A week in Tokyo: Day 5

James JollyFri 19th February 2010
A week in JapanA week in Japan

A night at the opera, and a visit to a beautiful instrument collection

Here’s a Catch 22 that struck me as I awaited curtain up last night. If I were a conductor, assigned Verdi’s Otello,
I’d want to sneak into the pit and launch the opera without any warning
(the music just seems to dictate it), but, here’s the catch: if I were
a conductor, assigned Verdi’s Otello, my ego would be such that I’d
rather die than forego my applause. Anyhow, such an option was solved
for last night’s maestro because Iago strolled on and pulled down a
scrim to reveal the stage set. It was the only miscalculation in Akria
Shirai’s terrific new production of the piece for Tokyo Nikikai Opera
Theatre.

I always think of Otello as the real treat among Verdi’s
operas – it’s so rarely done (thanks to the scarcity of anyone able, or
mad enough, to sing the title role): in London for many years it was
Vickers or Domingo and later Atlantov – and that was about it! I also
wrote my thesis for my BA on Shakespeare versus Boito/Verdi in this
work so it occupies a special place in my brain and heart. I know
pretty well all the words and must say that the all-Japanese cast’s
diction was such that I think I heard all of them. And the acoustic of
the large Bunka Kaikan in Ueno, on the northerly edge of central Tokyo
helped enormously. It’s a large building that’s got a touch of
Soviet-style People’s Palace as decorated by someone who’s just
contemplating a new Aida. It’s also about 50 yards from one of
Tokyo’s busiest railway stations so the dash to the train (and again
the show finished earlyish at about 9.30pm) makes the homeward journey
rather easier. (The audience, by the way, was full of youngsters – the
whole evening much more casual than the concert the night before.)

It’s not unusual for the Iago and/or Desdemona to steal the evening
– they did at the Barbican recently for Sir Colin Davis – and they were
the stars last night. I caught the second of the two rotating casts.
Katsumi Narita was the Otello – a tall, powerful stage presence, and he
certainly had all the notes. But in volume terms he was easily outrun
by the Iago of Tõru Õnuma, a superbly sung, powerfully malevolent
characteristaion. They worked well together and, as Iago goaded the
out-of-sight Otello as he joked with Cassio (a suitably sweet and
gullible Naoyuki Okada), you could see the jealousy bubbling up.

The Desdemona, Miyuki Hibono, was excellent: innocent, tender,
wounded but always poised and conscious of her status. She sang with a
lovely open tone, the voice swelling and riding the orchestra with
ease. She looked perfect, and rose to the final scene superbly.

Akira Shirai’s production (he’s well known for his direction of
plays) made excellent use of the abstract set by Rumi Matsui: a large
triangular raised staging with the point curled up towards the back of
the stage (inspired by the almost identical roof on the hall?), and
various screens were lowered to break up the acting area. And come the
final scene, a white box, dramatically lit from inside, served as
Desdemona’s bed. The willow, for the Japanese, carries a real sense of
sadness so Desdemona’s song of farewell must have touched a note
perhaps even more powerfully than back home. The blacks, greys, browns
and creams that dominated the evening were broken only by a dramatic
length of scarlet fabric in the central confrontation of Otello and
Iago, and by the intense white of the virginal Desdemona’s dress in the
final scene.

Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, a former assistant of Riccardo Muti’s at La
Scala and whom I’d only ever encountered before accompanying Salvatore
Licitra on a solo CD, kept everything together well and drew some
classy playing from the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the
very fine Nikikai Chorus Group.

It was one of those wonderful evenings when I’d gone with no
particular expectation and come away amazed yet again by this
incredible score – for which we have to thank Arrigo Boito and the
publisher Giulio Riccordi for luring the composer out of retirement to
create, aged 74, what must surely be his greatest opera.

Before the opera I had a quick dash round Kappabashi-Dori, a long
street that houses literally hundreds of shops of kitchen and
restaurant supplies, and cooking equipment from every corner of the
planet. If you’re into cooking it’s mandatory on the To Do list!

Very close by is the Ueno Gakuen, a private university that was
founded in 1904. There I met the celebrated Japanese photographer Akira
Kinoshita whose collection of prints of famous visiting musicians is
quite magnificent. There’s a striking photo of Maria Callas taken at
her very last public appearance in Sapporo in November 1974, and dozens
of revealing images of all the greats. We were in the little museum of
old instruments at the University, a wonderful oasis in a boldly modern
building that rises up into the sky (some of the skyscrapers under
construction have ambitions that will drive them literally into the sky
– the Tokyo Sky Tree, climbing ever higher, will be 634 metres/2080
feet tall, and though it’s already way higher than anything around it,
is only about halfway to its final height!). There was a splendid
family of viols among a small but exquisite collection of mainly
stringed instruments.

The latest Ueno Gakuen project is a concert-hall, the Ishibashi
Memorial Hall, seating about 500, and due to open in May. It’s all
light wood and houses a handsome organ that has been relocated but
looks as if it was designed with this very space in mind. The hall’s
built on special rubber supports which, while protecting against
tremors from one of Japan’s many small earthquakes also acts as perfect
insulation from noise outside – this could well become a treasured
recording venue for chamber-size performance.

(Soundtrack for Day 5: Karajan's astounding recording of Stravinsky's Apollon musagète coupled with Bartók's Music for strings, percussion and celeste – music that seems a perfect fit with this often disconcerting but amazing place.)

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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