OPERA NEWS - Kepler (6/2/12), Feng Yi Ting (6/1/12)
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In Review > North America

Kepler (6/2/12), Feng Yi Ting (6/1/12)

CHARLESTON, SC
Spoleto Festival USA

In Review Kepler hdl 912
Kepler in Spoleto with (clockwise from left) Kathryn Krasovec, Matt Boehler, Dan Kempson, Leah Wool, Anne-Carolyn Bird, Gregory Schmidt and John Hancock
© Julia Lynn 2012
In Review Feng Yi Ting lg 912
Jiang Qihu and Shen Tiemei in Feng Yi Ting
© Julia Lynn 2012

For the first time in its thirty-six-year history, Spoleto Festival USA mounted only operas by composers who were alive to see them. Philip Glass brought Kepler, a musical portrait in the vein he has explored since Einstein on the Beach. Guo Wenjing delivered Feng Yi Ting, a scaled-down look at one crucial moment in Chinese history.

At first glance, the pieces seemed opposites. Kepler (seen June 2), opulently scored over two acts, used massive choruses and a conventional orchestra to tell its story. Feng (seen June 1), a tightly constructed one-act, was over as soon as one had fully absorbed the hypnotic rhythms of its two Chinese singers. But both were about people who lived centuries ago and sacrificed personal happiness for the presumed good of their nations. The courtesan Diao Chan wanted to change her world; astronomer Johannes Kepler wanted to map his in relation to the cosmos. There was a kinship between these two brave, stubborn loners.

Diao Chan proved the more compelling of the two protagonists. “I will give up my body for this plot,” she swears, planning to destroy a warlord named Dong Zhuo who has crippled the Han dynasty at the end of the second century A.D. She gives up her hope of a happy marriage, too: after entrancing both Dong and his adopted son, Lu Bu, she agrees to become Lu’s woman if he will kill his father. (The title of the opera means “phoenix pavilion,” the setting for the last scene.)

The opera, which was getting its first staging anywhere, has only two characters, not counting a striking and wordless cameo for the warlord Dong. Shen Tiemei commanded the stage as the courtesan, singing in the traditionally nasal Chinese style and acting with stylized, sweeping gestures. (She seduces the powerful by showing them her own strong personality, then pretending to submit.) Tenor Jiang Qihu sang with the right foolish, lustful fury as Lu, making a tremulous Macbeth to Shen’s unflinching Lady.

The opera’s forty-five minutes didn’t seem short measure, because Canadian director Atom Egoyan (an Oscar nominee for The Sweet Hereafter) packed the stage with visual elements — rear projections that included the subtitles, tiny terra-cotta warriors moving impassively along a floor-length track, shadows looming on a screen. Puppets played a key role, perhaps because the characters were manipulated themselves — Lu by Diao and Diao by her unseen godfather, who came up with the deadly plan.

Ken Lam conducted with lapidary precision, presiding over an orchestra in which the bowed erhu and Chinese flute mingled with traditional Western instruments; the sounds were exotic and familiar, sometimes at once, in the insinuating music for Diao and percussive outbursts for Lu. (Feng Yi Ting traveled to the Lincoln Center Festival in July 2012, as did Kaija Saariaho’s Émilie, which had its U.S. premiere at Spoleto in 2011.)

Though Kepler had the largest role in the opera named for him, and John Hancock sang the title part with firmness and vigor, the astronomer’s declamatory lines were less memorable than the rest of the score. Glass saved the beauty of massed harmonies for the chameleonic Westminster Choir, which turned up as Kepler’s supportive students, naysayers, inquisitors and inheritors of his wisdom. Likewise, a group of six soloists billed simply as “scholars” alternated between assisting and attacking him; soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird and bass Matt Boehler made the strongest impressions, cutting through the dense vocal mix.

We come to know Kepler the way we did Glass’s Einstein and Akhnaten and Gandhi in Satyagraha — through loosely related episodes that hint at his character, like flashes of lightning revealing a man standing in a dark wood. He seems principled when opposing the narrow-mindedness of the church, petty when sniping at all the German academics he has offended with his writings. “Without perfect knowledge, human life is dead,” he sings, while he posits universal laws of motion for the planets. His view (and Hancock’s tone) can never change, for he seeks absolute truth.

Kepler was first heard in Linz, in 2009, and was presented in a minimally staged concert at Brooklyn Academy of Music a few months later. Spoleto’s staging, by Sam Helfrich, marked the opera’s U.S. stage premiere. Librettist Martina Winkel took her text from Kepler’s writings, seventeenth-century poems by Andreas Gryphius (his contemporary) and a bit of the Bible, quoted in an attempt to suppress the idea that Earth isn’t the center of the universe. In the end, Kepler’s religious concerns don’t matter; we and he hear the music of the spheres, a rich and soaring harmony that may or may not have been orchestrated by God.

Anyone familiar with Glass will recognize the assertive brass, melancholy or meditative strings and ceaselessly pulsing rhythms, which are especially apt when depicting the constant motion of the stars. Conductor John Kennedy and his remarkably accomplished young orchestra navigated through the score skillfully and found its last measure of warmth. Director Helfrich used rear projections for Kepler, including a lovely effusion of light that suggested the aurora borealis. Whether it represented a show in heaven or some illumination inside Kepler’s mind was left to us to decide. spacer 

LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

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