Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Great potential for Café Gray at The Upper House in Hong Kong

Probably the newest boutique hotel in Hong Kong, The Upper House which opened in October 2009, has its bar, restaurant as well as the hotel lobby on the 49th floor. No doubt to take advantage of the view as well as lots of natural light.

Café Gray Bar  was buzzing on a Wednesday night with well-heeled tourists and expats alike (not many locals were sighted). The drinks menu has a number of delectable cocktails to entice the palette. My pineapple and thyme martini was unusual yet tasty.

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We then progressed to Café Gray Deluxe - the restaurant adjacent to the bar. It seems brighter than the bar with a similar view of the harbour and Central. The menu, devised by Gray Kunz, has many interesting dishes and combinations. Our gnocchi with artichokes and sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes) was light and tasty.  The richness of the short-ribs was balanced by a sharp tomato compote and mustard sauce. The pomfret meunière was good but on the large side.

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(Gnocchi with artichokes and sunchokes)

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(short ribs)

The wine list is extensive - one that befits a 3-Michelin star restaurant rather than the brasserie of a boutique hotel. Perhaps Café Gray has starry aspirations, but for now it's a bit of an overkill. As for the service, there is room for improvement. Despite of the fine cutlery and deco, the service seemed brisk to the point of abrupt - plates were removed too quickly, waiters too ready to take orders, chocolates appeared before the dessert: they need to work on the pace of the meal to achieve a more rounded and luxurious experience.

Let's see how it does in a few months.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Fried Curry Crab at Somboon in Bangkok

OK, it was all Thai to me! Being whisked away by a friend's fiancée I found myself walking into this rather large restaurant Somboon that featured a crab in its logo. Not entirely sure what to expect, I let my hostess do the ordering. In true Thai fashion, dishes just turned up as they were freshly prepared and cooked. The "star" dish was, surprise surprise, curry crab. It was just crab meat cooked in an Asian curry sauce which was delicious with just the right balance of spices and richness - all went down swimmingly well with jasmine rice. We also had the classic tom yum koong which was rich and tasty. The koong woosen (prawns with vemicelli noodles) was great, so was the grilled cockles. The mean was concluded with sticky rice and Thai mangoes. Yum yum.

NB: There are several branches of Somboon in Bangkok. Unfortunately, Google has found the site being associated with malware and viruses so can't pull any pictures here. Apologies.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The orchestra was too loud in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera

This has to be one of my favourite operas, and definitely the favourite Strauss opera. So I was much looking forward to seeing the first night of the revival yesterday. The overture was sounding symphonic which got me worried as it was supposed to be a relatively tender opening to the first act. The in-bed duet between Octavian (Sophie Koch) and Marschallin (Soile Isokoski) was drowned out by the orchestra. The only exception was when the score only called for a handful of instruments accompanying the voices. Baron Ochs was sung by Peter Rose who had a good mid register but lacking umph in the bottom notes. The second act got off to a good start - the duet between Sophie (Lucy Crowe) and Octavian was very good and totally believable. All the singers looked and acted splendidly on the set by William Dudley.

The prelude to the third was bombastic. The farce in the first half
was nicely played out and fun to watch. The trio had a tender start -
Isokoski's pianissimo was outstanding, joined by the beautiful voices
of Koch and Crowe. Though slowly but surely, the singers were drowned
by the orchestra towards the end.

I peeped into the pit to find out what's going on - the conductor
Kirill Petrenko was giving very big leads to the orchestra with huge
gestures all the time: of course the orchestra would respond in kind. Clearly there was
insufficient attempt to balance the sound between stage and pit. One
advice for him: sit in the back of Stalls and have a listen - if you
can't hear the singers, the orchestra is too loud.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Last night I went to see this Royal Opera and Royal Ballet co-production of The Tsarina's Slippers. The fairytale story is just the perfect ticket for Christmas: Ukrainian Christmas, witches, devils, Court at St Petersburg, drunken teacher, etc. Mikhail Mokrov's set design and Francesca Zambello's direction was fun and effective. To maintain a certain degree of innocence,  lots of the special effects were played by the Devil's entourage, nymphs, and just simple acting rather than by backstage machinery. 

As a relatively unknown work (certainly outside of Russia), the Royal Opera enlisted a cast of largely Russian singers. Olga Guryakova was Oxana with a big voice to fill the auditorium; Vsevolod Grivnov was a lyrical Vakula. Larissa Diadkova and Maxim Mikhailov were the Witch/Solokha and the Devil respectively - who really made the fairytale work. The corp of the Royal Ballet fitted well in all the dance sequences - especially the nymphs by the lake and the court dances.

