Friday, 31 December 2010

Black truffle in Chinese food

One can find European black truffle (tuber melanosporum) in a lot of things - foie gras, mushroom soup, or as shavings on pasta and scrambled eggs. They even come in a glass jar in many up market supermarkets. But all this is quintessentially European / Western. So to find black truffle appearing in Chinese menus was a bit of a novelty for me. My first encounter was early this week at the three-Michelin-starred Lung King Heen where a lobster tail was served in a Chinese champagne sauce on a bed of spinach with a sliver of the black stuff atop (see below). The taste was good and it worked, though I question its place in a Chinese restaurant.





Then to my surprise, I came across black truffle again. This time at Din Tai Fung in Causeway Bay. At a xiao lung bao cum noodle joint, one doesn't expect to see black truffles. Wrong. On the menu one can order a steamed basket of black truffle xiao lung bao at HK$138. So without hesitation I ordered one such basket (see below). Well, they tasted like the classical bao but laced with the aroma of the black truffle. It tasted surprisingly good - as the minced fatty pork and truffle created a rich and creamy taste.



One doesn't doubt the culinary uses of black truffles, nor its potential application in cuisine such as Chinese or Japanese. The interesting question here is whether these black truffles are of the European tuber melanosporum variety, or the Chinese tuber sinensis variety, or something else. And how will a surge in demand for this black stuff in the vast Chinese market impact on the world supply.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera

Have I really waited for nearly a quarter of a century to see Tannhäuser? Well, the wait was over last night. Naturally there was a lot of anticipation for this new Royal Opera production in 25 years. So they pulled out all the stops. The opening prelude was spellbindingly good. The solemnity of the opening theme quickly gave way to the playful and sexual thrusts with fluid and athletic choreography (Jasmin Vardimon) on stage - all this went on for nearly 20 minutes before Tannhäuser (Johan Botha) appeared. There was a bit of a giggle in the audience as Mr Botha was larger than the slim male dancers. This quickly gave way to the Venus-Tannhäuser dialogue. Michaela Schuster (as Venus) was very good with a firm yet insistent tone. Herrmann (sung by Christof Fischesser) picked up the dialogue as Venusberg dissolved and replaced by a floating tree!



The mass chorus gave its very best with a great deal of contrast, from the ethereal angel voices to the muscular song contest march. The German diction was impeccable. Johan Botha continued to shine in Act II but now singing opposite Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elizabeth. Her bright and noble tone was just right for the role.

Semyon Bychkov's reading of the score was considered and more elastic than some would expect. The very measured pace towards the end of Act II held everyone's attention. The combined forces responded and reacted to each of his nuanced direction. The set by Michael Levine was subtle - which is about right for an opera with so much drama on stage.

I do hope they will bring Tannhäuser back more regularly. Judging from the audiences' response, the Royal Opera should not have trouble selling tickets.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

A Dog's Heart at the ENO

Saw 'A Dog's Heart' about a fortnight ago - and in the mean time life and work got in the way. Looking back, it didn't feel like an opera - more like a theatre piece with some intriguing music. It was very good theatre too. The puppetry was great representing the dog before the anthropomorphism. There was humour (blood gushing out during the ops) and good choreography. I think it's a work that's worth seeing but would be pretty hard work just listening.


Monday, 29 November 2010

Julian Anderson 'Heaven is Shy of Earth' at the Barbican

When I head 'Heaven is Shy of Earth' at the 2006 BBC Prom, it already sounded good. The vast space of the Royal Albert Hall was atmospheric for the naturalistic sound world that Anderson was creating, and Angelika Kirchschlager was fine with the role. But the revised version of the work premiered last Friday by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave the work a new and improved hearing. Susan Bickley took up the soprano role this time - her timbre and motherly voice really suited the work. The new 'Gloria' was tightly sang by the BBC Symphony Chorus. Oliver Knussen gave the whole work balance and shape - all somehow felt more complete.


Thursday, 25 November 2010

Adriana Lecouvreur at the Royal Opera

It was nearly a century ago when the Royal Opera staged Adriana Lecouvreur, so that's no surprise that I hadn't seen it before. Angela Gheorghiu was ill and pulled out of her performance (no surprise) so I had the delight of hearing  Ángeles Blancas Gulín for the first time. Her voice and presence really suited the title role. Her top notes were slightly on the wobbly side (nerve may be) but otherwise she was superb singing opposite Jonas Kaufmann as Maurizio who gave his very best both in acting and voice. Michaela Schuster was also superlative in the bitchy role of Princess of Bouillon.



