OPERA NEWS - The Lesson of Da Ji
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HO: The Lesson of Da Ji

CD Button Newman, Chan, Corwin; Kwan, Lau, Dobson, Covey; Toronto Masque Theatre Ensemble, Beckwith. No text. Centrediscs CMCCD 22115

Recordings Lesson Da JI Cover 516
Critics Choice Button 1015

IN HER BRACING NEW OPERA, the Hong Kong-born Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho harks back to the Shang dynasty of ancient China. Although Da Ji, the legendarily evil concubine of King Zhou, is an actual historical figure, the tale Ho and her librettist Marjorie Chan tell here is fictional: Da Ji is having an affair with Bo Yi (son of the King’s rival, the Duke), under the guise of taking lessons on the guqin, an ancient instrument in the zither family. The “lessons” Bo Yi gives are filled with barely concealed innuendo (“Caress, caress. The right pressure, yes. The right pulse, the right tension”) and swooping vocals that imply ecstasy.

Ho’s musical language is a startlingly original three-way mélange of Baroque, traditional Chinese and contemporary Western idioms. The sung dialogue (the libretto is in English) between the two illicit lovers is strikingly stylized, as if they were acting out a ritual while having a conversation. Rhythmic energy and fresh, exotic instrumental colors spill from every bar in Ho’s expertly deployed mashup of instruments from different cultures—pipa, zhongruan and erhu with lute, recorders and harpsichord, plus modern strings and ominously pounding percussion. 

In the title role, Marion Newman sings with rich, opulent tone, and her delivery pulses with the multiple meanings of her duplicitous existence. As Bo Yi, Derek Kwan is glowing and ardent when he describes to Da Ji the first time he saw her. Newman and Kwan blend well amid the inventively dissonant instrumental underpinning of their extended duet passages. When Bo Yi leaves and Da Ji sings (to the moon) of her love for him, the music shifts to the pleasant modal style of a Chinese folk song. The moon sings back to Da Ji, taking the form of both Light Moon, the gently shimmering coloratura of Vania Chan, and Dark Moon, the oddly compelling high-pitched speech-song of William Lau, a Peking opera performer. Chan also sings the role of Da Ji’s maid Ming, who is sweet and seemingly guileless until she betrays the lovers. Ho’s score is invigorating and dynamic throughout, but the level of intensity escalates commensurately with the entrance of the King (Alexander Dobson, who provides a strong, clear bass-baritone with a glinting edge of danger).

The horrible fate of Bo Yi, unveiled in a tense, dramatically paced banquet scene, is easily anticipated by anyone who has seen Written on Skin or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (or Sweeney Todd, for that matter). Predictable or not, however, Ho unleashes a full artillery of pounding musical menace as the Duke and the Duchess (Benjamin Covey and Charlotte Corwin) fearfully demand to know what has become of their son, making for a rattlingly intense climax. The ten expert instrumentalists of the Toronto Masque Theatre Ensemble play with galvanizing virtuosity under the clear-eyed and idiomatically versatile leadership of conductor Larry Beckwith. No libretto is provided (synopsis only), but diction and balance are mostly good enough to make the story easy to follow.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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