Saturday, June 13, 2015

An Exotic Lucid Dream

Paradise Interrupted
Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina
Memminger Auditorium - May 29, 2015

The woman immersed in her phantasmagoria.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
As we took our seats for Huang Ruo’s new opera Paradise Interrupted in a completely sold out auditorium in the middle of old town Charleston, I don’t think either of us had any idea that we were in for the impressionistically stunning evening of modern operatic art theater that ensued.

Against a canvas of possibility.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The stage was a stark white canvas that somehow seemed ripe with possibility. From the moment the orchestra rattled out the first notes, I fell under its spell. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on the stage.

The libretto (a joint effort by Ji Chao, the composer, the director and the lead singer) was abstract and profoundly poetic. If one neglected to read up on the story ahead of time, the supertitles would do little to keep the audience abreast the impressionistic storyline of the piece. And the equally abstract staging, no matter how stunning it was, also did little to explicate the plot on its own.

Director Jennifer Wen Ma and company put together some of the most captivating art installation style sets that transformed the relatively ordinary auditorium into an otherworldly place.

Basing one’s assessment purely on the propositional aesthetic content of the piece (music, staging, singers), it was first and foremost a woman’s story, refreshingly told from the female perspective. Second, it was profoundly allegorical. Lastly, it was exotic, not just because oriental and eastern, but also because it was so fantastic, imaginative and poetic to the point of sounding extraterrestrial.

The woman and her tree (once it acquires foliage).
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The stark white canvas of a stage is now suddenly dressed with the exotic flourishes of the orchestra that sounds more oriental than occidental despite being predominantly composed of western orchestral instruments. Out into this void of white glides the most majestic young woman in floor-length traditional Chinese gowns. She moves as though floating, her feet defy the effort of motion. Her song is like a lullaby, slow and dreamy and she maintains it for most of the next intermission-less eighty minutes. And like her song she seems to be dreaming, since she suddenly discovers that she can mold and model her dream world through the power of her song. She conjures Mother Nature and a tree rises dreamily from white ground, leafless and twiggy. The effects were simple but effective. The tree is made up of an interlocking set of black strings and streamers that are pulled out of the stage and seem to hang suspended from the ceiling. The contrast of the black trunk and branches is stark against the otherwise blindingly white stage.

Fireflies come hither.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The woman is thrilled by the prospect of her newfound ability to make her own world. Her vision of nature becomes more florid and a series of black hedges are pulled out onto the stage like life size paper pop-up book art. She is suddenly ensconced in a natural world of her own creation and, as an erratic cloud of fireflies begin to congregate in her fantasy land, she begins to long for someone with whom to share it all.

A woman-eating flower.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Her desire shifts and she conjures a man, or rather the illusion of one. Consisting of little more than an outline of fireflies, the apparition of the man appears long enough to sing a duet with the woman and then he disappears. The woman then finds herself distraught at the sudden loss...

She is then caught most dramatically in a flower, the pollen pistils of the plant seems to have her in manacles, until she comes to the realization that she has been too tied down by her desires. She must free herself from those desires, like her desire to have a man, or her desire to seek satisfaction from such transitory pleasures as gardens, even the garden of her black and white imagination that she could conjure out of thin air, before she is able to emanicipate her mind. And the climax of that realization is simply stunning. Though the opera paradoxically ends reasserting the silence of the voice she is ultimately forging for herself. The soundlessness of ink. The silence of literary and artistic expression. Or is it?

The ascension from the ink well of her imagination.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Paradise Interrupted is one woman’s empowering search for meaning in her life as a fleshful being who is capable of great desire, but also able to transcend the tyranny of those desires and by the end she is primed to sublimate herself and her desires and her abilities to some greater purpose, presumably to the end of artistic expression. In my mind, it is the dreamy allegory of the artist as told in the feminine. And beautifully so.

The closest thing that comes to mind is Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon.

Seeing beyond the flower of her desire.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Ultimately the dream of love is a trap and she must find her strength within herself. According to this reading, the triumphant fist she seems to be lifting in the show’s final image would then be a symbol of her self-reliant self-discovery, of her intransigent quest for individual selfhood no matter how alone she finds herself through all this while all of the men who also represent the elements, the winds, the universal life force go flitting transiently about. No matter the fact that she seems to be stuck in that symbolically laden final image, trapped in a puddle of ink, or maybe it’s not that is she held so motionless. She seems to be simultaneously sinking as though into quicksand but also at the same time ascending slowly into the sky. In any case her gesture is an elegant index finger and pinkie extended from a hand clenched into a fist held triumphantly, majestically and almost defiantly into the air. As though to say it’s all me against the world, against the void, against the emptiness of life. Somehow when the light fades to black you come away thinking that with her fantasy, no matter how stark, she will be ok. She’ll find her way through.

The captivating Qian Yi.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Though the orchestra was mainly comprised of European instruments (11 piece chamber orchestra), the three oriental instruments in the ensemble (sheng, dizi and pipa) created all the mood. It was dreamy from start to finish. A lucid poetic dream. The music simply washed over you. Bringing you in an out of consciousness, with the profound symbolism of the piece. A unique opera where the allegorical story predominates. Surprisingly very beautiful and trip-inducing at the same time.

The singing was phenomenal, starting with kunqu singer Qian Yi, who was obviously the star of the show that she really carried at every moment. Her singing was beautiful and impressionistic yet also expressive throughout. She was the perfect embodiment of the unnamed character, simply referred to as the Woman. It was oneiric the way she seemed to float across the stage, the way she would walk in short swift steps that were completely concealed by her kimono costume. Her most beautiful moment came at the end where she suddenly finds herself ensconced in a pool of ink. She seems to either be sinking into it as the ink seeps into more and more of her dress, or else she is rising up above it, her apotheosis, her ascension. She is either stuck in the mire of her artistic imaginative powers or else she is about to take off as she spreads her artistic wings, about to soar up, up and away, using the imaginative powers she has finally taken the reins of, as she slowly and majestically raises her right arm toward the sky like an empowered revolutionary so full of hope, so full of life. And fade to black. Such a thrilling final note to end on.

The four elements.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The rest of the cast was comprised of countertenor John Holiday, baritone Ao Li, tenor Joseph Dennis and baritone Joo Won Kang, who played the four elements, the four directions, Firefly, Lover, Wolf and Light. Don’t ask who played what though as it was pretty hard to tell, not only were these gentlemen all dressed alike in different shades of grey pope-looking outfits, but also we don’t speak Cantonese so trying to follow the supertitles of a highly impressionistic libretto and matching the words up to the role and then to the singer was not an easy task. The overall effect though was beautiful as these singers provided both the framing for, and counterparts interacting with The Woman.

The most striking among the male cast was countertenor John Holiday who stole the show any time he opened his mouth. He really has a beautiful, beautiful voice. His strident and strong countertenor voice was buoyed up by the other three male voices who often accompanied each other chorus-like. Holiday’s was always expressive and clear. His voice projected so effortlessly and sounded so angelic that I had to pinch myself to realize that he was singing and not the female lead. It was a real treat to hear him in action, live, after all of his recent success at Operalia, not to mention all the other buzz that has accumulated around this rising countertenor. I can’t wait to hear him sing one of his signature baroque roles. He would make a phenomenal Giulio Cesare. Give us John Holiday! And give him to us baroque style! We’ll look forward to catch him in Glimmerglass’ new Catone in Utica in August. 

But for now, suffice it say: Huang Ruo, what you do to me I want to have done to me forever!

– Lui & Lei

The woman surrounded by the four elements.
Photo credits: Spoleto Festival

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