27th IACT Congress and artistic events in Beijing


by  Kyriakos P. Loukakos[1]

The International Association of Theatre Critics (hence referred to as IATC) was first established back in 1956. Based in Paris, IATC was an offspring of a certain recipy of a peace  ensuring procedure, encouraged by the United Nations Organization and focusing in matters of so called “low politics” collaboration among nations. Therefore, although it functions as a privately organized legal entity,  IATC operates under the auspices of UNESCO, a special reason for countries to join it. It was during IATC’s  presidency by Ian Herbert and the one of “Greek Drama and Music Critics Association” by Professor Kostas Charalampidis that a Greek section joined the former,  a collaboration that has proved already fruitful through the 2007 hosting of the IACT Congress and Premio Europa Prize by the Macedonian port of Thessaloniki, incidentally the town bearing the name of king Cassandrus’s wife, one of  Alexander the Great’s  heirs who established his own dynasty in the region as an outcome of the civil war that followed the great conqueror’ s death in Babylon, back in 323 b.C.
As since then the economic crisis seems to have engulfed most of the European countries, it was only logical that the IATC seeks to expand its activities to the now fast developing countries of Asia and South America alongside tackling issues that seem to induce new and decisive factors in contemporary perceprtion of criticism. In view of this development and of the fact that its 27th Congress and General Assembly for the election of a new Executive Committee was entrusted to the fairly recently formed Chinese section, it was predictable that the thematic of the Congress would embrace a problematic more akin to a thriving economy such as the one of our hosts. Internet presents a new reality for critics, and not just theatre ones but also for those covering opera, dance, music and every other form of performing art. The boundless possibilities it offers have to be assessed taking also into consideration the fact of its control through central governments in important countries outside the European context.

On the part of the participating critics this 2-day Congress  emphasized a considerable understanding of professional critique’s evolution and, in this respect,  it further enabled the discussion of a variety of relevant matters, such as internet’s influence on the authority of critical journalism, proposals to promote criticism through social media, as well as the attitude towards traditional ethical and professional values that have not necessarily to be reassessed in view of the commercialization of performing arts that many critics testified as decisive factor of their working environment in their countries. In this respect and considering that theatre critics are in many instances covering also other regions of performing arts, as opera and dance, the augmenting interdisciplinary character of critique was further ascertained by the fact that 3 of 4  spectacles offered by the Chinese section to their guests were operatic (traditional Chinese and Western) and dance theatre, leaving Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard to represent stricto sensu theatre, surprisingly without subtitles although understandably performed in Chinese. Anyway, IATC’s claim to the protection and promotion of all performing arts’ criticism was resolutely pronounced by its newly elected  President, Ms. Margareta Sörenson in her moving farewell speech to her predecessor Mr. Yun-Cheol Kim.

The newly elected Executive Committee enumerates representatives from, alphabetically, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Sweden and USA and is likely to move further the focus of IATC’s  activities to non European soil, an evolution prone to bring a further interaction in the assessment of performing arts, acknowledging to stricto sensu Theatre a sovereign but also increasingly unclear role in the proceedings.

 “Jingju” and  “Don Pasquale” in Beijing

Affiliated to China’s Ministry of Education, the Central Academy of Drama, formed in 1949, not only is the first higher Theatre educational institution of the People’s Republic of China, but it has acquired a vital role regarding the gradual enhancement of the notion of performing arts in this great country. Hosting the IATC Congress in the newly built -and still under further construction- Campus of the Academy was a welcome inspiration on the part of Chinese section, as it is a model of its kind, till now providing quality educational space and student facilities to the first and second year students. They were the ones that were entrusted, with stunning results, a special Gala performance for the “VIP members” (sic!) of the IATC comprising, under the collective title “Trailers”, highlights from some of the most important Chinese traditional operas, better known in China as Jingju. Encouraged vociferously by their schoolmates,  the youngsters, from 15 years of age and onwards, performed miracles in acting and singing highly elaborate parts, as well as in the demanding acrobatics that form a separate domain of this long tradition. Special mention deserves the thought provoking and intensely evocative musical part of the event, performed with verve and accuracy by equally young musicians on stage, thus enabling mostly inexperienced spectators to get acquainted with an exotic but disarming idiom with its own terms of discipline and expressivity.

Our next operatic experience took place at the ultra modern National Centre of Performing Arts, colloquially known by the Capital’s inhabitants as The Giant Egg. It is an impressive complex amply situated in No.2 West Chang’an Avenue in the central Xicheng District, in the centre of Beijing and in almost walking distance from the internationally known Tiananmen Square, so heavily visited that it almost belies its proverbial quality of “Heavenly Peace”. Despite the bureaucratic hint of its official name, the National Centre is essentially Beijing’s Western Opera House, covering a ground of 219,400 m2. It is an ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass designed by French architect Paul Andreu. Surrounded by an artificial lake, it seats 5,452 people in three halls and is almost 12,000 m² in size. Its construction started in December 2001 and the inaugural concert was held there in December 2007.

