Ningbo Symphony’s Carmen

featuring the Ningbo Symphony Orchestra, Creation Opera Institute, and more

I have opined before that opera is a rarity here, so I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see one of the more famous pieces in the repertoire being performed just down the road. Unlike the TSO or NSO, however, I don’t know these folks, can’t vouch for the conductor or director or orchestra, but have seen and am familiar with some of the local performers. Regardless, I couldn’t miss it.

The only unfortunate thing was that it also happens to fall on the evening of another event I’d originally been looking forward to and was quite disappointed by. The Taipei Symphony was originally to perform Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem this evening, but cancelled the concert and did a mighty poor job of handling it. The (first) deadline for refunding tickets came before the announcement of the new program; concertgoers were assured that there would be a concert, but would no longer be the Requiem. I found out about Carmen on the same evening and that was that. Turns out the TSO’s new program also contains the only Brahms symphony I haven’t yet heard live, his third, mais c’est la vienon?

I’d have strongly recommended anyone I know to spend a bit of their hard-earned funds on seats to this opera were I more familiar with the production, people involved, etc., but I couldn’t not go. Just across the enormous courtyard, in the concert hall I attended last night, would be Haydn, Schubert (I think), and Brahms.

Bizet, huh? Fantastic youthful first symphony, a burning desire for success, and such a brilliant talent for music, and this opera, with some of the most famous arias in the opera house, did not become the enduring repertoire standard it is now until the composer had already passed.

So tonight, in our very own, beautiful, acoustically superb National Theater, we had the Ningbo Symphony Orchestra (寧波交響樂團) under conductor Chen Lin (陳琳) in a staging performed in both Taiwan and China, with six performances in three cities in Taiwan alone. At least three of the performers are old favorites of local performances:

  • 翁若珮 as Carmen
  • 王典 as Don Jose
  • 林慈音 as Micaëla

Tomorrow’s performance will have a different cast, but this was my evening and they were wonderfully familiar faces. For a few pictures of the staging and other things, visit this write-up of the production. The article is in Chinese, but has some nice pictures.

Carmen is in four acts, and I won’t get into the plot, about the seductress and the naïve Don Jose, and some of the thoughts I had with similarities in his character to Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Believe me, if/when I do get around to writing about this piece specifically, there’s lots to talk about as far as the story, like who the villain is, when the bad choices started, motivations, conflict and resolution, all that Lit class stuff, but aside from that, it’s also just a superbly satisfying piece of music.

The piece, from the 1870s, begins absolutely in-your-face with a theme that I think everyone would be able to identify. There are no opening chords or a polite overture entry, just wham. The staging, as you can see from the above link, was very fine. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but effective and also not overdone.

Jo-Pei Weng 翁若珮 has been remarkable in everything I’ve seen her in. She’s sung Mahler, I think was in the Verdi I saw a while back, and something else, but most recently in Puccini’s Il Trittico (the two latter operas in that trilogy), and she’s just outstanding. However, the role she plays as Carmen gives her very different shoes to fill.

Needless to say, the opera, which was scandalous a century and (almost) a half ago, is still sensual and seductive and maybe even at risk of being risqué, but there wasn’t any nudity or anything untoward, save a few more… heated and/or intimate scenes. But Carmen has to be believable, right? Not just a superhero, magical temptress. If we’re going to suspend our disbelief and compress this whole story with people falling in and out of love into just four acts, it has to be believable. I’m including this aria below in case you don’t know it. Wow.

That being said, as well as Weng sang it, I think it was her weakest moment in the opera. That’s not necessarily to say she could have breathed a bit more life into the moment, but at least to say that what came later was wildly passionate and real. The only unfortunate thing is that that does a lot of establishing of her character, and I found it a little weaker than everything else.

Opera is about more than just singing and music. It’s full-on performance in every sense of the word, so these people are incorporating subtle gestures, the way they walk, look, move, flip their hair or put on a coat, whatever. Weng gave us tinges of vulnerability, of humanness, which balanced the fickle, or seductive, or manipulative, or downright sociopathic (?) Carmen.

She stole the show, as she should, but Fernando Wang (王典) gave us an excellent Don Jose making us question the actual hero/villain and/or winner/loser in this game. I won’t continue with the others, because there wasn’t one weak character in the production. Frasquita and Mercédès (賴珏妤 and 王郁馨, respectively) were simply amazing, two ladies I’d love to see more of in future (larger) roles.

The Ningbo Symphony, a bunch I’d never heard until tonight, played very well. They were solid and stable and gave a great, supple sound. The only thing I wish we’d had more of in this performance, both from the orchestra and the chorus(es) onstage was just a little bit more punch, like bumping up the saturation and contrast and color in an Instagram post, not so it’s overcooked and gaudy, but does justice to the subject. There’s lots of passion and emotion in this work, and I think there was some extra room, especially with the caliber this orchestra seems to have, for them and the chorus to be a little wilder in places, a little more sultry in others.

But nothing about it was a disappointment. It was a very good first Carmen. I assume there will eventually be others, but I did not walk out of the concert hall wishing I’d done anything else this evening. It was a very respectable performance of a French opera with a Chinese orchestra and Taiwanese performers to an audience sprinkled with native English speakers. The Chinese surtitles proved challenging for me, but I didn’t expect to have English (or French) along with them. Bravo to all. There’s one last performance of this production tomorrow (Sunday) January 14 at 14:30 and as of the time of this writing, there are 345 tickets left. Get yours, maybe.

That’s all for opera, and for concerts of any kind for about two whole months. Gasp. I might have to find something to go to just to hold me over until the New York Philharmonic. See you next time.

Full credits (in Chinese) are below:

Creation Opera Institute
創世十年 十年有成 2017年度鉅獻
比才歌劇: 卡門 Carmen

Carmen: 翁若珮
Don José: 王典
Micaëla: 林慈音
Escamillo: 趙方豪
Frasquita: 賴珏妤
Mercédès: 王郁馨
Remendado: 張殷齊
Dancaïre: 陳敬堯
Zuniga: 李達人
Moralès: 蔡政呈

樂團/寧波交響樂團 Ningbo Symphony Orchestra
合唱團/ 樹德科大葛利合唱團
Flamenco dance /林耕 林語軒(迷火佛拉明哥舞坊)

指揮/陳 琳
髮妝設計/黃慧貞 楊攸仁


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