Tan Dun’s Water Passion After St. Matthew, given last night by Soundstreams at Trinity St. Paul’s is very Tan Dun. The work is in nine movements and scored for chorus, soprano and bass-baritone soloists, violin, cello, electronics and lots of percussion. And bowls of water and rocks. The texts broadly follow the Passion story finishing with a final Resurrection movement in which water is the symbol of rebirth, recycling and spiritual completeness. There are also ritual elements. Bowls of water laid out in a cruciform pattern are lit from beneath. The musicians change position and the players, especially the percussionists, perform hieratic gestures with the water bowls and their contents. It also involves a complex and dramatic lighting plot.
I went to see Esprit Orchestra’s show Plug in at Koerner Hall last night. I don’t often go to purely orchestral concerts but Jenn Nichols was dancing and I have this feeling that I ought to listen to more contemporary music.
The first piece; Symphonie minute by José Evangelista, is a highly compressed “symphony” in four movements. Each movement only lasts a couple of minutes and it uses a large orchestra. It’s intriguing that in such a short time each movement has a clearly defined character. It’s quite dissonant but very easy to listen to and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Here is what’s coming up. Valentine’s day sees two vocal recitals. At noon in the RBA there’s Clare de Sévigné and Rachel Andrist with The Truth about Love; the story of a young woman’s love gone awry. At 8pm Ian Bostridge has an all Schubert program at Koerner Hall. Thursday is also busy with members of the Ensemble Studio in a Russian program in the RBA at noon, a Johannes Debus masterclass at UoT at 2pm and Opera Trivia at the Four Seasons Centre at 7pm. Then on Friday at 7.30pm in Walter Hall there’s a free concert; Vocalini, from the undergrads of the UoT Opera. Also Thursday and Friday MYOpera have a couple of opportunities to see emerging artists. There’s a public masterclass with Philip Morehead at 6pm Thursday at the Edward Jackman Centre and a concert at 7.30pm Friday at the Vandenberg House.
Tan Dun’s Marco Polo is hugely ambitious. He uses Marco Polo’s legendary journey as a metaphor for Space and Time. He fuses a range of Western musical styles with Chinese, Tibetan and Indian instruments and vocal styles. Although most of the work is sung in English there are sections in Italian and Chinese and other bits in a sort of random polyglot. The cast includes a range of real, allegorical and psychological figures. Marco and Polo are in fact two characters; one representing action and the external and the other the psychological and internal. Kublai Khan, Dante, Shakespeare, Sheherazada and Mahler put in appearances and much of the narrative is carried by a Chinese opera singer playing the part of Rustichello; “the questioner”. To be honest, despite having read the booklet, watched Reiner Moritz’s “Making of” documentary and studied the chart below, most of the time I had no idea what was actually happening. It’s really all too abstract and involved to really work as music drama.
The design and production team that created the production of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, broadcast in HD in January 2007 and subsequently released on DVD, deserve the highest praise. Set designer Fan Yue, costume designer Emi Wada, lighting designer Duane Schuler, choreographer Dou Dou Huang and director Zhang Yimou (of Raise the Red Lantern fame) create some absolutely stunning images making full use of the great breadth and depth of the Met stage. Unfortunately the libretto and the music aren’t nearly as good and despite extremely committed performances from soloists, chorus and orchestra the work never quite gels.
So what is The First Emperor? It’s a two act opera based on the life of the emperor Qin unifier of China, builder of the Great Wall and ultimately buried with the famous terra cotta soldiers. In Tam Dun’s version of the story he, besides conquering China, is looking for the ultimate anthem to celebrate his life which will be produced by his childhood companion Gao Jianli. There’s a love triangle involving Gianli, the princess Yueyang and the general Wang. In true operatic style they all end up dead and Gianli’s revenge is that Qin’s anthem turns out to be the lament of the slaves building the Great Wall. It includes the line “When will our suffering end?” which was about what I was thinking by that point.
The problems, as so often with modern opera, start with the libretto. There is no poetry, literal or figurative, in it. It’s banal in the same way that most of the libretto of Doctor Atomic is banal. Mostly the vocal line is set in a dull declamatory style though the princess gets some passages with some coloratura interest and the chorus gets some Peking Opera like writing. What goes on behind, and almost independently, of the vocal line is all over the map. Sometimes it’s derived from the Peking Opera and sometimes from Chinese folk music; the mix at times sounding like the soundtrack for a Chinese propaganda film. At times it recalls the dissonances of modern European art music and at others it sounds like watered down Andrew Lloyd Webber. Write at the beginning the emperor asks “Is this music?”. I’m not sure he gets an answer. It’s got some good things going for it. There is some really good writing for percussion and the opening sequence using a Peking Opera trained singer, Wu Hsing-Kuo, as the master of ceremonies is weirdly affecting (this is the bit that got played over and over as the test track for subsequent Met HD broadcasts). All in all it doesn’t really cohere.
The performance is pretty good though. The stand outs are Wu Hsing-Kuo and Elizabeth Futral as the princess. Placido Domingo is, of course, solid as the emperor but really he doesn’t have much to work with. Good solid work too from Paul Groves as Jianli and Michelle deYoung as the shaman. The Orchestra and Chorus do wonderfully well coping with some highly unusual demands. For example, there is a passage where the orchestra downs instruments and engages in a sort of pitched shouting. There’s a whole core of Chinese percussionists too. The composer conducts with great fire.
Direction for video by Brian Large isn’t bad. It’s heavy on the close ups but there are enough setting shots to give us context. The picture is very good by DVD standards as one might expect but one really wonders(1) why this didn’t get a Blu-ray release for if any of the Met HD productions would have benefited from the extra video quality it’s this one. Sound is solid DTS 5.1 with LPCM stereo as an alternative. There are English, French, Italian, German and Spanish sub-titles. The documentation (English only) includes an essay on Tan Dun’s musical style and a synopsis. There is further English, French and German documentation included in PDF format. There is also a 20 minute rehearsal bonus track and a short interview with Domingo.
fn1. One doesn’t really wonder. For whatever reason it’s an EMI release and they don’t do Blu-ray.