Culture Magazine

Opera Review: Her Dark Materials

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
On Site Opera presents Murasaki's Moon.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: Her Dark Materials

Another bad creation Genji (Martin Bakari) and his maker, the Lady Murasaki (Kristen Choi.)
Photo by Stephanie Berger for On Side Opera © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Site Opera, Eric Einhorn's company that mounts interesting operas in extraordinary places. This week, the company presented the world premiere of Murasaki's Moon, commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and mounted in that august institution's Astor Court, a Chinese-themed meditative space hidden in the northeast corner of the second floor of the museum's main building. (If you want to visit, it's Galleries 217 and 218.) This writer attended the first of two performances on Saturday, the third of a six show run that wrapped Sunday afternoon.
Built in 1981, the Astor Garden was a dream come to life, a tribute to the childhood of philanthropist Brooke Astor, who grew up in what is now Beijing. The museum added clay-fired tiles, carefully chosen rocks and plants and woods to create this illusion of a formal Chinese garden in the 17th century. The result is beautiful but little visited: one of the most serene spaces in this bustling building. No, it's not authentically Japanese. Yes it dates from 600 years after the events depicted. But the opera's pairing with the Met's exhibit chronicling the art and creation of the Tale of Genji provides ample and authentic context to this dramatic work, and on the whole it works.
This new opera is by the team of Michi Wiancko and Deborah Brevoort. They created an extensive meditation on the relationship between Lady Murasaki (Kristen Choi) the 11th century Japanese courtier who wrote The Tale of Genji and her title character, played by tenor Martin Bakari. The accompaniment is a combination of string quartet, koto (the long Japanese zither) and two percussionists, one of whom plays taiko drum and flute. The big, heavy drum is coarse and intrusive in this serene space: deliberately so.
Part of the joy of Moon is its very exoticism, the swirl of silk kimonos on the carefully tiled surface of the ceremonial court, the movement (chorographed by Yokio Yamashita) of ink brushes on richly textured scrolls, the long runner of white silken cloth that represents the titular moonlight. (One of the problems with staging this opera in the glass-ceilinged Astor Court in daytime was that it takes place at night.) Genji comes armed with a bag of fans, their colors representing his various failed relationships and the stormy swath he cuts through the city of Kyoto. The costumes and props, by the team of Beth Goldenberg and Sydney E. Schatz are top-notch.
The opera tracks Murasaki's efforts to create an amusement for her fellow courtiers, and takes off only when Shining Genji springs to vivid life. The interactions between Murasaki and Genji take the form of a series of duets, in which Ms. Choi is playing all of the other characters in the Tale including Genji's long succession of mistresses. (This guy would do Don Giovanni proud) A superficial knowledge of the plot of the original literary was not needed--the libretto gives ample clue as to what exactly is going on here.
Mr. Einhorn kept the action flowing in the narrow acting space, flanked by seated audience members and hampered by the small size of the formal garden. Ms. Choi and Mr. Bakari dove deep into their characters, finding real weight in the moment where Murasaki finds her way to a story's end (she sends Genji into exile, and seems relieved) and redemption in the moment where the cad comes back. The singers moved and swirled in their finery, arching over a nimble score that combined the voices of eastern and western instruments to create minimal pulse, kinetic rhythms and always, strong support for the voices of the two leads.
One problem with this show is its bare-bones nature and a lack of the space and grandeur of the 11th century Imperial court in what is now Kyoto. There is also an occasionally intruding, irritating bonze (priest) who spends most of the opera objecting to the Tale being written.  and the last scene reading it and recognizing himself in a moment of genuine comic shock. He represents the voice of Murasaki's unseen audience, the Japanese courtiers who were unfamiliar with the idea of a long-form narrative and yet secretly desired more. At one hour and change, this delicate nigiri of an opera left one hungry, and yet satisfied at being provided with an operatic experience unmatched anywhere else in the city.
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