The stage design was subpstuous, of the period and intricate - no expense spared given it's going to be shared by FOUR opera houses. Signs of the time I am afraid. David McVicar's direction was also marvellous. Nothing OTT, but just enough to effectively create the right dynamics between the characters.

Mark Elder was superlative at bringing the score to life, always keeping the orchestra balanced with the singers on stage.


Thursday, 18 November 2010

The small but perfectly formed Dinings serves up good sushi

I recently found myself working in Marylebone on the edge of the A4 (i.e. the road to Heathrow Airport). So to my big surprise I discovered Dinings just around the corner from the office. It's so small if you didn't know it existed or like me kept enjoying the view of the Swedish church, then you will miss it. And there is no walk in - even the sushi counter has to be pre-booked. So, I rang ahead and got myself a place at lunch time. I only had about 30 minutes so I ordered the "squid two ways" sushi and their chef's sashimi lunch.




The two pieces of sushi were nicely presented. The sushi rice had a slightly sweeter taste than normal. The squid was well grilled. The "two way" referred to the slightly different condiments on top - both were delicious and subtle.




The sashimi lunch was not bad. A very fresh selection of sea bass, tuna, salmon, and even the cooked prawns were quite tasty. Miso soup was of the kelp variety. Rice was proper Japanese grain. So all was washed down with much enjoyment. Though I must try the more interesting creations next time - there were all kinds of rolls and sushi that deserved more time to enjoy.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Roméo et Juliette at the Royal Opera

Piotr Beczala was amazing as Roméo at the revival of Carlo Tommasi's design of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. He partnered really well with Nino Machaidze (as Juliette) - in terms of acting, voice, and rapport. Daniel Oren took extra trouble to ensure the rich sound from the orchestra did not overwhelm the voices on stage.  The chorus was also superlative - from the big crowd scenes to the tender prayer moments. Fab.




Thursday, 21 October 2010

At the Night Shift

Well, it's not often I leave home to go to a gig after dinner. My friend's band Silvermoths was playing at The Night Shift at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night. This was the "warm up" session at 9pm - where they played a few numbers including some of their compositions. The QEH was packed with a very engaged if chatty audience.

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Then at 10pm, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Rosemary Joshua played an hour of Carelli, Handel and Vivaldi. I was at first intrigued and subsequently enjoyed this format - a late start so you are not dashing from work and trying to chow down dinner in a hurry. Drinks are permitted throughout - so you can be nursing a pint of beer or swirling a glass of merlot while listenting to Corelli. The presenter (Alistair Appleton) added a relaxed atmosphere and provided a dialogue between the audience and the on stage performers. Of course, the OAE played the music wonderfully. After the concert, there was a DJ cueuing some tracks until the wee hours. All in all, it was an unsual yet strangely satisfying night out.


Friday, 15 October 2010

A dark Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigoletto at the Royal Opera

The latest revival of David McVicar's production of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera continued to be a fantastic grand opera. As I have commented on this here before I shall not repeat myself. What amazed me was that Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang the title role. He was, to me, for a long time the ideal Onegin - tall, relatively handsome, slightly wooden and a warm baritonal voice. To see him as Rigoletto just demonstrated how much he has developed - both vocally (a darker voice) and stage-craft (more movement and character). There was a real "twisted" tone in his voice for Rigoletto to be convincing. I would love to see him as Iago or Mephistopheles.




Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Faust at the ENO

By and large this production of Gounod Faust was very good. The stage set transferred well from the Metropolitan Opera to the London Coliseum. As expected, Des McAnuff's direction was very good - the scene transitions, the spatial dynamics of the characters and the movements. Toby Spence was great as Faust. Iain Paterson was a strong Mephistopheles - with enough presence and bounce in the character. The oitment in all this was that the chorus kept falling behind and nearly fell apart in the well known Soldiers' Chorus. Edward Gardner was very clear with his beat - so it's really up to the choristers to watch the baton!




Niobe, Regina di Tebe at the (not there) Royal Opera

It took me a few days to think about my reaction to Niobe, Regina di Tebe that I saw last Friday. During the performance, I was impressed by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble led by Thomas Hengelbrock which filled the void vacated by the touring Royal Opera. The original instruments and techniques created a sound that was quite distinct from the usual band. Raimund Bauer's stage set and lighting design was harmless. There was a lot of hype about Jacek Laszczkowski (who sang Anfione). He sang all the high notes and there were some moving passages too. Whether it's the kind of voice I enjoy is another matter. Véronique Gens was a convincing and naturalistic Niobe.

