A week in Tokyo: Day 6

James JollySat 20th February 2010
A week in JapanA week in Japan

Early Mozart and bite-size radio

Imagine a company putting on a chamber opera on a Friday afternoon and filling the hall – and with ticket prices between about £50 and £80. Well, yesterday I witnessed just that – a rare chance to see Mozart’s early La finta giardiniera, a little charmer that, when done well, has a great deal to offer. And high of the list of things to guarantee its success must be the ability to convey the text to the audience; so the spoken passages were done in Japanese and the sung bits in Italian. The cast was full of very engaging characters and their acting, even to someone who couldn’t understand a word, was very funny.

The venue was another hall belonging to a large corporation, in this case in one in the steel business. Kioi Hall in Yotsuya is more ornate than the other halls I’ve visted, and with a livelier acoustic which sometimes acted against the lower-voiced male singers, but skilfully adapted from a space more often used for chamber-orchestra concerts (Tadaaki Otaka’s ensemble plays here), it worked well with a simple set and some very clever projection of images onto the wooden screened ball wall (I’d have liked a bit more – the nocturnal scene with projected trees looked gorgeous). And there were so many hints of things to come in Mozart’s later operas…including that night scene which would reappear in Figaro.

The opera – directed with many lovely comic touches by Leo Iizuka – was set in an Italian spa hotel in the early years of the last century: Arminda and her girls sported Pankhurst-esque sashes with “Votes for women” written in both English and Italian. And the costumes suited the period well – Belfiore, a pocket-sized fop, was decked out in blazer and baggie trousers.

The women were excellent, singing with finely focused tone and buckets of personality. Noriko Hasuda as the heroine Sandrina/Violante was moving and poised, her rival in love Arminda Etsuko Maezawa both looked and sounded terrific – she was a accomplished actress and had a lovely, rather ironic manner on stage. As Serpetta (a kind of Despina in the making) Keiko Akahoshi sent sparks out over the orchestra and was a very funny performer. Belfiore, a slightly difficult character to warm to, was sung slightly effortfully by the diminutive Yasuhiro Mori and the local mayor, Don Anchise, looking like a mad academic was a spot-on characterisation. As the cavalier Ramero (a Cherubino-to-be) Sonoka Daigo was suitably ardent.

Presiding over the musical goings-on was the Italian Vito Clemente drawing some stylish playing from the Tokyo Chamber Opera Theatre Orchestra though his gestures looked rather more appropriate to Puccini than Mozart. Luckily his musicians ignored his entreaties and remained within the bounds of Mozartian good taste.

A quick dash to the Tokyo Broadcasting Service in Akesaka to meet the folks at the fledgling classical internet radio station Ottava. Their approach is a kind of Classic FM, lifestyle-led recipe though I’m not convinced that editing everything into five minute chunks isn’t slightly over-pandering to the current generation’s inability to concentrate for more than a few minutes: if anything it’s encouraging it, and Classic FM has proved that people can cope with whole movements. But they were an enthusiastic and knowledgeable bunch. 80 per cent of their music comes from the Naxos catalogue and one composer who is very popular, I was amazed to discover, was Gerald Finzi. And it seems that John Cage also goes down well in this mix! And contemporary music as well as historic recordings are much appreciated (Kreisler playing Kreisler a regular hit!).

I recorded a half-hour interview and talked about some major British symphonic works of the 20th century hoping to do my bit for Arnold Bax – only to discover than his music is far from unknown in these parts courtesy of Ottava! Tomorrow is Siegfried: curtain up at 2pm, curtain down at 8pm. An early night and a Valium beckon…

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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