Musically, it was a bit like Onegin and Nutcracker thrown together with a heavy Ukrainian influence. At times, Tchaikovsky's handy work was only detectable in the orchestration. So some of today's audiences may need a bit of time to get used to this unknown work: it certainly deserves more outings.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Skylon is still a fun place

I first went to Skylon in May 2007 as it opened with the refurbished Royal Festival Hall courtesy Allies and Morrison. While I have been back quite a few times for cocktails and drinks at the bar, I have not had a proper dinner there for a while until last night.

The restaurant is still nicely laid out alongside the bar (in the centre) and brasserie (opposite end) in this vast space. It still offers one of the best river views in London. The menu continues to offer Modern British fare. My sweetbread has a nice texture sitting alongside a fresh bed of salad.

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My entrecote (shared with my fellow dining companion) was
beautifully done - nice salted crust on the outside, tender and
succulent inside. The service was  attentive without being
over-bearing. Four of the six of us ordered Baked Alaska - think meringue encasing the tri-colour ice cream served with a Grand Marnier flame. All was consumed with much enthusiasm.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Aqua Kyoto trying to do sophisticated Japanese

It was about a fortnight ago when I tried out Aqua Nueva which was at one end of this entertainment complex: last night I went to the Japanese end Aqua Kyoto. Unlike that Saturday lunch time when it was a haven of tranquility, Aqua Kyoto on a Tuesday night was a happening place (with the aid of the Elle promotional event in the booked-out Aqua Nueva).

My friend and I sat down and ordered a variety of dishes so to sample the breadth and depth of the staff's culinary skills. Their aqua kyoto tataki sushi mori awase (pictured below) was a concoction of chopped fatty tuna, foie gras, salmon, crab and other luxury ingredients wrapped in cucumber - they were delightful in texture and taste.

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Other notable dishes were the seared beef tataki with chili ponzu which was flavourful, tempura of okra and prawns were crunchy and cooked to perfection, eel teriyaki was rich though it should have been served on a bed of Japanese short grain rice. 

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So Aqua Kyoto has a lot going for it - location, location, location, swanky decor, and a glitzy crowd for now. But there is room for improvement. The menu, though varied and interesting, was hard work and it would have been so much easier if they offered an omakase so the guests could spend less time reading and more time enjoying. The sushi counter, though well laid out, had some unfortunate plastic click-click food containers which were frankly an eyesore - get rid of them please!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The triple bill opened with Tread Softly set to Gustav Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's String Quartet in D minor. The choreography was wonderfully fluid yet structured. The movements also had a acrobatic quality to it that was breathtaking. Sadly the final 3 minutes was interrupted by a power cut which the company had to re-start at a climatic point.

The second item was the much loved Carnival of the Animals (Saint-Saëns). Rather than recreating the "animals", the dancers expressed animal movements in a fun and human way. The cuckoo was particularly cute. The penultimate number, The Swan, was done with much elegance and grace yet without pretending to be a swan. The kids must have loved it in the afternoon matinee.

Julian Anderson wrote the music for the last item in the programme - titled The Comedy of Change. The work opened with silence as the larvae were hatching (the dancers were encased in cocoons), followed by a primordial sound world. The whole dance was a lot of fun to watch - lots of randomness. All in all a fun (hence the title) work to experience.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Aqua Nueva serving up some hot Spanish snacks in London

It's just about a month old when Aqua opened in London. And yes, it's the same Aqua as the one on No 1 Peking Road. Well, the entrance on Argyll Street makes a bit of a statement - crimson velvet decor with a sleekly dressed receptionist guiding you to the lift. When you get to the top floor, it opens out into a series of bar and dining areas.

My destination was Aqua Nueva - the Spanish part of this drinking-dining complex. That meant I was guided along an atmospherically lit corridor before I got to the the restaurant. It's well lit with a terrace looking out to a roof top terrace. Unlike Aqua in Hong Kong where it has the spectacular harbour view, the London one only looks out to a roof-top view.

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Rather than wading through the tapas and a la carte menus, I just asked the maitre d' to bring a selection of their tapas. I was pleasant surprised by the delicate croquette of mushrooms, lightly cooked octopus, braised pork, San Pietro fillets, Manchengo topped tortilla and flavourful Salamanca jamon. All was very well prepared and justly presented (after all it was tapas so there was no need for elaborate dressing). Though we had little room left, we still managed to squeeze in a dessert of pastry roll filled with orange cream.