But the issue was my inability / reluctance to get into operas of that period. Whilst I went with an open mind, I came out feeling I had spent 3.5 hours listening to stuff that didn't move me - it was similar to my experience of Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain - well produced and sung but one that didn't engage me. May be there was a lack of intimacy (I don't think operas of that period were meant for a 2,500 seat Royal Opera House, more like the Linbury Studio). May be Anfione needed to be sung by a castrato. May be ... we needed alcohol and canapes during the performance.

Monday, 27 September 2010

A deeply engaging Tristan und Isolde

Having seen the Glyndebourne and Royal Opera productions of Tristan und Isolde not so long ago, I was quite looking forward to a concert performance of this epic Wagner opera - one without cumbersome staging and weird stage directions. It turned out to be one of the best performances I have ever heard of this work. Gary Lehman sang Tristan with thoughtfulness and directness. His voice remained strong and composed throughout the three acts. It would be very exciting to see him as Siegfried in the near future. Violeta Urmana was absolutely fabulous - the Isolde role enabled her to show off her entire range of vocal colours and emotions. Could she be a future Brünhilde? And there was a really good rapport between them. Anne Sophie von Otter's Brangäne was also very good - especially in Act II where she sang from a Level 6 Box high above everyone else - very effective. Bill Viola's video projections were good in places, distracting in others - luckily this being a concert performance one can ignore what's
being shown above the orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Philharmonia Orchestra with firmness and encouragement - and the players were responsive throughout. A memorable Tristan und Isolde is hard to come by, and this one will stay with me for a little while.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Time to retire Così at the Royal Opera

It didn't help that I had to miss the first act of Così at the Royal Opera last night. Then I bumped into a friend who saw the first act and decided the second act was not worth staying for. So when I sat down I saw the same old Jonathan Miller production, I thought it really was getting tired - the freshness of the production has gone. Thomas Allen was ill and William Shimell stepped in as Don Alfonso who did a fine job (of what I saw anyway). The singing was fine, but it needed more. The playing in the orchestra was ok, but lacked fizz.  Time to move on.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Zemlinsky and Mahler 3 London Philharmonic

I was slightly (just slightly?) shocked by the volume of reviews on the day after the LPO's season opening concert - eight! I thought Petra Lang was superb singing Zemlinsky's Six Maeterlinck Songs - she really got across the moodiness and darkness of these songs. And it was a delight to hear works by a contemporary of  Mahler.
Then onto one of the longest symphonies in the repertoire - Mahler 3. The opening fanfare was bold but restrained. Jurowski took quite an episodic reading of this massive movement - and refrained from pulling about too much. The recapitulation of the fanfare with the four cymbals was gigantic. The 2nd and 3rd movements brought about a different sound world - as intended by Maher's naturalistic score. Petra Lang returned in the 4th movement  "O Mensch!" with her rich and dark tone. Then there was the contrasting 5th movement - when the Trinity Boys Choir and sopranos/altos of the London Philharmonic Choir came charging in with their angelic voices. The final movement was tender, luscious and warm. The whole symphony was wonderfully put together - and it was very enjoyable too!


Monday, 13 September 2010

Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera

Don Pasquale was the first thing I saw in the new season at the Royal Opera. Don't know what it was - a Sunday evening performance? The Royal Opera was on tour in East Asia? The not-so-fresh doll house design? Or the Donizetti score? But it really didn't do it for me. I found myself getting bored. Hmm ... not a good start to the season.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Generous afternoon tea at the Portrait Restaurant

Very few people know there is a restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery with roof top view. Even fewer know they serve a afternoon tea. I was treated to afternoon tea there on Friday. The place was buzzing with late tea-drinkers and early cocktail-quaffers. We settled on their classic afternoon tea set which arrived as below:

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The sandwiches were freshly made with lovely soft bread - there was a selection of egg mayo, cheese and chutney, ham and mustard and tuna paste. All very tasty. It even came with a honey-mustard dressed salad. Then there were the scones - they were twice the normal size and warm to the touch and one would feed two easily. Sitting behind the huge scones were two slices of victoria sponge cake with inch-think icing - they were soft to the touch and moist when you bite into them. All very yummy. 

Monday, 9 August 2010

Good charcuterie and burgers at Bar Boulud

When one is accustomed to so many good and interesting restaurants in Soho, Mayfair and the East End, crossing Park Lane over to Knightsbridge has always been tricky for me - where to eat, what's convenient, and who will be eating there. After a very positive experience at Koffmann's a few weeks ago, I ventured to another relatively new eatery - Bar Boulud. The charcuterie platter to share was quite wonderful - the tastes and textures were well balanced without coming across as too rustic.

