Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Floria Tosca and China's Three Tenors vie for the limelight at Opera Hong Kong

Wie Song, Warren Mok and Dai Yuqiang as the three Cavaradossi
Opera Hong Kong presented a novel way of spicing up an old favourite in their recent production of Puccini's Tosca. It wasn't enough to rely on a strong cast of singers and a technically polished orchestra to propel the tragedy of Floria Tosca's eventual suicidal leap from Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo. No, alongside internationally acclaimed soprano He Hui as Tosca, Opera Hong Kong matched each of the opera's three acts with a Cavaradossi taken on by China's Three Tenors: Wei Song, Dai Yuqiang and Artistic Director and producer, Warren Mok. If that wasn't enough, even more surprisingly, Cavaradossi's notable Act III aria, "E lucevan le stelle" turned into a dawning ground-hog day of chuckles as each of the tenors took their turn in stamping their mark before the trio came together to belt out the last lightning phrase. It was to be an opening and closing night highlight. Sadly, Puccini's enduring work came awfully close to being served up as a dog's breakfast.

The diversion stunted a beautiful but otherwise conventional staging by director, set and lighting designer Enrico Castiglione's production which harks from the Taormina Opera Festival. Vivid colours, evocative architectural elements and ornate detailing formed a powerful backdrop. Sonia Cammarata's refined costumes shimmered but lacked the worn realism of French-occupied 1800 Rome. Castiglione's lighting charged the drama thoughtfully but sudden and inexplicable extreme lighting shifts snapped one's attention from the performances. Tensions existed in the visual whole.

He Hui and Warren Mok
He Hui surmounted all. The delectable fullness and strength of Hui's soprano rang clear, only diminished by an early tussle with the orchestra. Hui's dark and creamy lower range complimented Tosca's coercive and jealous streak while her lucent trills and crisp high notes that of the popular singer's confidence. Her Tosca was elegant and theatrical, and fortunately, blindly in love with each of her Cavaradossi. The power of her performance elicited an engagement akin to exposing a mirror to her thoughts, notably, while in the entrapment of Scarpia's offices at the Palazzo Farnese in Act II's moment of weakness and subsequent flash decision to save herself from his lustful advances. As she reflects on her fate in "Vissi d'arte", her religiousness struck by God's seeming abandonment, Hui was compelling, impassioned and on her knees in a distressing portrayal of hopelessness. With perfect diction, effortless breathing and eloquently phrased, razor-sliced top notes and unwavering sustained extension, Hui's technique appeared flawless.

China's Three Tenors supported Hui well as a curiously clean-of-paint and distinguished Cavaradossi. The shift from one to the next in itself was handled well by all, but the opportunity to engage in one artist's vocal and dramatic progression through the opera felt encumbered. Wei Song's early forced attack settled to reveal resonant warmth and appealing vibrato. Warren Mok's leaner, simmering but brighter tone pleasingly matched Cavaradossi's resistance to torture and Dai Yuqiang's grounded, fullness of sound carried inbuilt determination. All three demonstrated flair in driving home all the big notes.

Sebastion Catana's wide experience in the role of Scarpia showed impeccably. Full of heaving weight and ferocity, the voice was sharpened with all the evil of Hell. Other fine performances were given by Freddie Tong as the agitated escapee Angelotti, Sammy Chien as a doddery, bent-over Sacristan and Chen Yong's especially impressive and aggressive Spoletta.

Opera Hong Kong's Tosca: Act I, Te Deum
Opera Hong Kong Chorus and Children's Chorus sounded their very best, the vocal parts beautifully layered and attentiveness to timing, exemplary in the thrilling depth of Act I's mighty "Te Deum", courtesy of chorus director Alex Tam's preparedness. Puccini's score resonated with eloquence under conductor Gianluca Martinenghi and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra obliged with fine musicianship. The music's dramatic rushes of intensity on the strings, however, begged more.

Opera Hong Kong is capable of achieving the highest standards through seriously insightful productions and without resorting to gimmicks. Two recent productions, Faust and The Flying Dutchman, soared in excellence across all criteria. This was a faux pas. When China's Three Tenors want to sing together, it would be best to keep them apart from the same role in the same opera. Thank goodness there was the sense to have in-between performances presented in a typical, intended manner.

Production photos: Opera Hong Kong

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