Tea: A Mirror of SoulReviewed by Erica Challis
Tea: A Mirror of Soul
Composer and conductor: Tan Dun
Libretto by Xu Ying and Tan Dun
An Opera National de Lyon Production
25 Feb, 27 Feb, 1 Mar
8pm (2 hours 20 minutes including one interval)
Michael Fowler Centre
Sung in English with English surtitles
Dun’s shorter works have been heard by NZSO concertgoers and his score for the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has familiarised a huge audience worldwide with his work. So it was pleasing but hardly surprising to see the Michael Fowler centre almost full with an audience prepared to experience Tan Dun’s opera Tea.
But which Dun were we going to hear? His work so far has veered between extremes of accessibility. The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film score is a lovely, easy listening chain of “Chinese Lite” melodies. But his opera Marco Polo is difficult and strange: a complex basketweave of Western and world music fragments illustrating a largely symbolic or interior journey.
Saturday night’s audience arrived to find the simplest of sets – a tilted white diamond of stage with a book-shaped white screen hanging above. A cut-down NZSO of reduced strings, no oboes, bassoons, horns or tuba sat at floor level, in keeping with Dun’s desire to make them visible participants in the drama.
Lights dimmed, spotlights stabbed down, and we discovered performers already among us. Three silk-robed percussionists danced slowly down the aisles, drawing violin-bows across birdcage-like waterphones to produce a high, wavering, ghostly music. Eventually they took up stations at three clear bowls of water on stage. Here they began a rhythmic play with water, slapping, dripping and throwing it, while a male chorus in monk-like robes filed in and began singing deep tones. A mezzosoprano voice floated a long melody out of the darkness and descended to a deep note that bloomed into the eerie overtones of a Tibetan throat-singer.
This was of course captivating spectacle, but would it support a story that had any drama or weight, or would it just be a series of virtuoso effects?
In fact the plot unfolded with all the standards of operatic drama: love, jealousy, and revenge. But the story was also richly endowed with layers of meaning, some of them accessible to a Western audience, some of them tantalisingly cryptic. As in previous Dun operas, the characters are also symbols – love, anger, tradition, nature, the spirit world. The instruments are symbols – water and wind (paper) for the spirit of holiness, stone and ceramic for fate, the orchestra as the omniscient narrator. As the five main singers unfolded their leisurely vocal strands there was plenty of time to ponder the conjunction and opposition of these elements.
At its simplest level Tea is a tale of tragic love. Lan, princess of an ancient Chinese kingdom, is forced to choose between her brother the Prince and her suitor Seikyo. The rivalry for Lan’s loyalty is so intense that any pretext would serve as cause for an argument. In this case, they argue over the origins of The Book of Tea, said to contain marvellous wisdom. Ironically they are willing to kill each other to attain that wisdom.
Other layers of meaning are woven through the libretto. At the open and close of the opera, Seikyo ritually drinks “the tea of emptiness” while monks sing though bowl is empty, scent glows/though shadow is gone, dream grows. Later the princess sings a beguiling tea ritual full of sexual double-entendres. There are hints that it is also an intellectual stimulant. Poetic fragments seem to describe Time as a landscape, and memory as a scent. Red and green tea apparently mean different things, echoed by Seikyo and the Prince’s opposing red and green robes. Holy elements fire, water and earthenware meet in the tea ritual, but what does it mean? More explanatory programme notes would have been welcome.
Baritone Haijing Fu created the role of Seikyo for Netherlands Opera, and in this production he tackled Dun’s virtuoso upward leaps and swoops with ease. Bass Dong-Jian Gong as the Emperor ranged from extreme bass notes to a clear, powerful falsetto. Soprano Xiuying Li’s Lan was thrilling, and the second act’s long duet with Fu was a thing of beauty. Mezzo-soprano Ning Lian as Lu had the most ungrateful lines to sing, but sang them with grace. Tenor Warren Mok as the Prince showed astonishing breath control in long, unforced phrases, but his performance was physically very static.
Overall the action was stylised, with few gestures or eye contact between the singers. There was not so much as a tea-cup by way of props. Seikyo and the Prince’s antagonism was largely represented by their physical distance from each other and their stiff-necked, hackles-up postures.
Despite the slow movement onstage, Tea was a totally absorbing drama, gorgeous to look at, with a lushly melodic score that used startling or virtuosic sounds and techniques judiciously. The melodies stayed with me all the way home.
Tea proved that art can do more than thrill the senses. It can open doors in the mind. I left this opera tantalised, excited and curious about cultures and belief systems foreign to me.