Sunday, February 28, 2010
Last year a friend gave me tickets to Opera Philadelphia’s performances of Fidelio and Gianni Schicchi. I loved both productions. In Fidelio, Beethoven’s sublime music was well-served by Christine Goerke’s tremendous soprano voice, and the story was given a fresh sensibility by Jun Kuneko’s whimsical video set design. In Gianni Schicchi, the cast’s superb comic timing had me laughing when I was not all choked up from the sheer gorgeousness of Puccini’s score.
Convinced, I decided to splurge and, for $100 a ticket, became a Philly Opera subscriber this season.
On Friday my husband and I headed to the Academy of Music for the second show of our series, the East Coast premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul. I’ll admit that the title of the opera sounded a bit static, but I was eager to see and hear the new work, and glad to go on a date with my husband. When we took our seats, we were enchanted by the beautiful stage set on view, an Asian mirror-like gold-leaf screen that formed the backdrop to a platform that gave the impression of a reflecting pool.
As the lights dimmed, an aged hag shuffled downstage with the rest of the cast and began swirling incense. She swirled and swirled, hunched over her bowl, and soon the hall began to smell like a church on a High Holy Day. Why this hag was significant was never made clear, as she delivers no important curse or prediction. However, she provides an interesting visual prop, as do the three young women with slender arms suspended on platforms above the stage, playing rhythms into clear basins of water. Also entertaining are the young women who glide down the center aisles, sliding lighted batons along electronic instruments that look like electric bug zappers.
Tea: A Mirror of Soul is a visually stunning production with fabulous costumes, and an imaginative, sumptuous set. My favorite set piece was the enormous cube with the Taoist symbol on front, that opens up to reveal a staircase and an outsize design of peonies.
The music does not offend or inspire – although there are no memorable vocal lines, Tan Dun makes effective use of rhythm and orchestral color, often evoking Asian-inspired harmonies and instrumentation. But to me the production would benefit from greater emotional plausibility and narrative drive, and a more poetic libretto. It feels less like a drama in music, and more an effective work of visual art, fit more for a museum than for a performing arts hall.
As several women in the ladies’ lounge complained, “But I want to know what’s the significance of the tea?“
I agreed. We wanted to be moved by whatever was supposed to be so mysterious and spiritual about tea, or at least enlightened about the subject. Though the visual and auditory effects of the opera are certainly spectacular, we needed to believe the story more to become convinced.
But who am I to complain about Tan Dun’s vision? As my mother would say, “He’s up there, Debbie-ya, and you’re not.”
Sigh. Maybe I’ll go drink a cup of tea.