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The burgers and chips turned out pretty well too. The meat was succulent. The size was not too big. One actually got a good choice of options on how the burger could be assembled. My fellow diners had the lemon sole which was fresh and well cooked. The boujoulaise sauges were pretty wholesome too. All in all, it makes a trip to this part of town much more tolerable.



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Sunday, 8 August 2010

Many fantacies at the BBC Proms

Semyon Bychkov and the National Youth Orchestra kicked start their BBC Proms concert with Dukas The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It was well put together. A good pace. There was a lot of contrast. And clearly the whole orchestra enjoyed this colourful piece.

This was followed by Julian Anderson's Fantasias (its London premiere). The first movement gave a bold and staunch start of the work - being scored for just brass instruments. The subsequent movements took the listeners to different naturalistic soundscapes. The most intriguing part was the tapping of the mouth pieces and col legno which created a "tropical rain fall" inside the Royal Albert Hall. All in all it was a delightful experience (and the audience seemed to like it too).

Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique argually was the weakest piece. Whilst the players were full of enthusiasm, the first movement took a long time to settle - passion was lacking. The subsequent movements got better. The dance and the march were tightly played. Though one could not help but feel the playing wasn't mailable enough to accommodate the sensuous score.



Saturday, 7 August 2010

An ever-unfolding Don Giovanni set at Glyndebourne


It's a new production. It's a much loved opera at Glyndebourne. Gerald Finley sang the title role.  Having seen him in lighter Mozart roles (such as Figaro) I was not entirely what to expect. He did the athletic and dashing parts of the character well,  but somehow lacked the menacing quality at the darker end of the drama. Anna Samuil's Donna Anna was ok - though I did find her voice uneven in many of the arias. Anna Virovlansky was a feisty Zerlian who partnered well with Guido Loconsolo's Masetto. Alastair Miles was held up in traffic so was only able to take part in Act II.

Jakub Hrusa conducted who did a fine job. The keyboard continuo caused
too much distraction with a lot of unnecessary page turning. Jonathan
Kent's direction was good - with lots of movements in the right places.
The best part of the production was the ever unfolding, revolving and imploding set. It started off as a rotating cube. Then it opened up into Donna Anna's house. Then it turned into Don Giovanni's palatial home. Then it folded into the balcony of Donna Elvira. And so on. Very inventive and engaging for an otherwise dark stage.



Friday, 30 July 2010

Koffmann's has just opened in London

The last time I tasted Pierre Koffmann's gastronomic creations was back in 2004 when La Tante Claire was in the Berkeley Hotel (the site now occupied by Marcus Wareing). The time when he was on Royal Hospital Road was most memorable for me - as I'd been going since the mid 80s. I knew Monsieur Koffmann embarked on a few short term projects since his departure from the Berkeley Hotel but never settled in one place. So when I discovered he'd opened Koffmann's at the Berkeley hotel, I knew I had to pay a visit. 

The deco of Koffmann's was a blend of modern British and French brasserie - laid back to be comfortable, with chocie decorations to remind you of its gastronomic heritage. The menu was relatively short - a la carte and a prix fixe. I could not help but gravitate towards the former - the heritage tomatoes and goat cheese basil sorbet salad was full of flavours. Quite refreshing especially as an appetizer before the main course.


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The Pied de cochon arrived after much anticipation. Monsieur Koffmann's interpretation of the dish had acquired a cult status when it was served up at La Tante Claire. Since then many chefs tried to re-create the dish. So here we were at Koffmann's in 2010 - the texture of the cochon was light even though none of the ingredients were 'light'. The sauce was exactly how I remembered it - velvety rich but with an edge to it to match the cochon. It was heavenly.

 

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Even though there were no bread plates (brasserie) the food was great and no doubt it will become popular in no time.



Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Liviano tucked away in Bratislava

Business trips seldom offer the opportunity to eat well. So it was a pleasant surprise to be taken to Liviano which was a Italian / Slovak restaurant on the edge of town. I ordered a cold tomato soup - which came in a lovely rich red colour full of tomato flavour with a strong kick to it (perhaps paprika or chili). The main course was loin of venison - which was beautifully done. What looked like roast potatoes turned out to be potato dumplings pan fried. They had a lovely chew to it.

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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Delicious and wholesome sandwiches at Gartine, Amsterdam

When in doubt, ask about! I was in Amsterdam for a day en famille and needed somewhere nice to have lunch. So I thought I'd consult a trusted friend who worked locally. After a lot of "where's that again" and "no I didn't see it", I eventually found Gartine which was in a narrow alley off a main shopping street.