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Given it's centrally located (one street off Oxford Circus), bright open space, roof top terrace, and half decent food, I think Aqua London may have a bright future. Let's see how it will do over the upcoming festive period.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Neues Museum, Berlin

The Neues Museum was the cultural highlight of my visit to Berlin. Freshly opened this month after extensive work by David Chipperfield.
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Never have I seen such sympathetic yet ingenious renovation work at a museum. The layout and flow was kept largely intact. The key exhibitions spaces continued with their clever framing (Egyptian antiquities had frescoes and colour palette that matched the exhibits, likewise for Roman antiquities). Yet the finishing touches were of a very high quality - from new brick work (see below) through to the perfectly aligned internal cladding and door fittings. Naturally, the architectural setting complimented the significant exhibits - such as the beautiful and life like bust of Nefertiti or the alter of King Akhenaten (strangely Philip Glass's opera of the same name sprang to mind).
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Atmospheric dining at Rodeo in Berlin

A friend in Berlin took me to this hip restaurant Rodeo on Auguststrasse. We approached it from the back street and meandered through some
staircases and corridors - all was very atmospheric with an
'underground' touch. Rodeo sits underneath a plaster cast dome (see below) that's more like a circular ballroom than a restaurant.

The fare was modern European (the best I could describe it). I had a crustacean soup which was light and flavourful. The fillet of Müritzzander was fresh and well cooked (nice) sitting on top of a bed of risotto that was too acidic (too much white wine). The meringue topped fig was rich and over the top. The service was good and attentive. Music of the jazzy-latin mix variety started half way through the meal, adding further hipness. A nice evening out all in all.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Hearing the Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmonie

Those of us London-centric folks easily forget there are great concert halls in other parts of the world. I remember as a young kid buying DG LPs with von Karajan on the front cover conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. So as my first visit to the city, a visit to the Philharmonie to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was a must.
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Ivan Fisher started the evening's concert with Haydn Symphony 88. A light and delightful work. As I'd expected, the acoustic of the hall was amazing - probably a good 2.5 second of reverberation - and much more generous than the Royal Festival Hall in London. The strings sounded sweet and the timpani came through clearly with definition. The audience was then treated to Béla Bartók's Seven Pieces for Choir and Chamber Orchestra: the Berlin Phil reduced in size occupying only half of the stage while the Netherlands Youth Choir took the other half. These young performers (all female) sang in Hungarian from memory - not easy at all - and really delivered rich colours and tone.
The second half of the concert began with a weird presentation of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No 1. The solo instrument was the Cimbalom (sounded very much like a metallic glass harmonica). Oszkar Okros, a Cimbalom guru I presume, fluttered and hovered above this strange instrument accompanied by the orchestra. It sounded odd at places but made musical sense in other. The audience loved it - I think the showmanship rather than the work. Two Hungarian Dances by Brahms later, we arrived at Kodaly's Dance from Galánta which the orchestra played beautifully and full of contrast.
So that was my first evening listening in the Philharmonie. I was very envious of a city that has a concert hall with such good acoustics, audience facilities and above all an enthusiastic supporting crowd. Need to go back to hear Sir Simon conducting the band.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Thomas Allen made a worthy Gianni Schicchi at the Royal Opera

Many people associate Gianni Schicchi with its melodic aria O mio babbino caro! and not giving the complex score its due respect. This being a relatively late work (after La rondine but before Turandot), the texture and rhythmic quality of the music is rich and exciting. So it was great to hear it well performed by the orchestra under the helm of Pappano. Thomas Allen, as Gianni Schicchi, really brought out the deal-maker-cum-breaker. Of course, he was supported by a strong cast of many who made this farcical work come to life.

Still a naughty L'heure Espagnole at the Royal Opera

It was a couple of years ago when the Royal Opera showed the then new production of  L'heure Espagnole with Richard Jones as director. This revival brought back the hunky tenor-with-biceps Christopher Maltman as Ramiro and busty Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion who replaces Christine Rice. It still retained its naughtiness and frisson. Pappano, once again, brought this somewhat difficult score to life.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A punchy Carmen at the Royal Opera

I went to see Carmen last night. It was nearly three years ago when I saw this performance of Carmen and I thought it was pretty good then. This time round, Elina Garanca was the alluring Carmen and a robust Robert Alagna sang Don José. It was a good match as both have strong voices and looked believable on stage. Bertrand de Billy who conducted in the pit seemed to have given this revival a good kick - with very punchy strings and brass. The ensemble of the chorus was rocked a bit but otherwise it was an enjoyable performance.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Theatre

Fiona Shaw gave a fantastic performance of Mother Courage at the National Theatre. I was not sure what to expect - especially when approaching the very open and hanger-like stage with lots of white noise.
The whole performance was very gripping - as the life of Mother Courage unfolded through the Thirty Year War.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

It must be the first time that I had to miss the first act of an opera. A long meeting meant I couldn't make it to the first act of this new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera last night. 

