Friday, March 26, 2010

REVIEW: Cosi Fan Tutte by the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts

It was as much fun as watching community theatre. It was less about the performance but more on the effort they put in.
The first time I went to a Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA) opera years ago, I was kind of surprised in a bad way on how far they were compared to ‘real’ opera singers that I have seen in opera houses. However, I try to go to the school’s presentation every year not because I have a masochistic streak in me, but because it is at this point in their singing life that they needed the most support (read reality check).

The opera is Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, directed by Nancy Yuen and conducted by Alan Cumberland. I went to the 25th of March performance at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts Drama Theatre. It was a very brave choice to choose Cosi Fan Tutte as it is one of those operas that the lead singers need to know how to do well both in solos and in ensemble. This school production, as usual, was truncated and the chorus was removed, leaving the six singers to carry the opera.

Cosi Fan Tutte is an opera buffa by Mozart with Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto. It is one of the three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations and the one I like the least. The title, literally means “Thus do all (women)”, is about two men testing the loyalties of their girlfriends. It is part comedy, part tragedy. It is a sardonic study of love, trust and shameless manipulation. While I have several recordings of this opera, I have only seen it twice performed before and both of the same Jonathan Miller production for the Royal Opera House. The first time was in the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1998 (when the Royal Opera House was being renovated); while the second time was in 2007 at the Covent Garden. While the cast in the Salisbury Theatre may not be as starry as the one in the Covent Garden, somehow it worked. The venue was smaller and perhaps for that reason, the singers sounded right. From this experience, I can see why Cosi Fan Tutte can possibly work very well in the Drama Theatre.

Alan Cumberland held the music tightly and was very sympathetic to the singers. Among the six singers on stage, Athene Mok’s Despina was a joy to witness. While the voice may not be big, the tone was bright, the production was even and the best part, she was “HD-ready” (as opera singers refer to those who are physically attractive and ready for high definition broadcasts). Shaddai Amor Solidum’s Fiordiligi was very animated and was consistent in her characterization. Vocally, the tone of her voice in different ranges tends to change. She performed best in the higher range when the sound is focused and round. However, her vibrato was too fast for my taste as it tended to interfere with the music. Dorabella was performed by a very tall Emily Liu. While the voice showed a lot of promise, there was a lack of color and congruity with the text. Eric Iglesia Ferrer infused the role of Ferrando with a silent movie charm. While his higher notes, when supported, sounded beautifully, he had difficulty maintaining it. Raoul Chan’s Guglielmo was elegant. While his acting maybe constraint, his even voice phrased and paced neatly. Revan Yu as Don Alfonso should plan his future carefully.

Most of the solo parts were good enough to make sitting in the theatre enjoyable. The ensemble parts, on the other hand, owned most of the cringe moment. The voices were very dissimilar that it had difficulty producing the sonority and harmony expected in a Mozart opera. Aside from the dreadful make-up by Liz Wong that made the ladies looked like drag queens, the idea of setting the production in the roaring 1920’s was an acceptable and refreshing proposition. The set, though simple was adequate, yet I do like the minor details like having the surtitles framed in an art deco border.

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