Nancy Allen (photo: Tim Matheson)
by Jay Catterson
An operatic barrage of references to a certain hot beverage amidst the sounds of water, paper and stone made its Canadian debut at Vancouver Opera's production of "Tea: A Mirror of Soul". Composed by Tan Dun, the Oscar award-winning composer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", the story centres around Seikyo, a Japanese prince-turned monk who laments the loss of love due to his quest for the mythical Book of Tea. As exotic as this tale of East meets West may sound, this production was too tepid and languid a cup for most operagoers' tastes, including mine.
The production has to be commended for trying to push the boundaries of contemporary opera in a visually and aurally stimulating way. Overall, the score is intricately complex and effective; Dun's use of natural sounds -involving an impressive trio of onstage percussionists utilizing large clear water basins, big sheets of paper and stone bowls- and overtone singing and chanting from the chorus and orchestra (enunciating hard consonant sounds like 'k' and 't' in a perfectly calculated manner) create a haunting, ethereal soundscape. The dynamically gorgeous set design by Rumi Matsui and ravishing costumes by Masatomo Ota truly make this production a sumptuous sight. And even the principals dazzle, with Roger Honeywell's bright, intense tenor stealing the spotlight as the Prince.
It was hard to not notice the empty seats after intermission
But amongst all this artistic razzle-dazzle, the production fizzled into a disappointing, and at times laughable, drone. The libretto is so steeped in metaphor that any ounce of narrative and plot development gets lost entirely. Heck, I kind of wish that there was a "Crouching Tiger"-esque flying battle scene to fend off attacks from those painful metaphors! And what might have sounded elegant or mysterious in the beginning simply became onerous, not to mention deplorable; for example, during a ridiculous love scene (complete with flashing strobe lights and glitter, mind you!) in Act II, laughable lyrics such as "rubbing the oolong" incited uncomfortable giggles and groans from the audience. Alas, even the dramatic fight scene in Act III abandons all logic in a hilarious attempt to regain the audience's focus. And at two hours, the production felt like it ran three times as long. For traditional opera fans raised on Puccini and Verdi, the sheer lack of memorable arias (well, quite frankly the lack of arias, period) amidst the endless references to - you guessed it - tea will easily turn them off. And that's what "Tea" did. It was hard to not notice the empty seats after intermission, and even the lowly cellphone that was ringing in the second half seemed more memorable than the drudgery that emanated from the stage.
But regardless of said drudgery that befell us on Saturday night, Vancouver Opera has to be commended for this bold move in choosing to end their season with a boundary-pushing production such as "Tea". If they had opened it earlier in the season and ended with their exquisite and inspired production of "The Magic Flute", I feel that Vancouver Opera would have an easier time getting patrons to renew their subscriptions. Perhaps they need to bring back something like Nixon in China, which was challenging, modern, critical and quite simply "good". As Seikyo sings, "Picking tea is hard. Making tea is harder"; perhaps next time they should stick to making coffee, which is something more common in this town.
To May 11
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