At least since Peter Brook’s 1985 Mahabharata, academic debates over so-called intercultural performance have supported the intellectual scaffolding for sober critical analyses of productions created by world-renowned theatre artists who, with happy abandon, generally ignore theoretical conundrums like the persistence of Orientalist imagery, the connection to some imagined realm of authenticity, or the degree of imbrication in a Disneyfied global economy. Although aesthetic concerns are primary for most audience members and artists, many contemporary scholars seem averse to discussing such concepts as beauty or taste. Just as they have done with “affect,” academics need to rediscover aesthetic analysis.
The two “intercultural” works considered here use Japanese texts as sources. From both aesthetic and ideological perspectives, these works present the reviewer with multiple, even divergent avenues for critical analysis.
Matsukaze is a new opera by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, who has worked extensively in Japan and Europe. Sung in German with English supertitles, Hannah Dübgen’s libretto closely follows the original Nō (written around 1412 primarily by Zeami Motokyo, revising material by his father Kan’ami and another, unknown author). Matsukaze was commissioned by Brussels’s Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in 2011, with subsequent performances in Luxembourg, Warsaw, and Berlin. Its North American premiere, in May 2013 at the Spoleto Festival USA (in Charleston, South Carolina), was coproduced by Spoleto and the Lincoln Center Festival.
A lyrical tale of undying love, mourning, and madness informed by Buddhism, Matsukaze deals with two peasant sisters who make salt from sea brine. Long ago, they were both loved by an exiled courtier. When he returned to court, he left a hat and cloak as mementos. Now ghosts, the sisters cannot forget their lost love. One of them, Matsukaze (Pine in the wind) imagines a pine tree to be the lover. Donning his costume, she is possessed by his spirit. Only through the prayers of a passing monk, who evokes (or dreams) the past after hearing the tale from a fisherman, are the sisters’ souls released from eternal longing.
Hosokawa’s music is a stunning mélange. This contemporary, delicate fusion of Japanese and Western elements simultaneously evokes the sounds of birds, the sea, Buddhist chant, shimmering chimes, sonorous drums, and mournful strings. It skillfully meanders between the melodic and the atonal, offering a wide range of listening pleasures. Scored for a small orchestra and beautifully sung by four soloists and a chorus, the music was performed with fluidity and feeling by the Talea Ensemble, conducted by John Kennedy. The deeply affecting vocalists—at times lyrical, at times powerful—were sopranos Pureum Jo (Matsukaze) and Jihee Kim (her sister, Murasame), both originally from South Korea; and baritones Gary Simpson (Monk) and Thomas Meglioranza (Fisherman). The evocative voices of the eight-member Westminster Choir served as the Chorus. The libretto intelligently and subtly supports, and is supported by, the music.
In contrast to the superb aural components, the visuals were an unwelcome distraction. Chen ShiZheng, whose theatre and opera productions have garnered international acclaim, must be the world’s most over-rated director. Every production of his that I have seen, including this one, exhibits a taste for gaudy spectacle. While such an aesthetic might be appropriate in some cases, here it signals a show-off who appears to lack feeling for either the subtle music or the Zen-infused story. Chen seems determined to paint the protagonists as grotesque female hysterics rather than as exemplars of the human desire to cherish life’s most passionate moments. Such desire, which is at the core of most Nō plays, conflicts with the Buddhist exhortation to let go of earthly attachments. The Monk’s prayers (like those of other passing monks in Nō) release the...