The second act got off to a promising start: Nina Stemme proved to be a promising Isolde with stage presence and a voice to match. Unfortunately she sang opposite a somewhat erratic Ben Heppner. While the love duet was well matched, Heppner became increasingly wayward with his chromatic passages in the lower register - there were, to my ears at least, some excruciating moments. Luckily, Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra kept it all going with intensity and line - thus alleviating the pain of poor tonal quality from Heppner.

As a late replacement, John Tomlinson gave a strong performance of King Marke. The Liebestod at the end was memorable as Stemme rose to the challenge and her voice came soaring above the think orchestration.

As it was the first night, the audience was decisive in its verdict: Stemme, Tomlinson and Pappano received rapturous applause;  the clapping dampened and quite a few in the audience booed when the Christof Loy (director) and Johannes Leiacker (designs) appeared on stage; the applause resumed for the orchestra. Why? The stage was bland with chipboards painted in a non-descript grey. The entire cast wore either dinner suits / evening dress or black shirts. It felt more like a concert performance than a staged opera. Let's hope most of the budget went to the singers and musicians.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A surprisingly nice lunch at Tate Modern

At very short notice, I booked a table at the Tate Modern restaurant (Level 7) for lunch with a friend from Amsterdam. I was given a river view table. The Crab tarte was delicious and the Beouf Bourguignon with celeriac mash was lush and tasty. The bill came to £20 per head which was a bargain! 

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Fabulous bignes at Andreotti in Rome

My friend Luca has an encyclopedic knowledge of patisseries in Rome. So when I told him I was going to be near Ostiense station on a Saturday morning, he'd recommended to me Andreotti on via Ostiense.

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Like many good things in Rome, it's understated and simple, yet the atmosphere and buzz tells you people are here for one reason - pastries! Everything looked delicious.

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The chocolate and caramel bignes that I had with my cappuccino (yes it was before 11am) were only a mouthful big, but the flavours exploded in my mouth before it all melted away.

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A coffee and a bigne came to less than €2. Un'altro per favore!

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne

It is not easy to stage Tristan und Isolde: if it's too realistic, the story becomes unbelievable, if it's too conceptual, the story gets lost. So what to do?

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production and Roland Aeschlimann's set design (of 2003 revived this year) seem to have pulled it off. There was enough shapes on the set where one can project ones imagination (inside the ship's cabin, the Cornish coast, Tristan's home, etc.) The lighting (hues of blue and grey) gave it a somewhat ethereal feel. The costumes were medieval with a twist. All in all, it kind of worked.
Of course, the most important thing was the music. It's Vladimir Jurowski's first time conducting a full length Wagner opera. One dreads to think how many rehearsals the LPO must have had. The result came across as  poised and controlled, punctuated by contrasting orchestral colours. The orchestral passages can sometimes come across as symphonic, but that goes away when the singing takes over. Anja Kampe was a fantastic and penetrative Isolde, with a big voice to fill the auditorium: one could hear shades of Brünhilde. Tristan was sung by Torsten Kerl who frankly didn't match that of Kampe - his voice was focused but lacked "meat" and was often lost in thick passages.  Libestod was sensational at the end - Kampe vocal line rose above the orchestra as she glowed magically and other-worldly.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

"the drawing room" offers some gastronomic delights in Hong Kong

The quail was from France, Scallops from Japan, Wagyu beef probably from Australia and prawns from ilas canarias. It seems  the drawing room has access to some fantastic ingredients. And it's no coincidence that they have the skills and inspiration to put these produce to good use. The "quail and foie gras with over-roasted figs" was well executed and when paired with a light and aromatic Italian soave produced some surprising sensation.
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The rest of the menu offered some consistently high quality dishes, such as a green pea (lightly minted) soup with scallop and caviar,  linguine with Canarian prawns (god knows how the prawns would be transported from Gran Canaria via mainland Spain, then to another port before they arrive in Hong Kong) and a pan fried brioche with a goat cheese ice cream. All matched with a 5* hotel service.
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Friday, 31 July 2009

Sevva, a belated find in Hong Kong

Friends have mentioned it. Magazines and websites have reviewed it. Yet I have never been to Sevva until tonight. Well, I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the roof top terrace, the buzz, and the service. Then again, there was the view of Statue Square, the live DJ and saxophonist and the (self) select crowd. Perhaps this is the perfect place for a post-work-hook-up-with-friends place in Central (if you don't mind the inflated bills).

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Thursday, 30 July 2009

Monsieur Pierre Gagnaire said hello to our table at Pierre at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong

It was lunch en famille at Pierre today. When we walked in at 12:30 I was the only man: the rest of the restaurant was decorated with ladies-who-lunch. That "man alone" situation was quickly rectified by other business men and my dad arriving just before 13:00.

