Classical music

Review: Opera Hong Kong’s Tosca a success but not without flaws

While two leads were technically proficient but lacked sufficient warmth, secondary singers did admirably and sets, orchestra and chorus were excellent

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 2:20pm

Despite its flaws, this collaboration between Opera Hong Kong and the Taormina Opera Festival can be counted a success. The music of Puccini, one of the last Romantic masters, worked its dramatic magic, and the opera flooded the senses with light,  colour, sound and passion. The audience was immediately drawn into the drama with the glowing red doorways of the set, which had the depth and detail, including real candlelight, to stir the imagination.

 This performance starred soprano Svetla Vassileva  as Tosca and tenor Wei Song  as Cavaradossi,   and both delivered the high notes but were missing the warmth and pathos that make for supreme opera moments.

Song’s voice sounded more golden the higher he got. He was at his best in Vittoria! Vittoria!  with some splendid sustained notes.

It’s hard to  analyse what brings a lump in the throat in a great opera performance, but it happens with singers with such perfect control that they can relax and be swept up in the emotion. In the aria O dolci mani,   the details of phrasing drew attention to themselves as mannerisms rather than as expression.

Vassileva is the embodiment of intensity, and the more furious she was, the better she sounded. Her high notes split the air and could have carried across Victoria Harbour. However, the tender moments were not as convincing, and the soft low notes at times had an uncomfortable throaty edge. In her lament at her fate, Vissi d’arte,  the thread of sound rising from silence had hints of a truly delicate radiance, but with her wide vibrato, her timing that was a bit out of synch, and the squeezing out of the final notes, the applause was deservedly tepid.

The drama was most compelling in the character of Scarpia,  the despotic chief of police. Baritone Davide Damiani  was a chilling sadist. The arcs of the lines flowed as one with the orchestra as he expressed his joy in torture and seduction through Puccini’s most alluring music.

Zhou Jiankun  as Angelotti also had a powerful, focused voice, and the smaller roles were admirably filled by young singers, notably Chen Yong, who sang Spoletto with  vigour and character.

It’s a good sign when the players in the pit shuffle their feet for the conductor’s entrance, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra sounded ravishing under the guidance of Gianluca Martinenghi.  

Solo strings were ineffably moving. The Opera Hong Kong Chorus sounded beautiful offstage and on, if their  demeanour was a bit stiff. An offstage child shepherd was oddly amplified, dispelling the magic and throwing off the balance with the orchestra. The Opera Hong Kong Children Chorus  was well-trained and adorable, bustling around the stage.

Sunday’s performance will include all three tenors, Wei Song, Dai Yuqiang  and Warren Mok,  who will take turns with the role of Cavaradossi and, reportedly, will sing E Lucevan le Stelle,  the aria just before his death by firing squad, three separate times, one after another.

While this may not exactly serve the drama, I for one would be happy to hear it.