OPERA REVIEW: ‘TALE OF LADY THI KINH’

This production deserves a bravo!

By Peter Jacobi

 

One might say there was a lot of love exuded in the Musical Arts Center this past weekend for and during Indiana University Opera Theater’s world premiere performances of “The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh,” by Jacobs School composition faculty member P.Q. Phan.

However one might ultimately judge the artistic success of the opera, it came into being as a beloved subject for the composer who, after years of pondering and working on the project, brought to realization this musical setting for a revered folk tale of his homeland, Vietnam. It was obvious also, from what one saw on those two evenings, that stage director Vincent Liotta, who has teamed with Phan on this endeavor since before a workshop performance in summer 2011, labored lovingly to make the opera more stage worthy.

Conductor David Effron says, when shown the first 40 pages of the score, he fell in love with the music and its orchestration; he insisted that the opera must be produced by the IU Opera Theater and, after the go-ahead was given, followed up with his usual drive and diligence to shed a glow on the musical elements of the production.  The orchestra he trained, the Philharmonic, played superbly, no doubt strongly motivated by the maestro’s enthusiasm.  The two casts and the Walter Huff-trained chorus lavished energy on the opportunities afforded them.

The set design — wood and canvas panels that slide in and out, back and forth for scene changes; a movable wall made to look as if built of massive stones; a variety of outdoor backgrounds featuring a garden, wooded glen or town square — was the work of a visiting talent, Erhard Rom, and it is not only serviceable but handsome to view.  Linda Pisano’s costumes are both stunning and appropriate to place and a sort of ageless time.

So, one had a subject and score lovingly offered by the composer and a production lovingly delivered, with notable attention paid to artistic concept and detail. The result was an ovation each evening that, when composer Phan came to the stage for a bow, quickly mounted to standing and cheers-filled status. He was all smiles for what he must consider loving public reactions.

The composer’s aim for this “Tale of Lady Thi Kinh” was to create a multicultural entity, featuring music that blends Asian harmonies and instrumental effects with the musical ways and means of western opera.  That he managed to do quite adroitly. The Far Eastern influence suffused the orchestration and at least colored the vocal line.  Operatic traditions were cared for from the orchestral introduction to the choruses and the presence of arias.  The music was certainly accessible and, at most key moments, appropriate for the unfolding drama.

That drama concerns Thi Kinh, a lovely and goodhearted young woman who marries a studious fellow, hoping for a happy life.  In an act of intended kindness, while he sleeps, she attempts to cut off a single hair growing on his cheek, an out-of-place feature for an upstanding man.  He wakes in the middle of her action, thinks she’s trying to murder him, and sets off an ever-worsening chain of events: the immediate breakup of their marriage; her retreat, disguised as a man named Tieu Kinh Tam, into a monastery; her/his encounter with a flirtatious woman, Thi Mau, who’s distressed by the resulting rebuff; the woman’s impregnation by her family’s servant; her claim, after the baby’s birth, that the monk is its father; Tieu Kinh Tam’s ouster from the monastery; Thi Mau’s abandonment of the baby; the ousted monk’s act of kindness in saving the child and death from a worn-out, broken heart; the Buddha’s instillation of Thi Kinh into nirvana.

Whether Western audiences, probably so different from those who’ve grown up with the tale in Vietnam, can accept such a tragic flow of happenings following an act so trifling and explainable remains a question. The insertion of comic moments within so sad a story also may get in the way of acceptance although weekend audiences suggested approval.

It’s always hard to predict what lies ahead for a new opera. Many never get a second production. I hope this one will. I thought little of the workshop performance. I approved, with some reservation, the weekend’s first performance. I approved, with less reservation and more enthusiasm, the second.  Phan’s operatic tale is growing on me.

The opera requires a large cast.  The local production can boast of persuasive casting up and down the line: mezzos Sarah Ballman and Veronica Jensen rising to dramatic heights as the noble Thi Kinh; coloraturas Sandra Periord and Angela Yoon warbling through tough flourishes as the troublemaking Thi Mau; bass-baritones Adam Walton and Rafael Porto as Sur Cu, head of the temple; tenors Will Perkins and Christopher Sokolowski hitting some difficult high notes as husband Thien Si; tenors Lorenzo Miguel Garcia and Andrew LeVan as Thi Mau’s obliging servant No; baritones Jeremy Gussin and Jerome Sibulo as the village chief; sopranos Christa Ruiz and Marlen Nahhas as his brassy wife; sopranos Sooyeon Kim and Julianne Park  and baritones Bruno Sandes and Daniel Lentz as Thien Si’s parents, and baritones David Rugger and Ross Coughanour as Thi Kinh’s father.

If I’ve messed up who’s who, sorry, but everyone contributed to the whole, as did lighting designer Todd Hensley.  Bravo to the enterprise.

© Herald Times 2014

 

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