The plot of the opera we were invited to attend on the evening of October 19th, “Don Pasquale”, refers also to a popular kind of traditional theatre, the Italian commedia dell’ arte. Gaetano Donizetti’s late comic masterpiece, first presented at the Paris Théâtre des Italiens on January 3 1843, draws on the familiar subject of the eponymous old man getting ridiculed because of his intention to marry a much younger lady. Youthful ardor between her and her equally young suitor, incidentally the Don’s newphew, prevails in the end, with the enforced but ultimately benevolent blessing of the senior facilitated by the equally benevolent schemes of Dr. Malatesta, a Figaro – like friend to all parts involved.

Despite the fact that Chinese singers are already populating western opera theatres (some already prominent among them, as for instance the eminent dramatic soprano Hui He), opera nurturing is a fairly new activity in modern China. After a series of performances by visiting ensembles, the Beijing NCPA Opera  tries to create a new public combining visiting artists, directors and designers with local counterparts, building fast another promising terrain of cultural activity.

Therefore  it should not be considered surprising that the production of “Don Pasquale” was served by a mixed production team and 2 different casts, one international and one purely Chinese. Backbone to the production, of which we attended the last of its 4 performances, was the NCPA Chorus (chorus master: Matteo Salvemini) and Orchestra, formed as recently as 2009 and 2011 respectively, drawing on an extraordinary national potential of musicians and already producing well integrated singing and playing, sensitive in dynamics and musically expressive. The latter’s chief conductor, maestro Lü Jia (born 1964), already enjoys a high reputation in Europe, as he was appointed, with only 26 years of age, music director of the renowned Teatro Verdi di Trieste and, since 2008, is responsible for the Macao Symphony Orchestra as well. It all contributed that, from the mellow utterance of the sprightly overture onwards, including the characteristic chorus of the servants that opens act 3, commenting on the domestic turmoil induced in Don Pasquale’s domicile, prominent Italian conductor Daniele Callegari was able to forge a performance of splendid continuity, relaxed and attentive to his protagonists’ needs. It is a tribute not only to him but also to the artistic integrity of the Theatre that Callegari presented the work textually complete, an option not necessarily embraced even in certain major opera houses of the world.

In this context, singing actors of the production were well served by the mainstream ideas of director Pier Francesco Maestrini, his concept  sticking to the essentials, with some updating of the plot, especially regarding the eponymous character presented here as an everyday capitalist of our time if there ever was any. Perhaps some eyebrow may have been raised in view of this “standard” rendering, including its predictable use of video on stage, but one ought to abide by the awareness that opera has yet to acquire a devoted audience in China, before experimental ways are to be explored. In this frame, the Don’s glamorous office of act 1 and the highly stylish house environment of the second (set design: Gao Guangjian) proved functional sets that did not at any point get in the way of the music. Costumes by Alberto Spiazzi and sensitive lighting by Pascal Mera contributed to a colourful stage picture in accordance with the work’s optimism.

The international cast proved – with one exception – a strong one, and that not only on paper. The exception regards the unsatisfactory impersonation of the title role by Italian Bruno Praticò, a vastly experienced artist successful in such “holy” places as Rossini Opera Festival of Pesaro but with his baritone voice dried up and, anyway, not adept to the required basso buffo range. These shortcomings diminished not only his vocal projection to the hall, but also the emotional range of the character in so crucial moments as the tragic acceptance of “È finita, Don Pasquale” or the comic exuberance of his conspiratory duet with Dr. Malatesta “Cheti, cheti immantinente”.  On the other hand, performances of high calibre were offered by his co – protagonists. Foremost among them proved Shanghai born tenor Shi Yijie as Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, whom we have elsewhere (see under http://critics-point.gr/?p=1872 ) duly praised for his 2013 Pesaro appearances. His well judged belcanto school, polished by the prestigious Accademia Rossiniana of Pesaro, was reflected in his noble and heartfelt phrasing of his many key points, not least in his act 2 expressive introductory scene and act 3 off stage serenade, as well as in the beautifully sustained line of his subsequent love duettino with Norina. As Ernesto’s object of desire, scenically imposing Russian soprano Ekaterina Bakanova furnished a robust and healthy voice with nice extension at the top range and no trace of acidity we traditionally tend to relate to the Soviet / Russian coloratura school. Finally, Italian baritone Filippo Polinelli, although perhaps lacking some of the stage experience he will certainly acquire in due course of time, emerged nevertheless as a fine and very promising singer, his warm and evenly produced baritone betraying the signs of much more than a delectable belcanto interpreter. All in all a deeply rewarding experience heartily applauded by the affluent public[2]…

[1] First published on www.critics-point.gr (2014)
[2] Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.
 Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a  CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by  “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
 As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory”  Society.
[2] Group photo by courtesy of IATC Chinese section, for all other photos copyright by Ms. Isabelle Martiliani.