Luminato’s premiere classical music event is the chamber opera Feng Yi Ting. It lasts a brief 55 minutes, but is graced by extravagant theatrical values worthy of a much longer production.
The music and libretto are by eminent Chinese composer Guo Wenjing. The man behind the theatrics is the equally eminent Canadian film and stage director Atom Egoyan. At its heart, Feng Yi Ting is a true meeting of East and West. Guo based his libretto on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s four great classical novels, set near the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.). His chief protagonist is Diao Chan, one of the four legendary beauties of ancient China.
In order to get rid of the powerful warlord Dong Zhou and his godson General Lu Bu, who together control the young emperor and the country, interior minister Wang Yun hatches a plot wherein his enticing goddaughter, Diao Chan, will seduce both men. He holds two different banquets, first for Lu Bu, and then for Dong Zhou, where Diao Chan sings and dances before each man. Both are enamoured with her beauty. She becomes the betrothed of Lu Bu, and is given as a gift to Dong Zhou.
When Lu Bu thinks that his godfather has stolen his bride, Diao Chan uses this jealousy to convince her betrothed to kill his godfather, which will effectively end their power and control. “Feng Yi Ting” means “The Phoenix Pavilion” where Diao Chan meets with Lu Bu to set the murder in motion.
The opera is basically one long monologue for Diao Chan (Shen Tiemei). Lu Bu (Jiang Qihu) is a silent character until his jealousy is roused. The action is static, with Diao Chan describing the situation and her feelings about being used as a political pawn.
What makes Diao Chan an interesting character is her pride in her role in the plot. She exalts in the fact that women can effect change in the world. She also philosophizes on how sweet it is when one can manoeuvre others to do the dirty work.That being said, however, had this been Verdi or another 19th-century Western opera composer, the blood and guts would have been strewn about the stage. Guo’s decision to pass up action for reflection may be more in keeping with Chinese opera values, but it does present the challenge of how to hold audiences’ attention. Guo helps his own case with his evocative score, conducted with acute sensitivity by Ken Lam. The musical continuity is carried out by the seven Western instruments comprising strings and woodwinds. The five Chinese instruments are used for very effective musical accents, aided immeasurably by three percussionists and their phalanx of gongs and drums. The combination transforms Guo’s tendency to dissonance into a more palatable soundscape.
The sung passages are Chinese opera. Soprano Shen is apparently a well-known proponent of Sichuan opera, while countertenor Jiang comes from Peking opera. Both vocal lines are in the sing-song, flattened tones Westerners associate with Chinese opera. The triumph of both singers is how they modulate their voices to convey emotion within the strictures of the form.
Egoyan and his design team provide visual delights, which include state-of-the-art projection techniques based on the digital images of artist Tsang Ki-Wah. Derek McLane’s set is festooned with little figures of soldiers and horses. Most important is the tiny model of the Feng Yi Ting, the pavilion of the title. Matthew Frey’s precision lighting illuminates the various figures for emphasis at different times during the opera. The fact that the live singers overpower the stage apparatus brings them into greater relief. Another clever ploy is having Lu Bu enter on a movable runner, rather than on his own steam. This adds to his weakness in the face of Diao Chan.
Perhaps Egoyan’s best innovation is costuming Lu Bu in traditional Chinese opera garb, and Diao Chan as a glamorous modern diva. Designer Han Feng’s gorgeous haute-couture gowns (three of them) for Diao Chan make her every inch a contemporary heroine. She exudes a very powerful persona in comparison to the old-fashioned Lu Bu.