The lunch menu offered a good variety of dishes. I had the bouillabaise gelly which was rich but just right for this hot climate. My pork loin was topped with peanuts and a jus that was well balanced in taste and texture. The cheese dimsum was a bit strange. The wilted tomatoes and spinach was also tasty. Dessert was  old-fashioned marshmallow with a modern twist - pink marshmallows floating on a milky pannacotta with a light strawberry sorbet. Monsieur Gagnaire was en residence and said hello to us (well, actually each and every table).

TEN YO SHI, a decent tempura joint in Causeway Bay

On the 9th floor of Henry House in Causeway Bay is where one finds this tiny Japanese restaurant TEN YOSHI. At best it could probably sit 30 people. When I got there at 12:30 it was already well populated. The specialty of the restaurant was tempura - deep-fried battered seafood and vegetables. The menu offers the classic tempura - prawns, vegetables, and squashes. But it was the seasonal seafood that were delectable. We had tempura of thinly sliced abalone (a slight crunch and taste of the sea), Hokkaido oysters (supple) and small whole boneless fish (melt-in-the-mouth softness). There was a great variety of texture and taste. We also had amazing sashime delivered from its sister restaurant on the 11th floor. Definitely worth squeezing into this tight space.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Royal Opera

The Barber were to be the last work I saw at the Royal Opera this season - and it was a memorable one for all the right reasons. Joyce DiDonato, who sang the role of Rosina, broke her leg earlier in the run but carried on with the rest of the performances by singing from a wheel chair. Well, one doesn't see a wheel chair on stage often, but for a lead character to sing, act and dance in a wheel chair was simply phenomenal. She didn't lose any of her vocal agility nor acting prowess - and managed to deliver a first rate performance on the night.

Of course, DiDonato was paired with Juan Diego Flórez who delivered one vocal pyrotechnic after another with bounteous youthfulness. Figaro was played by Pietro Spagnoli who gave the role flair and humour. Ferruccio Furlanetto as Dottore Bartolo was a joy to watch. With Antonio Pappano at the helm of the orchestra, sounderous sound came from the pit. All in all, this production brought a memorable finale to this season at the Royal Opera.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Tosca, Royal Opera

I went to tonight's performance of Tosca at the Royal Opera with trepidation. First we were told (a few weeks ago) Deborah Voigt pulled out due to illness and Angela Gheorghiu replaced her. Then Marcello Giordani got ill and was replaced by Massimo Giordano a few days ago. So, will Bryn Terfel put in an appearance tonight?   Thank goodness there were no more cast changes. The orchestra played the opening chords with unusual umph. Massimo Giordano was a gallant Cavaradossi. Bryn Terfel was his usual fantastic self where a lot of care went into his portrayal of Scarpia - less on the voice and more on the drama. The real transformation was Angela Gheorghiu. When I saw her in the premiere of this production (design Paul Brown, director Jonathan Kent) a few years ago I thought her Tosca as an attention seeking school-girl which looked ridiculous across from the very deep and grown up Scarpia (Bryn Terfel). In tonight's performance she was full of fire with a greater breadth of emotions and tone, where a few of her top notes rang throughout the auditorium. My guess is the revival director Stephen Barlow made the school girl grow up. So tonight's Tosca turned out to be exceptional.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Rusalka at Glyndebourne

Operatic fairytales are not easy to stage - they will have to retain that magical quality while meeting the expectations of the grownup audience. The opening act of Rusalka at Glynedebourne met both of those - the lighting had that ethereal quality, the nymphs frolicked, and the first big aria of Rusalka (sung by the fantastic Ana María Martínez) was sensational. Her voice had a pure yet urgent quality - perfectly suited to the role, which was well matched by Brandon Jovanovich who sang the Prince. Mischa Schelomianski as Vodnik was in an inflated body suit that was both comical and scary!

Rae Smith's design for this production took on a dark turquise / blue tone for the opening act, the castle scene in the second act was decorated by singers in stylised yet glamorous 30's costumes. Rick Nodine, who directed the movements, brought about the suspended nymphs, rolling Vadnik and free-spirited doe.
Needless to say, the LPO played Dvorák's rich score wonderfully to the direction of Jirí Belohlávek.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

L'Amour de loin

It was my first time encountering the music of Kaija Saariaho last night at the English National Opera's new production of L'Amour de loin. I went with a very open mind - this being a contemporary opera. I was pleasantly surprised by the production. The cast was strong - Roderick Williams as Jaufré Rudel,  Joan Rodgers as Clémence and Faith Sherman as the Pilgrim - delivered seemingly impossible vocal lines. The music was a sound world that was rich in texture, though some of the emotions escaped my attentive ears. With xylophones and glockenspiel galore in the pit, Edward Gardner kept a tight reign at the helm of a much enlarged orchestra.