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It's dinky and cosy. The menu was full of wholesome sandwiches made with locally sourced ingredients and beautifully dressed salads. I tried the tartare of marinated mackerel. Others had the freshly laid hen eggs in mayo. May be we were hungry, may be we were impressed, it all went down just too quickly. Then came desserts ... I asked our lovely waiter whether I should go for the white chocolate mousse or dark chocolate cake - he recommended the latter and you could see what arrived below! It's simply presented but packed full of flavours!


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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Angela Denoke in Salome

The cast for this revival of the 2008 production of Salome was substantially different from the original production. Angela Denoke's stage and voice presence was perfect for the role. She delivered the complex part while rising above the thick orchestration effortlessly. Gerhard Siegel was equally good as Herod - strong voice and good acting skills. David McVicar's direction continued to make this arresting opera intense and gripping. It's also good to see more of Naaman this time.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

An intense Tosca at the ENO

The last time I came across Catherine Malfitano was when she sang the title role of Salome at the Royal Opera in 1997. Prior to that I also saw her in that famous "on location on time" production of Tosca. I had no idea she started directing operas. So it was interesting to see the latest production of Tosca at the English National Opera directed by her.







Well, I was not disapp0ointed. Amanda Echalaz was an intense Tosca with a big voice to match. There were lots of detailed movements - ones that added complexity to her character. It was all very believable. Cavaradossi was sung by Julian Gavin - again a big tenor voice with good top notes and tenderness. Scarpia was portrayed by the fine Anthony Michaels-Moore - giving lots of dark colours. Ed Gardner just let the Puccini drama and music unfold. If you like Tosca, go see it. 



Friday, 2 July 2010

Julia Fischer, Diemut Poppen and Alexander Chaushian play the Goldber Variations at Wigmore Hall

Now and then I listen to Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations. It's one of those works that you don't get tired of. Listening to Julia Fischer, Diemut Poppen and Alexander Chaushian play the Goldberg Variations arranged by Sitkovetsky was an intriguing yet satisfying experience. The sustaining power of the string instruments meant one could really listen to the voices of the 2- or 3-part variations much clearer than on a keyboard. The dialogues between the instruments were wonderful - as if the audience was listening into a series of intimate conversations. The ornaments and the faster passages were played with much individuality. Julia Fischer was very much the star of the evening - her tone was clean and light, Diemut Poppen's viola playing was equally precise and to the point, while Alexander Chaushian was warm and stylistic on the cello.

Tim's Kitchen at its new address

Many years ago I was introduced to Tim's Kitchen by an old family friend. At the time, Hong Kong was emerging from the last financial downturn. People were tightening their belts but didn't want to forgo good food and drink. Tim's Kitchen arguably opened at the right time - where great Cantonese classics were served in a humble (i.e. no need to pay for intrusive services at a glitzy location) if somewhat utilitarian set up in Sheung Wan.It received 2 Michelin Stars in 2009. Clearly, the ex-chef for the  directors' dining room at Hang Seng bank was capable of satisfying the most demanding palettes.


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Three weeks ago it opened shop in a new location (also in Sheung Wan). It is now much more spacious than before complete with several private dining rooms for those demanding discretion. The food was still very good. The Crystal Tiger Prawns (see below) were crunchy and tasty. The Crab Claw floating on a double-boiled stock glazed egg white was delicate and divine.



Thursday, 24 June 2010

A well produced Idomeneo at the ENO

I think Idomeneo is a difficult one to stage. The dramas happen in the mind. The gods never visible. The storyline quite impossible. So it was to the credit of Edward Gardner (conductor), Katie Mitchell (director) and the rest of the production team to bring Idomeneo to life at the ENO.


Paul Nilon's pensive interpretation of the title role worked well. Idamante (sung by Robert Murray) was emotionally torn. Illia (Sarah Tynan) was not bad, though not remarkable. Emma Bell's Elettra was fantastic - with high drama and vocal agility. Finally I thought the videos (by Fifty Nine Productions) worked really well. While it was obvious they were projections on stage, they were really effective in delivering the maritime / tempest feel to an otherwise stylish but plain seaside resort set.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A stupendous Manon at the Royal Opera

Massenet's Manon had been absent from the Royal Opera repertoire for nearly two decades. It was great to see it returning to Covent Garden with a fantastic production by Laurent Pelly and a strong cast. The set design by Chantal Thomas was set in fin de siècle but could have been mistaken by Jonathan Miller - kind of geometric and monochrome.



