Operatic Arias for Bass (Alexander Rahbari/ Hao Jiang Tian/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557442)
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Operatic Arias sung by Hao Jiang Tian
The Beijing-born bass Hao Jiang Tian has long made a habitof challenging expectations. First there is his distinctive operatic career,which he has carved not merely in orientalist backdrops like Puccini's Turandot
but in the squarely Eurocentric landscapes of Verdi and Rossini. Then there'shis upbringing during the Cultural Revolution, which he neither hides nordownplays but partly credits for shaping his subsequent path.
'Growing up, I hated music', he admits, explaining thatEuropean repertoire was inextricable from the piano lessons he endured at thebehest of his conductor father and composer mother, both musicians with thePeople's Liberation Army. The sound on the street was propaganda, not art, andwhen all western music became banned, the twelve-year-old Tian happily joinedin the national efforts by destroying his parents' prized record collection.
When the family was later forced to move from Beijing for political 're-education', the boy discovered a recording that had escaped hisearlier wrath. It was Beethoven's Sixth Symphony
, the last piece hisfather had conducted in public. 'He was silent for a minute', Tian recalls. 'Thenhe said, "Let's play" -- very softly, of course, because it wasdangerous. He began to tell me for the first time what the music was all about,and little by little I saw this severe man shine with a natural beauty in hiseyes. I thought, any music that could change my father like this must be verypowerful'.
For the next decade, however, the young convert's educationin western culture was sporadic at best. Although he subsequently learned toimprovise on the piano (a skill that would earn him money at a Denver piano barafter moving to the United States to study in the mid-1980s), his clandestinestudy of western culture was from stolen, forbidden books. Assigned to afactory manufacturing heavy machinery, Tian held hushed, if passionate,discussions with like-minded co-workers. 'I remember I nearly killed a man', hesays with an embarrassed smile. 'I thought the story of La Traviata
wasone of the most beautiful things I'd ever read, and he called Violetta a whore'.
After the Cultural Revolution, Tian's climb onto the operaticstage began with two fortuitous steps: first, his acceptance into there-inaugural class of Beijing's newly reopened Central Conservatory, andsecond, his studies with the Italian baritone Gino Bechi, the first western operastar invited to teach in China. Tian, who had never seen a western opera,auditioned with a Schubert Lied
, much to Bechi's chagrin. 'He said I hada nice voice, but he could only help me if I wanted to sing opera. I had no ideawhat that meant, but I said, "Yes, Maestro, I want to be an opera singer"'.
Now a veteran of the world's most prominent opera stages,Tian has established a particularly close relationship with New York'sMetropolitan Opera, where he has appeared every season since 1991. From his Metdebut as Billy Jackrabbit in La fanciulla del West
('I guess theythought I looked like an Indian', he laughs), Tian has worked his way throughthe company into such major r??les as Oroveso in Norma
, Walter in LuisaMiller
and Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor
. Virtually from the startof his career, however, Tian has been cast in major r??les in Europeancompanies.
'There are many fine singers in China, but because it is notour culture, singing western opera is probably the most difficult job we couldundertake', he says. It is a particular testament to Tian's success that, ofthe nearly fifty r??les in his repertoire, he has often been the first Chineseperformer ever to embody a particular character. 'I have chosen the arias forthis recording because they are very meaningful to me personally and professionally',he says. 'They are my life and blood'.
Tu sul labbro dei veggenti
Singing this aria,where Zaccaria prays for the ability to convert the Assyrians, Tian envisionsnot Verdi's palatial setting but the backstage of the Met ('for young singers,a luxurious setting of another kind', he says), where he initially learned ther??le.
Les v?¬pres siciliennes:
Et toi, Palerme
Here Tian singsProcida's patriotic Act III aria in French, paying homage to its premi?¿re atthe Paris Opera as well as the composer's original melodic and dramatic conceptions.
The r??le became Tian's debut at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw.
Grace mon Dieu!
An earlier ParisOpera premi?¿re, Jerusalem
never managed to channel its initial successinto momentum abroad - even in Italy, where it remains one of Verdi's least-heardworks. It did, however, serve as Tian's Italian debut at Genoa's Teatro CarloFelice, where the newspaper Il Secolo XIX
cited the singer's 'raremusical intelligence' and 'vocal timbre of enthralling solidity'.
Come dal ciel precipita
In opera, bassesrarely get the girl, but in Verdi they do generally get fully fleshed outsupporting r??les, such as Banquo, which Tian has performed in locations as far flungas Hong Kong and Malta. This aria from Act II, where Banquo cautions his son,skilfully weaves a suspenseful atmosphere that mirrors the character's own secrets.
Il lacerato spirito
Tian first learnedthis aria, in which the patrician Fiesco grieves over the death of hisdaughter, with Carlo Bergonzi in Verdi's hometown of Busseto after winning the1988 Bel Canto Foundation Voice Competition. This auspicious immersion in thecomposer's world presaged Tian's own musical future. 'We had lessons in Verdi'sstudy, with Verdi's own piano in the room', he recalls. 'How could I not feelthe composer watching over my shoulder?'
Ella giammai m'amo
This moment fromAct IV, when Filippo realizes his young bride's heart lies elsewhere, was thefirst aria that Tian learned for Gino Bechi at the Central Conservatory. 'He warnedme it was extremely difficult, but he hoped that someday I would sing this r??le'.
Nearly twenty years later, in Genoa, Tian became the first Asian singer toperform the r??le in Italy.
Lyubvi vse vozrasty pokorny
Tian's affinity forPrince Gremin traces back to Pushkin, whose original poetic masterpiece was a prized,if prohibited, possession during the Cultural Revolution. In preparing the r??lesome thirty years later, Tian faced a rush of memories. 'The descriptive power wasmarvellous', he exclaims. 'At that time when we saw only red and green - I meanthe colour of revolution and army uniforms - Onegin
opened an entirelynew world of colour'.
Il barbiere di Sivigla:
It is one thing tosummon vocal power; it is quite another to master comic lightness. 'Onstage Iam always old and sad, or either killing someone or being killed', says Tian. 'It'snice to sing a comic r??le for a change'. Performing Don Basilio, a r??lerequiring both verbal and musical deftness, was particularly gratifying for himin his debut at Florence's Teatro Comunale.