Opera writ small


Eva Kong and Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 15     

                                                                       Eva Kong

This was the second of two recitals I intended to review over last weekend.   The first, a Friday night exercise from Sydney with flautist Sally Walker and pianist Simon Tedeschi, comprised a bevy of (mainly) French pieces.   But my account with the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall asked for a new password, then refused to accept anything I proposed and, by the time an MDCH technician got back to me (after an assuring message that the company was ‘on the case’), the recital had already started.   No recommendations, then, for Cloudmix who somehow stuffed up a connection that has lasted since the beginning of the Melbourne series; so much for trying to help Australian musicians through this organization.

No such difficulty with the Brisbane Festival; just a pity that this body can only offer one recital a fortnight.  The latest featured Korean-born soprano Kong who is better known for her opera appearances, particularly as Chiang Ch’ing in John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, which a large number of US critics have been trying to place in the realm of masterpieces since its premiere.   Raineri provided the piano accompaniments – as usual, with splendid command over, and sympathy with, a wide-ranging program.   Further, for one particular piece the soprano/piano ensemble was joined by two cellists: Oliver Scott and Shuhei Lawson.

Wong and Raineri opted to start with the first of Poulenc’s Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, the elliptically-titled C.   It made for a sombre opening gambit; despite its several shafts of illuminating imagery, the song indulges in no fanciful word-painting   Its vocal line moves simply with an early high note but the main impression is of grief at the loss of France to the German invader – yet again.   Kong’s treatment proved more confrontational than usual; maybe this was because of cramped studio conditions in which her dynamic sounded aggressive, or perhaps her view of the work has uncovered a vein of defiance, a sort of determined regret.   Whatever the case, C made a no-nonsense start for the soprano.

Another chanson followed with Debussy’s early Mallarmé setting, Apparition.   Here, Kong found a better place to exercise her talent for dramatic declamation, notably at the outbursts for a key signature change to G flat at C’était le jour béni and at the work’s climax on the repeat of apparue at bar 38.   Both performers interpolated a ritardando at the end of bar 8, possibly to celebrate the end of Debussy’s flirtation with B flat and A flat; Kong inserted a phrase-breaking breath or two – one I seem to recall breaking up ton premier baiser.   But the soprano’s accuracy in this work’s chromatic slips could not be faulted and the collaboration across the final page’s snow imagery was exceptionally restrained in its eloquence.

Kong then gave us the first of her three operatic arias with Obéissons quand leur voix appelle from Act 3 of Massenet’s Manon, although I believe she started well back with Est-ce vrai?, followed by Je marche sur tous les chemins.    All of this was possibly included to give us a slab of solo work before the main aria, which actually involves the chorus; Raineri’s piano substituted for the opera’s jeunes gens who comment so supportively on the heroine’s call to hedonistic arms.   Here was a more comfortable piece for Kong who infused its pages with plenty of twinkling personality for a scene fragment that ideally depicts Manon at this stage of her career.    And, when the gavotte proper began, the soprano showed herself very convincing in dealing with the direct nature of her line, even if things didn’t seem to gel in the last two bars; hard to tell what went amiss, but the effect was of uncertainty.

Kong then introduced us to some Korean songs: Youngsub Choi’s Memory and a setting of Psalm 23 by Woon Young Na.  In the first of these, the compositional language was Romantic with a Rachmaninovian turn, notable only for a repeated piano figure.  Was this originally a folk-song?    The text is by an unknown author but reads like an extended haiku.   Whatever the case, Choi’s required vocal range is demanding, as are some interpolated ornamental notes.    The prevailing mood was melancholy, mainly because the pace was slow and the minor scale/mode dominated. 

Kong told us in a prefatory address that the Church had affected Korean music, an observation well borne out by the psalm setting which proved to be slightly less lush than the previous song and more suggestive of Celtic tunes; in fact, it could have been one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s Hebridean settings.  This piece was delivered with great zeal and determination, rising to a powerful high point (‘the valley of the shadow of death’ or ‘cup is overflowing’ ?); by contrast, the piano accompaniment was notable for a harmonically static bass across much of the work’s progress.

In came the two cellos to help with the aria from the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 in a Raineri arrangement which at the start had the two strings playing lines 3 and 4 of the original 8-part instrumentation.   In these operating conditions, Kong took the dominant role and never let go.    During Ruth V Corrêa’s poem in the middle of the vocalises, the cellos switched to the original’s top lines while the soprano gave an ardent account of the text, taking her time at each of the pause markings.   Raineri assumed the cello lines 5 and 6 from bar 51, as well as sustaining the piece’s two bass lines, as he had throughout.  It all made sense, even if you missed the mild texture of the original scoring in the central pages and the onward-pushing pizzicati of the outer segments.  The piece could also have gained from longer sustained A and C minims at the last chord.

Well-positioned after the Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise brought the night back to an even keel.   Kong seemed unable to operate at a soft level in this work, something that is pretty vital for the first seven bars as well as the final eight.   But she found the appropriate taut plangency for the piece’s central pages from bars 18 to 30 where the emotional; level is heightened.   

Opera extract No. 3 turned out to be Roxane’s lullaby, Usnijcie krwawe, from Act 2 of Szymanowski’s King Roger, the only real chance in the opera where the king’s wife gets to say something at length; even then, she’s interrupted by Roger, Edrisi and the chorus.  Kong made an excellent display of control in the long melismatic vocalising at the aria’s start; once into the text, she produced a dramatically heightened reading of this extract, quite right when you consider the theatrical circumstances of its delivery.  Still, the output tended to the monochrome in expressiveness despite the emotional shift when the composer’s tonality definitely shifts from its modal minor to the major. 

Speaking of modes, Raineri took the opportunity for a solo before Kong’s big finale which had relevance to what came before it and what came after.    John Adams’ short China Gates uses modes as its fundamental material and is a fairly fluid sample of what used to be called minimalism before concerned composers got distressed by such a dismissive catch-all descriptor.   The pianist demonstrated a persuasive fluency in his outlining, although the changes between sections sounded more overt than usual.   Does this music still test the patience?   Probably not when it’s small-scale like China Gates.   Yet it reminded me of witnessing Philip Glass play his own piano music at some past Melbourne International Arts Festival where the American composer was feted – lots of sustaining pedal swathes across a lyrical motif or six that intertwined to produce a lyrical cloud, with the invitation to luxuriate in the textures and let your faculties drowse.

To end, Kong sang the coloratura aria from the end to Act Two of Adams’ opera  –  I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung  –  thereby ending on a powerful note and giving us a small sample of her mastery of this role which she sang for Victorian Opera six years ago (I didn’t see it) and also gave Sydney this aria in 2017 for Opera Australia’s The Nixon Tapes concert of excerpts.   It’s a belt from start to finish, one-dimensional in character if probably making sense in context.   You had to be impressed by Kong’s emphatic delivery that sizzled with vocal power and enough spite to bring to mind the reported ferocity of the Dowager Empress Cixi as well as the raging contempt for anything outside herself that Mao’s wife showed during the Gang of Four trial in 1980. 

Raineri gave Kong all the repetitive major key support she needed and handled the long postlude with unfaltering energy. 

This aria is a highlight in Adams’ opera which has enjoyed several performances world-wide since its 1987 premiere.   But it’s a superficial product; in my mind, little more than a blip in operatic history and inferior in most ways to King Roger.   You’d have to be a determined patriot to class the work among the great operas.   But then, as someone who lived through the period, it’s outside the bounds of my understanding to find sympathy with a work that attempts to gain sympathy for Mao and Nixon.