Credit must go to Daniele Finzi Pasca for the circus / acrobatic "theatrical landscape" that made the whole production stunning. The lighting, the mime theatre, the dancers and acrobats all added a lot of magic and colours to a work that only had three soloists. The final scene with Jaufré and his alter egos suspended in mid air whilst the chorus held up mirrors to reflect narrow light beams across the auditorium was a fitting end to a dreamy and imaginative evening.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Un ballo in maschera

It seems the mundane but essential announcement of "Please switch your mobile phones off" has been replaced by the "Tonight's XXX role will be sung by YYY" kind with alarming frequency at the Royal Opera lately (Deborah Voight to be replaced by Angela Gheorghiu in Tosca). Sometimes we are in for a surprise: other times a nasty one. Robert Aronica who replaced Ramón Vargas as Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera was not half bad.

This is a full-blooded opera with lots of powerful duets. Roberto Aronica's strength was well matched by Angela Marambio (as Amelia): though a bit more tenderness would not go amiss. Dalibor Jenis also gave a find performance of Renato. The chorus sang magnificently throughout.  Those who have not seen this production (designed by Sergio Tramonti) were awed by the ball scene in the last act (well, they clapped!) This was a fine Verdi night out.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Renée Fleming as Violetta in La Traviata

When I first saw this production of La Traviata, it was Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta and Sir Georg Solti in the pit. There had been a few more notable performances since, but none so more than the current run with Renée Fleming as Violetta. Last night she was absolutely sensational - the amazing thing was that she was able to portray such a complex character - from the frivolous and introspective in Act I, to vulnerable and stoic in Act II, through to the hopeless dying Violetta in Act III. That it was all very believable on stage.
Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson as Alfredo and Giorgio recpectively added fizz to the drama. Pappano was milking every moment of this Verdi score - without wallowing or sentimentality. This La Traviata will stick in my mind for years to come.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

An interesting stage play of Strauss and Zweig in Collaboration at the Duchess Theatre

It has been a few years since I last read Tim Ashley's biography of Richard Strauss.
The period after the fall of the Weimar Republic leading to the end of
World War II was difficult for Strauss - both creatively and
personally. After all, he had written his popular and successful operas by this stage and Hoffmansthal was dead. Therefore, it was fascinating to see Collaboration by Ronald Harwood at the Duchess Theatre where the relationship of Strauss and Stefan Zweig was portrayed.

Michael Pennington and David Horovitch played Strauss and Zweig respectively. The slightly overbearing Pauline Strauss was played by Isla Blair. The play had a very domestic setting - in sitting rooms, hotel rooms, etc. There were pensive moments as well as emotional outbursts.  The drama vividly portrayed how two creative men worked under the most difficult circumstances - their main output, Die schweigsame Frau, only had a tiny bit of airing. Many of the dialogues were necessarily conjectural, nonetheless it was a delight to see this period of Strauss enacted on stage.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


I have never seen Alban Berg's Lulu until tonight. It turned out to be very engaging. The storyline is thoroughly modern. The music / sound world is typical of that Viennese period (some of it reminiscent of very late Mahler and Strauss - though who am I to say). But the whole experience was very powerful indeed.

Agneta Eichenholz as Lulu was the true star of the evening, singing this very demanding part. Jennifer Larmore (the countess) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Alwa) were both superb at supporting the title role. Gwynne Howell's Schigolch was equally convincing. The orchestra of the Royal Opera played sonorously tonight - no doubt rising to the challenge of this thick and complex score. As one would expect, Pappano kept everything going throughout.

Monday, 8 June 2009

A joy to see Giulio Cesare (again) at Glyndebourne

I went to see Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne yesterday. I remember it being a fantastic and creative production with a top notch cast. This time Sarah Connolly was the superlative Cesare; Danielle de Niese was the multi-talented Cleopatra, and Laurence Cummings kept up the tempo to bring this David McVicar productiong a joy to watch.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Relaxing drinks served by the river at The Deck, Bangkok

Having spent 3 days running workshops non-stop, I finally had a moment with colleagues to relax. Since I was totally unprepared for any pleasure activities in Bangkok, I went onto the website to see what's available 6 hours before our flight back to London. I spotted the The Deck being close to where we were going to visit (Wat Pho).
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It turned out to be a nice tucked away river front pad with a deck (hence the name) on the water. We got there at around sun set and had a lovely view of the river. The beer was cold and the snacks were adequate. Definitely a decent spot for a drink in the early evening.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Lohengrin at the Royal Opera

Tonight's performance of Lohengrin at the Royal Opera was truly astounding. Johan Botha sang the title role with amazing stamina and intensity - right to the final aria. Edith Haller had an angelic voice that befitted Elsa. Petra Lang's steely tone really worked well as Ortrud. In fact, the entire cast was well matched - from the big Wagnerian choruses down to the many a cappella passages.

