OPERA NEWS - Ouroboros Trilogy: Naga, Madame White Snake and Gilgamesh
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In Review > North America

Ouroboros TrilogyNaga, Madame White Snake and Gilgamesh 

Beth Morrison Projects | ArtsEmerson, Cutler Majestic Theater

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Susannah Biller's Madame White Snake and Michael Maniaci’s Xiao Qing in Zhou Long's Madame White Snake, part of Ouroboros Trilogy at ArtsEmerson
Photo by James Matthew Daniel

ZHOU LONG'S OPERA MADAME WHITE SNAKE , which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, was originally intended as part of a trilogy conceived by librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs. After the death of Jacobs’s husband and collaborator, Charles M. Jacobs, the other two parts lay unfinished until Scott Wheeler and Paola Prestini were engaged to compose the remaining operas, Naga and Gilgamesh, respectively. On September 10, the full cycle premiered as Ouroboros Trilogy at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater, produced by Beth Morrison Projects in an all-day marathon: Naga opened at 11 a.m., Madame White Snake at 3:00 p.m. and Gilgamesh at 7:30. (The following week offered one solo outing of each opera, plus another three-opera marathon.) 

Ouroboros is the serpent in ancient mythology whose head devours its own tail, but in so doing, provides itself with the sustenance to regenerate in an infinite circle of life and death. The three operas are united by their depiction of the White Snake, who alternates between reptile and female human form and is equally seductive in both. She is dogged by Xiao Qing, her former male lover, who has been transformed into a hybrid of woman and snake, doomed to follow his beloved through all her incarnations without ever attaining the intimacy he longs for. The two snakes interfere in the lives of three sets of humans, and their relationship patterns repeat as they are reincarnated on their path to Nirvana, souls drawn to each other by intangible recollections of their previous existences. 

In all three operas, Xiao Qing is a countertenor, Madame White Snake is a coloratura soprano, and the holy man bent on her destruction a bass. While the operas all employ a double Greek chorus of adults and children (the impressive Boston Children’s Chorus), the non-recurring humans vary in vocal range. Michael Counts staged the trilogy, but chose to meet the challenge of adding dramatic tension to a fundamentally presentational narrative by substituting projections for direction. The singers rarely made eye contact with one another, and the overuse of S. Katy Tucker’s video, though imaginative and often dazzlingly three-dimensional, only called attention to the fact that long stretches were dramatically static. Some of the visual imagery was helpful in connecting the dots from opera to opera, as were Zane Pihlstrom’s ornately bejeweled recurring snake costumes. The humans were attired appropriately to their stations, but somewhat ambiguously in terms of time and place.

Although the stories are sequential, the producers offered three different starting points along the continuum. For the all-day marathon on September 10, the operas were performed in this order: Naga, Madame White Snake and Gilgamesh. Each begins with a prologue, but Naga’s, which relates the birth of the White Snake at the beginning of time and establishes her as a mythic archetype across multiple cultures, seemed to serve as an introduction to the trilogy as a whole, reinforcing this as the preferred order. In the story proper, the White Snake, intrigued by a Buddhist Monk who strayed from the Way to marry, yearns to experience the intensity of human passion. The Monk forsakes his pregnant wife to resume his journey, but succumbs to visions of her dying in childbirth. The White Snake alerts a nearby herbalist Master, who saves the Monk but traps the White Snake in a cage. Beguiled by her incandescence, the Monk sacrifices his karma to kill the Master and free the White Snake, who assures him they will meet again.

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Anthony Roth Costanzo (Xiao Qing/Green Snake) in Paola Prestini's Gilgamesh
Photo by James Matthew Daniel

Stacey Tappan made an imperious White Snake, tossing off Wheeler’s staccati and roulades with shining, crystalline tone and astonishingly clear diction even in the stratosphere. The extraordinary Anthony Roth Costanzo explored every nuance of the quixotic Xiao Qing. Dragging a giant wheeled tail that protruded from his skirt, Costanzo allowed the appendage to inform his movement rather than impede it as he glided across the stage, head tilted at a watchful angle. His burnished countertenor was more expressive and powerful than ever, and he and Tappan turned the eternal power play between the two snakes into a tussle worth watching. Performing despite an announced indisposition, Matthew Worth paced himself well as the Monk; his forthright baritone sounded underpowered only in the final moments. Sandra Piques Eddy brought intelligence and a pleasing dark mezzo to the Wife, while the stygian bass of David Salsbery Fry wrung conflict from the Master’s decision to kill the White Snake. Wheeler’s appealing, primarily tonal score featured spiky vocal lines, transparent choral writing, and the idiosyncratic but effective inclusion of soprano saxophone and electric guitar. Conductor Carolyn Kuan was simultaneously fluid and precise. 