Anna Netrebko was the glamorous / tragic Manon whose vocal colours and strength effectively conveyed the full range of emotions of her character. She was well matched by Vittorio Grigolo as des Grieux - whose voice had a wonderful tenorial ring, sang with real emotions and complete with handsome looks. The two brought the house down at the end of the evening. Pappano was his usual self - ensuring a tight and responsive sound from the pit. Go see it!




Il polpo serves up good Venetian dishes in Soho

I have been meaning to go to Il polpo in Soho for a long time but somehow didn't manage until today. Well the menu has lots of traditional and familiar Venetian dishes - fritto misto, risi e bisi and fegato veneziana. And there were some dishes that took advantage of seasonal English produce - asparagus with anchovy butter and Parmesan cheese. All in relatively small portions which was great as one could sample many different dishes. The staff was relaxed and friendly. Definite a place to revisit.


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Thursday, 17 June 2010

A strong Carmen at the Royal Opera

I went to the 530th performance of Carmen tonight at the Royal Opera - and it is going strong. The current production by Francesca Zambello seems to have weathered well . The current revival introduced a lot of new singers to this canonic work. Christine Rice was a fabulous Carmen - great voice, good acting, and that raunchiness that's often hard to find in an opera singer. Bryan Hymel delivered effective character development from the obedient soldier to deranged murderer. Maija Kovalevska's Micaela was not bad - though her acting was slightly wooden.  

I have never seen Constantinos Carydis in the pit before, and his
enthusiasm and big gestures kept the orchestra moving and the ensemble
together. And the horse, donkey, abseillers and acrobats all added to
the grand opera feel.   


Monday, 7 June 2010

Così at Glyndebourne

It was incredible. The octogenarian Sir Charles Mackerras was bright and energetic in the pit conducting this revival of Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne. Luckily he was supported by a strong cast. Barbara Senator and Sally Matthews as Dorabella and Fiordliligi respectively were convincing as fleeting lovers. Allan Clayton and Robert Gleadow (as Ferrando and Guglielmo) were slightly wooden in their acting, but compensated by good voices. Together the quartet worked well in delivering the fast-paced drama. Despina (Anna Maria Panzarella) was pretty fiesty too.

Though I was not totally convinced by the beginning of the first act. It seemed there was either insufficient drive from Pietro Spagnoli (as Don Alfonso), or the production got stuck - the pace seemed slow and there was not enough build up to the subsequent melodrama. I think the set worked well - but could see why others thought it's a bit dated. The second act picked up a lot - somehow everything geled better. I wonder how long before the Festival decides to retire it.


Sunday, 6 June 2010

Fab Phở at Cafe East

A whole bunch of us had just done a gig at ExCel in London. It was a warm and humid day. We were hungry for something wholesome. Luckily one of us had local knowledge of an allegedly very good Vietnamese restaurant in the area. Well, Cafe East was not easy to find  (here is the Google map reference) but the journey was well worth it. 

We got there and were asked to wait for 5-10 minutes - always a reassuring sign on a Saturday evening. The interior of the place was functional bordering utilitarian (see pic below). However, the clientele was mostly South East Asian (another reassuring sign) and the noise was a slurpy and happy one.


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The rice-pasta rolls were good, and so were the sliced sausages. The true test of any Vietnamese restaurant, however, is still Phở - rice noodles with thin slices of rare beef in a clear beef soup. Well mine turned up looking good (see below). The soup was clear. The smell was excellent - a beefy aroma scented with basil and spices. And it was very good - the noodles were al dente, the beef was succulent and the soup was tasty without being overpowering. I happily slurped up the entire bowl and drank the soup (and didn't feel thirsty later - another sign of a good soup).


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Saturday, 29 May 2010

La fille du regiment at the Royal Opera

I went to see the revival of La fille du régiment at the Royal Opera. It was as good as I saw it last time. There were a few tweaks to the production but the two big stars - Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay were splendid once again!




Thursday, 27 May 2010

Hix on Brewer Street - worth it?

Went to Hix on Brewer Street last night for dinner. Not impressed.

We were made to wait an extra 20 minutes for our table in the bar
downstairs which was dark and loud. The cocktail list was interesting -
but the lighting condition didn't encourage reading nor exploration. The main
restaurant was overwhelmingly noisy - a harsh nosiness rather than
buzzy noisy. The waiting staff was slightly disorganised.