Semyon Bychkov led the orchestra to deliver a dramatically paced yet lyrical performance. The brass section was giving its best. The chorus was fantastic too as it sang with gusto and intensity. All in all, it was Wagner at its best.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Il Trovatore

Sondra Radvanovsky who sang Leonora last night at this revival of Il Trovatore was sensational. Her voice was big enough to fill the auditorium, yet the pianissimi were soft enough to draw you into the drama. Absolutely amazing. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang a fine Count di Luna - with sufficient gravitas and weight. His duet with Leonora was fantastic. Roberto Alagna, as Manrico, was entertaining at times, but he was quite often under the note which could be infuriating.

Carlo Rizzi kept the drama moving and the orchestra responded in kind.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Acis and Galatea

Oh my god, the dullness continued with Acis and Galatea. I was hoping the light and pastoral Handel score will brighten things up. I was so wrong. While the stage had more visual interests, the same dull playing and inanimate singers failed to bring this performance to life. The dancers continued to provide pointless distractions. It could have been so much fun, so playful, so tragic. Oh no, let's make it boring. I looked at my watch more than 3 times thinking whether I will miss Newsnight on BBC2. Though others couldn't wait till the end and walked off half way through the performance.

Dido and Aeneas

I am not a Purcell fan at the best of times, but was really put off by the dark and dull Dido and Aeneas production at the Royal Opera / Royal Ballet on Wednesday night. The whole production was turgid (my friend's choice of word), lifeless and boring.

Wayne McGregor was the choreographer.Christopher Hogwood conducted the score with rhythmic discipline. The orchestra, OAE, played along. No more, no less. Come on, make it come to life - with all the resources available it could have been an exciting performance full of fizz and drama. The stage was mostly barren - made for ballet rather than opera. It might have been a better production if they focused on one or the other: perhaps the opera and ballet companies had to make too many compromises. 

Dr Atomic at the English National Opera

It has just been over a month since I last saw Dr Atomic at the English National Opera. Somehow it has been relatively easy to recall what I saw and how I felt. The set and costumes were wonderfully evocative of the era (40s). Dr Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley) sang the title role with conviction. And Peter Sellar's direction had an intimate quality - whether it was in the lab, the home of Oppenheimer or at the test site. John Adams's score was dramatic. The best part was the slow, incessant and girating sequence that led up to the test bomb explosion: you could tell the entire audience was gripped by that dramatic ending

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera

I have managed to avoid all the reviews as I didn't want them to taint my experience of the new production of Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera. The long overture was accompanied by a seascape - essentially water running down a curtain across the stage forming the sea. The set was clever without cluttering the stage. A moving shadow represented the ghost ship - which had to be one of the most economical and convincing effects I have ever seen on the Royal Opera stage.

Bryn Terfel was magnificent as the Flying Dutchman singing with lyricism and drama. Senta, sung by Anja Kampe, had a Wagnerian voice with her top note ringing through the auditorium. Even the supporting cast of Hans-Peter König (Daland), Torsten Kerl (Erik) and John Tessier (Steersman) was strong. The chorus was fantastic - with enough singers carrying the drama. Marc Albrecht at the helm in the pit got the orchestra to play dynamically without losing the details. I am hoping this Dutchman will return to the shore of the Royal Opera soon.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

I Capuleti e i Montecchi

This revival of I Capuleti e i Montecchi uses the same set as the one by Pier Luigi Pizzi. Sadly the  production is showing its age - with limited movements and deserted sets. All is not lost, as we had two exceptional leads at this production at the Royal Opera. Elina Garanca (Romeo) was boyish and passionate; Anna Netrebko (Giulietta) was equally passionate - both had exceptional voices for their roles. The audience was overwhelmed by how they carried the drama - and so did I. Sir Mark was at the helm in the pit keeping the tempi moving and lingering for those sensational moments.

