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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

REVIEW: Chan Ka-bo Countertenor Recital

Nan Lian Garden, Saturday March 4

I wanted the Baroque repertoire in the afternoon, but it was sold out; thus I ended up going to the relatively newer music of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Pärt in the evening. The recital was 1 hour in length and Chan was accompanied by Kristo Käo with his Torres guitar. The concert was set in a small hall in the classical Chinese Nan Lian Garden.

I have a very mixed feeling about the recital. I went to the recital with preconceptions of what is the suitable repertoire for countertenors and how a countertenor should sound. Needless to say, my ears are attuned to the repertoire and sound of the likes of Andreas Scholl, David Daniels, Philippe Jaroussky, Michael Chance and Bejun Mehta, all of whom I have heard live and sang early music.

Countertenors have entertained "newer" music before. The ones that I really enjoyed is David Daniel's album Berlioz: Les Nuits D'ete and A Quiet Thing. And despite the transition from early music to 20th century music, most of the countertenors would retain the same lyrical tone. The one thing I noticed in Chan's rendition of the "newer" music was his voice was dramatic. In fact, so dramatic and big that I think the guitar and venue was a tad too lyrical and small for him. I truly wonder how he sounded like in the afternoon repertoire of early music.

Because of his voice quality, I enjoyed his rendition of Brahms and Pärt's works more than the Schubert and Mendelssohns. Overall, the recital was an important one for me. Wanting to go to the afternoon concert was a lazy choice; and I am glad that I went to the evening one as there shouldn't be any reason why countertenors should not sing music by Schubert, Mendelssohn or Brahms. The problem was mine.


Ave Maria, Ständchen, Danksagung an den Bach

Vater Unser

Altdeutschelied, Nachtlied


and songs and guitar music of Estonian composers including Kapp, Sink, Jõeleht and Eespere

REVIEW: Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Friday March 3

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the programme was how "recent" the works will be presented are. The oldest was created in 2012 and the latest was just created last year. Now that is very exciting! I have never seen Canada's Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal before, but definitely like what the company name evokes and was looking forward to see it.

The show opened with Mona Lisa, a work choreographed by Itzik Galili for two dancers. This high-octane pas de deux performed by Celine Cassone and Alexander Hille was a test of endurance and precision. The intertwining bodies, quick lifts and sudden drops were bordering acrobatics and were all executed with unbelievable ease to the avant-garde sound of typewriter competing with drums. This masterpiece was the highlight of the evening and everything else seemed to be a tad less special.

Kosmos, choreographed by Andonis Foniadakis was a portrayal of modern urban living. While the choreographic language was modern dance, elements of other forms of dance were combined seamlessly. Set to the music of Julien Tarride, the work explored various moods from frenetic pace pushed by persistent percussions to thoughtful movements exalted by the sound of strings. The work was a cocktail of counterpoints and episodic bursts of intense motions that beautifully counterbalance each other.

Opening the second half of the evening was Closer, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied and another work designed for two dancers. Set to Philip Glass' Mad Rush, I find the music was turned up way too loud that it overshadowed the lyricism of the music and the dance. Dancers Celine Cassone and Alexander Hille once again demonstrated the impeccable partnership they have, and that it goes beyond just technique, but also a partnership high in confidence and comfort.

Before closing the evening with O Balcao de Amor, a totally unnecessary short film about the work was shown. It was really odd. Instead of enhancing my experience of the work, the film actually dampened it. This work choreographed by Itzik Galili was a fun, funny and entertaining piece; and the documentary somehow took away the surprise factor. The choreography revolved around the music of Perez Prado; and it was pelted all over with comedic confetti and sexy silliness that showcased a different side of the company.

Overall, it was an evening of beautiful contemporary works that provided wide-ranging sentiments and elicited deep connection with the audience.

Monday, February 27, 2017

REVIEW: The Makropulos Case by the National Theatre Brno

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Saturday February 25

Live performance of Janacek's operas are hard to come by. Peculiarly, I have only seen Jenufa live and saw it twice, once in Czech here in Hong Kong as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2000 by the Prague National Theatre and another time in Turkish in 2004 at the Istanbul State Opera. It is therefore that when this opportunity to see The Makropulos Case came, I made sure to go and see it.

The fluidly and meticulously designed production directed by David Radok was definitely the highlight of the evening. Rarely does one sees a production so cohesively conceptualized that the action and the set unfold so seamlessly and creatively. In particular, I love the way the office set (set design by Ondřej Nekvasil,& Zuzana Ježková) in Act 1 was visually transformed into the wings of the theatre. I also love how the main character Emilia Marty changed costumes and wigs (costume design by Zuzana Ježková) in full view and almost implying the multiple characters she embodied in her 337 years life.