As a starter, I had the battered monk fish cheeks. It sounded good on the menu. I have eaten many fish cheeks before and they definitely were not cheeks - more like medallion of monk fish fillets. The tartar sauce was nice though. My venison salad was disappointing - served in a wooden bowl (why?) the venison was tough and bordering flavourless.  The beetroot chunks were good though. Desserts improved somewhat - I had a taste of my friends' chocolate tart and Bakewell pudding which were both rich and decadent.

So I cannot understand what the fuzz is about this place. Perhaps there is no fuzz - just good marketing and PR. There are plenty of decent eating places in Soho and I don't think I will be returning to Hix anytime soon.



Sunday, 23 May 2010

A splendidly masculine Billy Budd at Glyndebourne

It's always special going to a first night - well in this case first afternoon performance of the new production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne. John Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere was centre stage and spot-lit at the opening - accompanied by a beautiful yet ethereal sound from the pit. After the prologue the set transformed with the ship deck emerging from rear-stage. This set, designed by Christopher Oram, remained on stage throughout - and many nautical devices (ropes, rigs, etc.) were used by the singers and actors to convey a sense of action-on-deck.

Jacques Imbrailo, as Billy Budd, had the quintessential innocent and youthful quality. Master-of-Arms Clggart was sung by Phillip Ens who gave it plenty of vindictiveness: shades of Iago emerged during his monologue towards the end of Act 1. The Glyndebourne chorus was splendidly masculine.
Michael Grandage, making his operatic debut, did the job well - the acting and movements were great. The lighting, by Paule Constable, was good too given the relatively complex stage set. Sir Mark Elder together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra delivered
fantastic team work even with this difficult Britten score - and the
woodwinds and brass were particularly brilliant.



Friday, 14 May 2010

A punchy Aida at the Royal Opera

After the last not so successful Aida at the Royal Opera (the night I went, someone in the audience shouted "get on with the bloody singing" during some mannerist movements on stage), there was much anticipation of David McVicar's production of this Verdi masterpiece. The stage design (by Jean-Marc Puissant)  had a dark, industrial and gritty look. The 3-d elements were creatively used to give the stage interest without being intrusive.
Micaela Carosi (as Aida) had a powerful voice and delivered some good acting. Amneris (Marianne Cornetti) had the right kind of highly strung and gutsy voice. The decidedly-chubby Marcelo Álvarez sang a decent Radames - though his opening aria Celeste Aida could have been sung with greater sensitive and observance of the morendo marking at the end would not go amiss. There were lots of people on stage, but my guess was that less than half were singers (there were acrobats, lots of dancers, some muscle-bods) - so while the Royal Opera chorus came out strong, the sound lacked that big chorus feel.

Nicola Luisotti (conductor) didn't hang about in the pit: the tempi were very progressive which made this potentially long and stogy opera exciting and punch.


Monday, 3 May 2010

The Mandarin Oriental trying to re-invent the sandwich, why?

Finger sandwiches form an integral part of an English afternoon tea (together with scones and clotted cream, cakes and of course tea). Most hotels in Hong Kong would do a half decent afternoon tea. The Clipper Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental has been offering afternoon tea for decades.

I was meeting up with some out of town friends in Hong Kong and I thought tea at the Mandarin would be lovely. We sat down. We ordered afternoon tea. The food, as usual, came in a multi-tier contraption as well as a basket of piping hot scones. What intrigued me first were the boxy objects on the top tier (see picture below) - what were they?

Food and drinks-IMG_0126

Then I realised they were sandwiches! Except the Mandarin has done a "california maki roll" job by wrapping the bread with the filling: so the oily smoked salmon covered the bread, the Parma ham wrapped around the bread, not to mention thin cucumber slices went around buttered white bread. The whole point of a sandwich is that the bread forms a barrier to the oily, wet and pungent fillings (made popular by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich). So by inverting the layout, one gets greasy, fishy, smelly fingers! Please, can we go back to good old finger sandwiches?

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Danjulo Ishizaka plays Prokofiev

The young cellist Danjulo Ishizaka was the soloist in Prokofiev's symphony-concerto for cello and orchestra op 125. The work began with poise and confidence. Jurowski led the London Philharmonic Orchestra with much rhythmic precision. Ishizaka's virtuosity was in much evidence as his fingers danced on the strings delivering those seemingly impossible double / treble stops. Yet in the more mellow and slower passages, there was a lot of sincerity and lyricism. The cello-orchestra interplay came across well too.
No doubt he exerted great pressure on his cello. Towards the beginning of the final movement, Ishizaka looked at Jurowski, then the whole orchestra stopped playing: the A string snapped! Ishizaka left the concert platform briefly, came back with a shiny new A string. There was a bit of a chuckle in the audience when the soloist and conductor were working out where to pick up the work. Everyone got back into the work quite quickly and the final section allegro marcato was firm and unhurried. Ishizaka played the final chords with much decisively and brought the work to a close.


