This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Alice Ping Yee Ho’s The Lesson of Da Ji, to an English libretto by Marjorie Chan, is an ambitious piece. It tells the story of the concubine Da Ji who is having an affair with the son of a local lord, Bo Yi, who is masquerading as her music teacher. The king covets the young man’s father’s land and finds out about the affair when Da Ji’s maid betrays her. He invites Bo Yi and his parents to dine. Bo Yi doesn’t show because he’s been intercepted and killed by the king’s agents. The king, painted as a rather cartoonish villain, serves the boy up as a stew to Da Ji and his parents before killing them and presenting Da Ji with the boy’s heart. Thus is order restored and betrayal punished!
The score combines Chinese, baroque and modern western instruments and techniques to fine effect. The unifying element is the guqin, an ancient Chinese zither, whose seven note scale is the jumping off point for the first scene. A traditional guqin tune also forms the basis for the music in the second scene. Besides a mix of eastern and western instruments the score also incorporates a Peking opera performer alongside western classical singers. These combinations allow the composer to produce a range of colours from ethereally beautiful to extremely dramatic, even violent. The use of a coloratura soprano and the Peking opera singer as the Moon commenting on the action also adds to the mix with a slightly supernatural flavor.
The performance is anchored around the Da Ji of mezzo soprano Marion Newman who is consistently excellent. She is well matched by Derek Kwan’s pleasing tenor as Bo Yi. I find Alexander Dobson as the King harder to evaluate. He’s a fine singer and I think we must assume that his portrayal is what the composer and librettist asked for but there is something one dimensional about the snarling and maniacal laughter that troubles me. The supporting cast is perfectly adequate and I really liked the effect produced by using William Lau, a traditional Chinese opera singer, in the mix. The ensemble and director Larry Beckwith really do produce a most interesting and varied collection of sound palettes.
The recording is very clean and crisp enough for most of the text to be audible. This is a huge plus since, despite a booklet running to 36 pages, the libretto is not included and doesn’t appear to be available on-line either.
It’s good to see a recent, rather good, Canadian work presented so well for a wider audience.