NEW YORK CITY: Paradise Interrupted
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In Review > North America

Paradise Interrupted

Lincoln Center Festival

In Review Paradise Interrupted hdl 816
Qian Yi in Huang Ruo's Paradise Interrupted at the Lincoln Center Festival
© Julia Lynn

THE 2016 Lincoln Center Festival opened on July 13 with the first of three performances (July 13, 15, 16) of composer Huang Ruo’s opera Paradise Interrupted. These performances marked the New York premiere of the complete work. 

Paradise Interrupted is loosely based on the sixteenth-century dramatic masterwork The Peony Pavilion, by Tang Xianzu.  The opera combines elements of traditional Kunqu opera with modern techniques from Western classical music. In 1999, Lincoln Center Festival presented a twenty-hour production of Tang Xianzu’s complete play. That production featured soprano Qian Yi, a great star of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, so it was of great interest that she appeared here as the lead performer in this new and inventive opera.

As Huang Ruo stated in his program note, one of the delights about contemporary opera is that composers have the freedom to write abstract, meditative works such as Paradise Interrupted, in lieu of working in the still honored and much more common practice of composing in a linear, narrative mode. Paradise Interrupted is indeed abstract and meditative, but not so much so as to lack structure or a sense of narrative. It follows a woman’s quest for love and meaning in a dreamlike setting. Along the way, she encounters the four elements, a beautiful and evolving garden, a would-be lover, and wolves. By the opera’s end, the woman’s viewpoint has been transformed as her world becomes a pool of ink, and she sees herself as able to paint whatever reality she wants. It could even be said that she herself has become one with the ink brush with which she will paint.

Often, attempts to synthesize artistic traditions as disparate as classical Chinese and contemporary Western music have met with mixed, disappointing results. Such is not the case in Paradise Interrupted. The fusion of musical techniques and instruments is seamless, and the overall effect is exquisitely beautiful and dramatic. The opera’s impact was further enhanced by the stage and video design of Jennifer Wen Ma and her team. The stage was gracefully transformed from a blank room with a horizontal line of light to incorporating fruit trees, an expanding and contracting garden constructed of paper and ultimately into that pool of ink. The dreamy libretto, a collaboration of the composer, director, lead performer, and of the writer Ji Chao, was thought-provoking and appealing.

Qian Yi gave a magnificent and varied performance as the Woman, a demanding role that kept her singing, acting and dancing for most of the opera’s ninety minutes. Her supporting cast, singers John Holiday, Yi Li, Joo Wan Kang and Ao Li, were excellent. Special praise goes to countertenor Holiday for his powerful singing as the voice of the Wind Elemental, and to tenor Yi Li for his touching duet with Qian Yi as her dream-state lover. Conductor Wen-Pin Chien led Ensemble FIRE with sure control, subtlety and elegance.

Paradise Interrupted is not a traditional opera in either the Kunqu or the Western tradition, but has enough magic in it to make for a pleasing theatrical experience for audience members of all stripes. It is a great addition to the repertoire. —Arlo McKinnon 

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