Vancouver Opera has mounted two productions this season that have been outstanding for their visual splendour and multicultural resonance: the Coast Salish-inspired version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in collaboration with First Nations artists, in March; and, on Saturday, the Canadian premiere of Tan Dun’s 2002 opera, Tea: A Mirror of the Soul. Tea is just as beautiful to look at as The Magic Flute was, and the score is just as arresting. But Tea is also graced by remarkable singing, particularly in the two main roles – soprano Nancy Allen Lundy as Princess Lan, and baritone ChenYe Yuan (the stunning Chou En-lai in the Vancouver Opera’s 2010 production of Nixon in China ) as her lover, Seikyo. Their vocal performances and committed characterizations lift this production into that special category where all the elements that vivify opera are both present and memorable. And notwithstanding the glories of its sets and costumes or the novelty of its libretto, the sovereign element in Tea is the music.
Tan grew up in China, but he has been a part of the new-music scene in New York since the mid-1980s. Some know him for his early experimental works, others for his soundtrack for the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Most would describe his music as a melding of East and West, but this neither captures the mesmerizing ingenuity of Tea’s sound world or its range – from traditional Chinese Opera, Tibetan chant and Japanese Noh theatre to Puccini and even a little jazz.
Percussion is the most exotic element in Tea. There are gongs, papers rattled and rustled, stones hit together by a chorus of monks and pitched ceramic bowls played like marimbas. Most of all, there’s water: water phones bowed like violins; rain sticks; and water tapped, slapped, splashed and poured into large glass bowls by onstage percussionists.
For the most part, the symphony orchestra refuses to sound like itself in Tea. Tan’s orchestration is certainly beguiling on its own terms, with long bass-flute melodies, harp accompaniments as silky as cats’ paws and muted trumpets that cut like lasers into the texture. But often we can’t quite identify the sounds we hear because the squeals, slides, shimmers and skitters are produced by conventional instruments in unconventional ways.
What is conventional is the story of star-crossed lovers, a jealous brother and the fateful quest for a book of wisdom, although the libretto’s ritualized repetition, poetic ambiguity and abundant metaphor push it into myth. The staging conspires with this: Sets, designed by Rumi Matsui and beautifully lit by Drew Billiau, range from the serene (and dreamlike) underwater hues of jade and obsidian to screens of giant peonies in voluptuous pinks and reds. A trio of living “puppets,” their macabre Humpty-Dumpty heads and painted smiles gleefully malicious, conflate farce and violence in the way of nightmares and fairy tales. An occasional character appears from on high – Ning Liang’s sultry-voiced Lady of Ritual, say, or Kirk Eichelberger’s stalwart Emperor – reminiscent of the deus ex machina in Baroque opera. And Masatomo Ota’s lavish costumes and spectacular sculptural headdresses also make figures larger than life.
The music is not quite of this world, either. Tan’s melodies may appear angular on the page, but in performance they are all curves. Singers and strings alike glide smoothly and continuously between pitches. Vocal lines are sinuous and extravagantly melismatic, the melody continuing to unwind long after the final syllable has been enunciated. Low strings sometimes shadow Lan’s vocal line several octaves beneath her, and many passages take her to the top of her range – not in climax, however, but at an astonishingly soft dynamic. Even then Lundy’s voice is pearly, extraordinarily nuanced and touching. ChenYe Yuan’s baritone is no less versatile: commanding in confrontation with Lan’s belligerent brother (Roger Honeywell’s resonant, straight-shooting tenor), gently seductive in the second act’s long, slow love scene – some of the most erotic music of any opera I know.
A recurring, and typically enigmatic sequence in Tea goes something like this: “Tea is hard to grow. Picking tea leaves is harder. Savouring tea is hardest of all.” Well, maybe. All we can say is that savouring Tea, the opera, is easy. And it’s immensely satisfying.