Madame White Snake remains the most musically inventive and dramatically taut of the three,with an intrinsic completeness that allows it to stand on its own. Long’s ravishing score combines delicacy, lyricism, and power with a patina of exoticism provided by Chinese flute, erhu, and harp. He lets no dramatic moment pass without illuminating it with bold orchestral strokes, propelling the action forward. Sprechstimme and other vocal effects borrowed from the Peking Opera tradition often push the singers to the extremes of their ranges, but never derail them. Here, the White Snake, after 1,000 years of meditation, is granted human form, although she must still shed her skin every month. When she falls in love with the healer Xu Xian, she makes him promise never to question her periodic disappearances. The Abbot of the Golden Mountain Monastery (the reincarnated Master) recognizes Madame White for the snake she is and offers to tell Xu Xian the truth about her. Forced to decide between knowledge and unconditional love, Xu Xian succumbs to the Abbot’s temptation, and Madame White, locked in deadly combat with her nemesis, accidentally kills her husband before bearing their child. 

Soprano Susannah Biller rode the sumptuous strings with honeyed tone and melting poignancy, displaying flashes of the temptress while maintaining an air of detachment. Lurking in the shadows like a disapproving duenna, Michael Maniaci’s Xiao Qing offered a silvery soprano timbre that emphasized the feminine over the reptilian. His serpentine nature emerged in sliding vocal swoops and dives, and even in moments of stillness, his face radiated deep pain at being relegated to servitude. Tenor Peter Tantsits wielded his penetrating tenor like a weapon as Xu Xian, while the gravitas of bass Dong-Jian Gong’s Abbot evoked centuries of wisdom. All three men reprised the roles they originated in the 2010 Opera Boston premiere. Conductor Lan Shui demonstrated complete mastery of the score, and the rain-stick-wielding chorus excelled executing Long’s pointillistic susurrations.

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Andrew Nolen as the Abbott and Christopher Burchett as Ming in Gilgamesh
Photo by James Matthew Daniel

In Gilgamesh, the snakes, far more compelling characters than the humans, are relegated to supporting roles, and the opera suffers for it. Thirty-year-old Ming, son of Madame White Snake and Xu Xian, knows nothing of his parentage, despite having inherited his mother’s magic powers and his father’s man bun. Ming dreams he is Gilgamesh, a demigod from Sumerian mythology who embarks on a fruitless quest for immortality. The libretto is repetitive, with multiple characters relating the same events, while extended sequences built on oft-used quotes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and King Lear were lazy substitutes for active storytelling. 

Director Counts also seemed to have run out of ideas. One stunningly weak directorial choice becalmed the proceedings utterly: a moving projection of Ming (Christopher Burchett) loomed on a large screen behind Madame White Snake, as she revealed the truth to him, while Burchett sang from the wings. Burchett, to his credit, kept his pre-filmed facial reactions contained, but the stunt only further estranged the performers, who in that moment, desperately needed to connect in real time as real people. In less capable hands, Ming could come off as an entitled and tiresome protagonist, but Burchett, an intense, committed actor with a focused, resonant baritone, plumbed the depths of confusion and anger. He was especially moving when deciding whether to abandon the mother who abandoned him or save her by setting her free from the alms bowl in which the Abbot has imprisoned her. 

Hila Plitman used her violin-like timbre to project acute pangs of loss, making the most of the mortally aging Madame White Snake’s single scene, despite the ungracious, multi-octave leaps that replaced traditional coloratura. Similarly, Costanzo, returning as Xiao Qing, was forced into chest register for no apparent reason, but his technical proficiency allowed him to revert to his superlative countertenor register with minimal disruption. Ku, Ming’s pregnant wife, exists primarily to fill in narrative blanks—they’ve been wanting a child for ten years; she’s scared of snakes—without being accorded much of a personality. Although the role sat low for her, soprano Heather Buck sang sweetly, especially in her opening ode to the fertility-granting pomegranate tree. Marooned upstage on top of a bridge, the authoritative bass Andrew Nolen was an imposing Abbot, despite being distanced acoustically and visually. Prestini’s neo-Romantic score, more meditative and less incisive than the other two, was ably steered by Julian Wachner. The opera ends with Xiao Qing spiriting away Ku’s baby—a white snake—finally explaining the video image that begins Naga, and so the cycle continues. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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