Among the performers, Swedish soprano Annalena Persson as Emilia Marty was a cut above the rest. The sustained intensity in her acting and singing was charismatic and captivating. The rest of the cast, however, was very uneven. I do love Svatopluk Sem's Baron Prus however, who managed to sustain and develop his role into a complex character that effectively bridged the narrative into its final act.

While Jenufa may be the more popular Janacek opera, I actually think that The Makropulos Case is the better one. I do love the idea of a seductress who has broken hearts for over 300 years and suddenly has to come to terms with the fading magical elixir that granted her youthfulness.Musically, this was represented in a series of different motifs and ideas to shows the troublesome and disturbing nature of the main character Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos. It was only at the end, when Makropulos' secret is revealed, does the music develop the rich lyrical sound.

Production Team:
Conductor - Marko Ivanović
Director - David Radok
Set Design - Ondřej Nekvasil, Zuzana Ježková
Costume Design - Zuzana Ježková
Lighting Design - Petr Kozumplík
Chorus Master - Josef Pancik

Emilia Marty - Annalena Persson
Albert Gregor - Aleš Briscein
Vítek - Petr Levíček
Kristina - Eva Štěrbová
Jaroslav Prus - Svatopluk Sem
Dr Kolenatý - František Ďuriač
Janek - Peter Račko

With Orchestra and Chorus of the Janáček Opera of the National Theatre Brno

Thursday, February 23, 2017

REVIEW: Mixed Bill by Bayerisches Staatsballett II

HKAPA Lyric Theatre, Wednesday February 22

I have mixed feeling for last night's mixed bill from Bayerisches Staatsballett II (Bavarian State Ballet II). The Bayerisches Staatsballett II is a training ground for young dancers; and the first three pieces were designed to showcase their skills.

Allegro Brillante by choreographer George Balanchine and music by Tchaikovsky was well executed with skilled dancing, precise timing, and breadth of movements. Francesco Leone excelled in this piece with elegance in every gesture, even down to his fingers.


Jardi Tancat by choreographer Nacho Duato was for me the highlight of the evening. The skills of the dancers were befitting of the style and complexity of this modern ballet. It was a beautiful raw and haunting piece that defies the youthful energy of the company.


3 Preludes by choreographer Richard Siegal and music by George Gershwin could have been my favorite, but the timing was not precise to bring off this rhythmically complex dance. The dancers looked under-rehearsed.


The Triadic Ballet by choreographer Oskar Schlemmer / Gerhard Bohner (1977) based on Oskar Schlemmer’s choreography, music Hans-Joachim Hespos and costume design by Oskar Schlemmer was for me the worst. This "ballet" should not be part of the repertoire of the company, especially for a company that trains dancers. I can't imagine any aspiring dancer who dream to be able to dance in this ballet... if there's one, he/she should not be a dancer at all. This work is about costume design PERIOD. Anything else was just "production" to showcase the costumes



Saturday, December 10, 2016

REVIEW: Wicked

HKAPA Lyric Theatre, Friday December 9

Last night, Wicked premiered in Hong Kong 13 years after it opened in Broadway. For me, it joins an elite group of musicals that I have seen repeatedly onstage - The Phantom of the Opera (New York, London, Cardiff, Melbourne and Hong Kong); Miss Saigon (New York, London, Melbourne and Hong Kong); Les Miserables (New York, Melbourne, Manila, Hong Kong); and now, Wicked (New York, Manila and Hong Kong). While initial response to Phantom and Saigon was good, Les Miz and Wicked share the rare notoriety of having opened to mixed reviews but still managed to become massive successes! It just shows that not even the most experienced and respected critics can always get them right; and that the general audience and their words-of-mouth are what really count!

Last night's performance was spectacular. While Eugene Lee's set may not be as massive as the Broadway version, it still managed to impress. Susan Hilferty's costume was definitely a highlight, they never stop to amaze me in their creativity, sophistication and cohesiveness.

As to the performers, they made me realize how ingrained is the image of a tall Elphaba (Idina Menzel in New York and Jemma Rix in Manila) and a short Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth in New York and Suzie Mathers in Manila) in my mind that seeing Jacqueline Hughes (Elphaba) and Carly Anderson (Glinda) about the same height bothered me irrationally! Hughes definitely has the vocal chop to meet her demanding role. Her big anthem Defying Gravity finished the first act to great effect. Anderson was very effective but I did wish that her enunciation was a bit clearer. Whether it was the sounds or her diction, I was not sure.

Perhaps the one single biggest disappointment I had was from the more experienced actor Kim Ismay who played Madame Morrible. She definitely gave me the feeling that she was bored and was just doing her performance as part of a routine. An example would be when Elphaba confronted the Wizard and announced that she wanted nothing to do with his plan, Ismay procedurally acted shocked and looked offstage as if Elphaba has already ran off when in fact Elphaba was just about to!