Bryn Terfel (singing Dutchman at the moment) sat among the audience in the Amphitheatre that evening to the astonishment of fellow opera goers. And it looked as if he enjoyed the performance too.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Gurrelieder Esa-Pekka Salonen with Philharmonia

Gurrelieder needs to be big and punchy. Esa-Pekka Salonen certainly did that with an enlarged Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall. The cast was strong, but the star of the performance was the orchestra which responded to each and every nuance of this at times eclectic piece. The sun rise at the end was particularly good.  The "stage direction" of colour lights worked reasonably well. Though the choir could have been at least 50% bigger - it just needed that Mahler 8 choral sound which Philharmonic Voices and the choir of CBSO lacked.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Rigoletto at the Royal Opera

I went to see a revival of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera. Leo Nucci as Rigoletto was sensational - he sang with vermin (in the company of the courtiers) and plea (with Gilda), coupled with years of experience. Francesco Meli's Il Duce was fine with an air of innocence. Ekaterina Siurina (as Gilda) gave a fine portrayal of the role. It was also a delight to see Kurt Rydl as Sparafucile. 

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Londinium sings a programme of a cappella pieces

It is a rare event when I go to a chamber choir concert - somehow the slots are taken up by grand operas and other big choral gigs. Anyway, upon a friend's recommendation ("what do you mean 'you don't like Debussy'" as the punch line) I trotted along to listen to Londinium to perform an eclectic programme of a cappella pieces.
The highlight was Holloway's "He-she-together" - a rarely perform work by this living composer. The high voices wailed convincingly and the men seemed subdued by them! The two Howells pieces (Take him, earth, for cherishing) was sung with gusto and precision. Not sure whether the Elgar worked (Go, song of mine). The Debussy (Trois chants de Charles d'Orléans) was well sung - though I still didn't get it. All in all an enjoyable night out listening to fine choral singing in St Mary-le-Bow.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Die tote Stadt

I was not sure what to expect at Royal Opera's production of Die tote Stadt and I liked what I heard. The sound world of Korngold was mostly lush, with shades of Strauss, Mahler and Puccini thrown in. Yet at other times, it's Hollywood. The pit couldn't fit the entire orchestra, so un-tuned percussion was put into Stalls Circle, and extra brass was in one of the Balcony boxes.
The stage set was very clever - with a boxed design portraying a fairly nondescript sitting room. The dream sequence was a replica of the same room just smaller and placed right behind the "real" room with all characters in clown costumes. It definitely worked.

Stephen Gould (as Paul) and Nadja Michael (Marie) were giving their best but you could tell they were at times overwhelmed by the enormous orchestra. Gerald Finley was Frank - though perhaps he shouldn't have sung bare-chested.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Turandot at Covent Garden

It must have been an atmospheric show when the current production was first seen in 1984 in Los Angeles. Nearly a quarter of a century later, this production of Turandot at Covent Garden is looking dated: highly stylised masks, mock pagodas, and a dark shadowy tone. It's definitely time for a change.
Last night's performance was ok. José Cura was supposed to be Calaf, but he got ill and was substituted by Fabio Armiliato whose singing was fine but somewhat wooden on stage. Turandot was Iréne Theorin who added Wagnerian omph to the role. The chorus was dreadful, at best it was a beat late, at times half a bar late. Even the final climatic chorus was shambolic. Surely everyone had good line of sight to the conductor and the beats were clear - so what's the excuse?

Sunday, 4 January 2009

What's the fuss about Kau Kee Beef Brisket (九記牛腩) in Hong Kong?

I have known the existence of Kau Kee for a few years. It even has its own entry in Wikipedia. Since it takes lunch and dinner breaks and doesn't open on public holidays, it has been rather difficult to check this place out. Until last night when we were so inclined (or desperate) to eat out there.
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The positive thought of seeing it open (see above picture) was quickly countered by its sign (you see, we got there at 7:55pm):

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I could definitely see some posturing going on here. Anyway, we went up to The Cheese Room on Hollywood Road for a beer and duly returned at 8:30pm. We managed to squeeze our party of 4 sharing with a party of 2 into a round table that could practically accommodate 3. So never mind our close proximity to fellow diners. Given the place was jam packed at 8:35pm, the food had better be good. The menu was short (see below) and straight to the point - braised beef brisket, braised beef brisket with noodles, braised beef brisket with rice noodles, braised beef brisket with curry sauce, braised beef brisket with (add your own variation). 

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It's really a one trick shop - the beef brisket and stock formed the foundation of every dish. I could taste the fat-rich beef brisket alright. The judicious sprinkling of chopped Chinese spring onions and coriander added interest. The soup base was salty with sufficient umami taste (plus a hint of MSG). The noodles were fresh (not made on the premises, but probably from a reputable supplier). Its down-market decor, extreme coziness and indifferent waiters meant it's no place to linger. We were out by 8:50pm, no doubt to the delight of those still waiting outside. 

Was it worth it? If I was in the area AND desparate for a bowl of salty beef brisket noodle soup AND a beer lined up somewhere else to cleanse my digestive duct, then I might revisit.