Vancouver Opera
Tea: A Mirror of Soul by Tan Dun Original Libretto Xu Ying and Tan Dun

Dates and Venue 4, 7, 9, 11 May 2013, 7.30pm  |   Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Seikyo Chen-ye Yuan Lan Nancy Allen Lundy Prince Roger Honeywell Emperor Kirk Eichelberger Lu Ning Liang On-Stage Percussionists Haruka Fujii, Chihiro Shibayama, Yuri Yamashita

Conductor Leslie Dala Director Paul Peers Chorus DirectorLeslie Dala Scenery Designer Rumi Matsui Costume Designer Masatomo Ota Lighting Designer Drew Billiau

In English with English SURTITLES™

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

A rich infusion of east and west, sight and sound, emanates throughout the auditorium with the resonant opening notes of Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul as the curtain rises on chanting monks performing the tea ceremony. A single monk drinks tea from an empty bowl, evoking the world of the East, of legend and ritual.

The sounds of water are everywhere, mysterious and pervasive, establishing the atmosphere. Fully integrated with the orchestra yet remarkable, percussion instruments of water, paper and earth are played on stage and fill the opera with an animistic sense of immanence. Water in bowls is slapped, trickled, whipped, stirred; paper is shaken, beaten, crumpled, whispering and rattling, conjuring up rain and wind; earthenware pots ring and sing and stones are clicked fatefully. The rest of the orchestra instruments too are used in unusual ways which creates an intense focus on sound. The effect is both lyric and consciously symbolic.

On stage, the exotic is well served by the sumptuous shapes and colours of the costumes (by Masatomo Ota) against a fairly spare set by Rumi Matsui. Brilliant hues, flowing garments, bold patterns, fantastical headdresses are a delight to the eye and contrast with the architectural shapes of the set. Lighting by  Drew Billiau floods the scene with colour or shadow.

The plot derives from Chinese and Japanese myth and literature but captures the universal themes of folklore: rage, jealousy, love, a quest, death - the stuff of opera. In brief, when the Japanese prince Seikyo wins the hand of the Chinese princess Lan, her brother is fiercely jealous. In addition, Seikyo tells him his manuscript of the sacred Book of Tea is a fake. The prince is so enraged he challenges Seikyo to produce the original or lose his life and he pledges his own life in return. Loving them both, Lan is distraught. Lan and Seikyo set of on a long journey to the south where Lu, the daughter of the tea-sage, gives them the Book. The Prince, who has followed them, snatches the Book and in the ensuing fight, kills his beloved sister. Seikyo declines to take the Princes forfeited life and leaves the world for a monastery.

Tan Dun has integrated so many disparate aspects of his text and his music that it seems churlish to complain about the script. These very accomplishments though call for a less prosaic libretto. Despite some repetition and allusive language the words are rarely more than serviceable.

Nancy Allen Lundy created the part of Lan and her thorough knowledge of it shows as much in the depth of character she conveys as in her technically brilliant singing. Her Lan is equal parts warmth, fragility, strength. Matching her in every respect Chen-Ye Yuan’s Seikyo is a man of integrity and intelligence. His elegantly clear voice so well conveys a deeply-felt but controlled emotion that his flashes of anger were brilliant and shocking.

The part of the Prince is in comparison somewhat underwritten. Shallow in his affection for his sister, he represents only anger until the very last moments of the story. Capering with his puppet entourage, Roger Honeywell stayed well within the sub-text of his character, the Monkey-King of Chinese legend, until finally rising to the occasion and showing true grief for his sister’s death.

Star billing must go to Jonathan Darlington for a rivetting, harmonious interpretation of music at once exotic and familiar. And to Vancouver Opera for bringing new and exciting opera to the city.

© 2013 Elizabeth Paterson