reprised Di quella pira, presumably to smooth the transition to the next scene. If that was the intent, it failed, especially at the second performance. The dramatic tension evaporated as Lu mugged his way through the reprise, not only singing along but turning to face the audience with a broad smile on his face while the orchestra was playing. This was a disservice not only to Verdi and the commitment of the artists on stage, but also to the audience. All deserved better.

This was my first opera at the NCPA, and it only whetted my appetite for more. Many of the operatic world’s finest singers, conductors and production teams are regulars here, and I want to return. And in case anyone is interested, mobile phones are a menace in Beijing too. The ushers fight a losing battle in preventing the audience from taking photos and making recordings during the performance. And yes, the occasional ringtone is heard to the frustration of all. If anyone has the wherewithal to remedy the situation, heaven knows it is the Chinese!

Rick Perdian

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