In totality, Wicked is a great story told in the most beautiful way. Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics provided just the right dramatic language and color to communicate this unusual narrative in charting how Elphaba came to be “wicked"; and the parallel journey of Glinda the "good". I heard that the production will be in Manila in 2017. Will I go and see it again? I just might.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

REVIEW: Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

HKAPA Drama Theatre, Wednesday September 14

My introduction to the works of P.G. Wodehouse came in the form of the musical By Jeeves by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn. Later on, I had the chance to see the comedy series Jeeves and Wooster that starred Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in YouTube. A genial but ditzy gentleman with an improbably intelligent and efficient valet seems to resonate well as an antidote to my Disneyesque childhood.

Last December in London, I had the dilemma of having to choose between this play, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense or Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwyn. Nell Gwyn won but I am so glad that Jeeves & Wooster have come to Hong Kong. Winner of Best New Comedy at London’s 2014 Olivier Awards, Jeeves & Wooster was pure silliness that managed to keep what Robert McCrum identified as Wodehouse’s combination of "high farce with the inverted poetry of his mature comic style". Indeed do not expect the play to have any depth of meaning; but instead, it is filled with Wodehouse’s dry metaphors such as to be reminded that one of the characters had "the sort of eye that could open an oyster at 60 paces".

Matthew Carter (Wooster) and Joseph Chance (Jeeves)
The premise of the play was that Wooster, played by Matthew Carter with winning toothiness, is recounting what happened in Totleigh Towers, when he was tasked to steal a cow-shaped silver jug. The problem was that Wooster has only two actors to play all the other characters! This led to a continuous parody of theatrical mishaps and madcaps, with sound effect gags, and quick set and costume changes. Robert Goodale, the other half of Goodale Brothers who adapted and wrote this comedy, played fellow valet Seppings. With physical bravura, Seppings switched from the daunting Aunt Dahlia to the imposing Roderick Spode, who came fortified with a Hitlerian moustache. In the style of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps and Ben-Hur, the play got to a point when the number of actors required onstage exceeded the number of actual actors available. The boil-over came when the imperturbable Jeeves, played by Joseph Chance, was obligated to simultaneously play an overbearing old bully, Sir Watkyn Bassett, and the unmistakably womanly Stiffy Byng. Having said that, I feel that the pace of the play was a tad slow; and I can’t help but feel that there can be a bit more chemistry between the actors.

While the play was utter nonsense, it was nonsense at its hilarious best. The audience chuckled constantly. It was the perfect mid-week cure to my busy week.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

REVIEW:Imperial Ice Stars' Swan Lake on Ice

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Wednesday April 27

I am a big fan of the ballet Swan Lake. It was the first full-length ballet I have ever seen when I was a teenager and since then, I have seen it in various reincarnations. Whether it was Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's classic in Mariinsky Theatre, Derek Deane's 60-swans in-the-round production for the English National Ballet, Peter Schaufuss' erotic but ill-conceived creation or Matthew Bourne's all-male-swan re-imagining, the story and Tchaikovsky's music never fail to inspire and challenge re-interpretation.

This Swan Lake however, is a totally different animal. Tony Mercer's re-interpretation of this classic for "on-ice" version struck a perfect balance of tradition and innovation. While still using mostly Tchaikovsky’s music, no longer was the role of Odette and Odile danced by one performer, but there was also a pas de trois that led to a joyous ending. This show is designed to entertain and captivate the audience. Gone was the subdued and subtle dancing. Instead, the audience got high-octane dancing, flying, jumping, twisting, lifting and spinning. As if that was not enough, there were also fire spinning and pyrotechnics.

The costumes of Albina Gabueva were colorful, traditional and appropriate for the different characters in the story. The set design was flimsy yet effective to give way to the massive ice rink. Even the ice rink itself was something to behold! Apparently, to create a performance-ready ice surface, the production would need to 36 hours. This would involve assembling the tray-base, lining it with 256 square meter of pool liner, connecting 15km of pipe-work chiller units, and then 4 tonnes of crushed ice to provide a head start! The rink is then sprayed every 15 minutes overnight and throughout the day until three inches in thickness of ice is achieved!

At the very center of this wonderful show are the amazing performers. Bogdan Berezenko' Prince Siegfried was what you expect a young prince would look and act like. He, together with Alexandr Kazakov' Benno, were the unadulterated bromance on ice. While Benno had most of the daring jumps, Siegfried got the mind-blowing lifts and partnering. Volodymyr Khodakivskyy, who played the attendant to Hungarian Princess, had amazing moments in his aerial silk sequence. Don't be surprised if you catch yourself holding your breath or inevitably blurting out "wow" and "whoaah"! Overall, it was a very enjoyable show and I would highly recommend it!

SWAN LAKE ON ICE - from April 27 to May 8.


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