Turandot meets The Ring

Tan Dun's "Tea' by the Opera Company (3rd review)

3 minute read
Fu, Eichelberger: Wagnerian headgear.
Fu, Eichelberger: Wagnerian headgear.
Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul is a love story and a quest for knowledge. A man of the East is defeated by his Western-style quest. The Opera Company of Philadelphia's staging of the East Coast premiere could do little wrong with the composer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger himself conducting the first two performances at the Academy of Music and the superb David Hayes the final three.

The music is both an aural and a visual delight. Onstage percussionists play their noisemakers by dipping their hands in and out of water bowls, like arm dancers. Alas, Tan Dun's been fiddling with his opera since its Tokyo birth in 2002 and Santa Fe premiere in 2007, and it's lost some of its subtleties.

Tan Dun tries too hard to make an opera from both East and West. His music already has the West built in: the modal scale he uses is no more innovative than Ravel (think the forest scene in L'enfant et les sortilèges). For all their novelty, his orchestrations— beautiful as they are— never venture far afield.

Wagnerian jolt

The Philadelphia cast (many associated with one or another of the earlier productions) was mostly excellent. Baritone Haijing Fu sang the disappointed lover, a man of steely will. Soprano Kelly Kaduce gave a sympathetic portrayal of the princess, torn between the man she wants to marry and the prince who is her brother.

Roger Honeywell's portrayal of the incestuous brother was so camp on opening night that it was difficult to take him seriously. Antler headgear and postures added a Wagnerian jolt to the high notes the tenor did hit well.

Kirk Eichenberger as the Emperor sounded a weak old man; as the tea ritualist, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby made her Opera Company debut in an unflattering role and costumes.

There's a splendor to the sounds of water and the uses of paper for percussive effects, though there may be too much paper in Tea: rolls and rolls of the stuff onstage, shaken like lightning or even crumpled in the hand, became a distraction rather than a reinforcement of theme.

Theatrical mishmash

The sound effects (all digitally enhanced) and Drew Billiau's dramatic lighting are sufficient for an opera that suggests meditation but moves into a mishmash of theatrics that could be Turandot when it's not aiming for The Ring. Tan Dun's spare vocal lines fail to support such representation, especially in Act II, when lover and over-loving brother battle for the Book of Tea. The result veers to sentimental mush.

Japanese director Amon Miyamoto's staging pushes Tan Dun's Tea toward Broadway with more color than is necessary. The beauty of tea, after all, lies in its transparency.♦

To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Opera composed and conducted by Tan Dun; libretto by Tan Dun and Xu Ying; translation by Diana Liao; directed by Amon Miyamoto. Opera Company of Philadelphia production through February 28. 2010 at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. (215) 732-8400 or www.operaphilly.com.

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