Thursday, 8 April 2010

Fiorilla the real star in Il Turco in Italia at the Royal Opera

Aleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla was undoubtedly the real star in Il Turco in Italia at the Royal Opera. She had that sexy-feisty look always luring men - well in this case Selim (sung by the good looking Ildebrando D'Arcangelo) - to keep her amused. Don Geronio (sung by Alessandro Corbelli) was her deliciously 'dull' husband. A fun frivolous evening.



Friday, 26 March 2010

An engagingly staged Satyagraha at the ENO

Philip Glass's music is not everyone's cup of tea. So it was a surprise to see a nearly full Coliseum at the last performance of Satyagraha. Although the music was hypnotic and had dramatic moments, it really needed careful and creative staging to bring it to life - which the ENO delivered engagingly. The semi-circular stage with removable panels provided the backdrop for all the action. The papier-marché and rattan giants, the crushing newspaper "printer", stick-tape "red tape" and other devices really made the visual side of the opera dramatic and intriguing.

As for the music, the orchestra deserved praise for "counting like crazy". Stuart Stratford ensured the tempo was clear and he did give all the singers very clear leads - so they could focus on the singing rather than the counting. The singers were generally good, though there were intonation problems with their descending arpeggios.
Now will the ENO bring back Akhenaten?


Monday, 15 February 2010

The Gambler was well paced at the Royal Opera

Having only seen two operas by Prokoviev (Betrothral in a Monastery and War and Peace), I was intrigued to see The Gambler at the Royal Opera. My secret wish was that it wouldn't be like The Queen of Spade which I found difficult.


Roberto Saccà (Alexei) really got across his internal turmoil while Angela Denoke played the hard-to-get Polina. Richard Jones's direction was great - where each act and sequence had an authentic feel with just enough caricature to deliver entertainment value.
Antony McDonald's set and Nicky Gillibrand's costume designs were great - giving the production a contemporary feel. The zoo, the hotel corridor and even the big gambling tables really worked well. My friend also thought perhaps the revolving door was synced to the key changes and rhythm. Speaking of rhythm, Pappano and the orchestra really kept the pace of the work going. The gambling sequence, in particular, had a quicken pulse that really conveyed the excitement of a buzzy casino.


Saturday, 13 February 2010

Yannick Nézet-Séguin condcuts the LPO

Fresh off the plane from conducting a successful run of Bizet Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin worked tirelessly with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir for this evening's concert at the Royal Festival Hall. It started with Le tombeau de Couperin. There was a lot of poise in the orchestra's playing - kind of stately yet pensive at the same time. This was followed by Pavane pour une Infante défunte. The players in the orchestra caressed each and every phrase. The sound was lush and intimate - not a single harsh note. And the horns carried their parts well. Debussy's Nocturnes was next. The first of the three movement work Nuages started with the lower string section portraying floating clouds, which got darker as the piece progressed - but not angry ones. The middle movement Fête was a lot of fun with fantastic playing from the brass section. A small section of the sopranos and altos joined in the last movement Sirenes with a seductive sound - reminiscent of Ravel's Daphne and Chloé. The first half of the concert was very involving and the audience was definitely pulled into the French sound world that Nézet-Séguin wanted to invoke.
The second half of the concert included two rarely performed works: Fauré Pavane with Choir and Poulenc Stabat Mater. As a performer in these two pieces it would be inappropriate for me to review them.


Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The iPhone made it to Così fan tutte at the Royal Opera

Conductor Julia Jones kept a good pace going. Sally Matthews (as Fiordiligi) and Nino Surguladze (as Dorabella) portrayed the emotional tension well through out. Troy Cook (Guglielmo) and Charles Castronovo (Ferrando) were convincing in their various disguises and melodramatic entrances. I wondered how they got their tattoos. I was not sure about William Shimell's Don Alfonso - he was fine when in an ensemble, but sounded rather dull when on his own. Helene Schniederman's Despina was ok - though she could have delivered her role with greater dramatic gestures.



Jonathan Miller's production originally included stylish costume by
Giorgio Armani which really worked with his textured walls and
contemporary staging. Subsequent revivals, however, included the Marks and
Spencer's clothing. This run at the Royal Opera included updated costumes (slim fit suits for the men, still rather dull clothing for the women) and Apple
iPhones. The audience seemed to
have liked it.