4-36-1 ‘Feng Yi Ting’ comes together, combining cultures

Spoleto Festival USA 2012 - Feng Yi Ting


Special to The Post and Courier

Feng Yi Ting plays like a traditional Chinese theater piece. On one level, that is, because on another very interesting level, it offers a deeper, poignant perspective on tradition vs. transition, on cross-pollination of cultures, on the age of globalization itself.

Guo Wenjing is as Chinese as it gets. Part of the select group of composers accepted to the Beijing Central Conservatory, known as the Class of 1956, he is the only one who chose to stay in his homeland, unlike some of his colleagues who have enjoyed successful careers in the West. They, too, use traditional Chinese influences in their music. But no one can quite “walk the walk” like Guo Wenjing, who has developed a language that has completely assimilated genuine (and constantly developing) Chinese elements within a contemporary language that owes much to Stravinsky and Lutoslawski. It’s precisely in this intentional duality where the success of his music lies.

Feng Yi Ting has a straightforward setup, very operatic actually. The plot tells of an ambitious and strong woman who takes control of her world using her charm and seduction, and whose defining line is: “I’d rather be a broken piece of jade, than an intact tile of clay.”

The story is told from the perspective of the heroine, very traditionally, and on one level, it could have been presented as a traditional Chinese play with not much else happening. The composer, however, treats the above setup as an object put through a prism of non-traditional harmonic, rhythmic and timbral elements, creating a kaleidoscopic swirl of sounds, which the brilliant director Atom Egoyan sets on stage with remarkable refinement and sensitivity.

The opera is minimally scored for a mixed ensemble of 15 players, among them a dizi (bamboo flute), a sheng (Chinese mouth organ), a pipa, an erhu and several exotic percussion instruments, augmented by a Western string quartet, wind trio and harp.

The inventive score is lean, percussive, buoyant and quite colorful, at times using the instrumentalists as a unison choir and employing extended techniques, all in context and good taste. There are several extended percussive passages driving the action, culminating in wonderful bursts of sound, followed by resonant space, as well as freer quasi-aleatoric sections that allow the piece to ebb and flow very gracefully.

Language is important in Guo Wenjing’s music, and it’s apparent that the rhythms, pitch patterns and prosodies of his native tongue are making their way into the shaping of the musical gestures.

The two characters sing in the traditional Chinese way, a virtuosic, high-pitched nasal falsetto with lots of inflections and wide vibrato that takes a bit to get used to but is nevertheless delivered brilliantly by the soprano Shen Tiemei, a wonderful presence on the stage, and tenor Jiang Qihu.

I wish I had an ear for the subtleties of the language. Then again, this production was intended for a Western audience, and, as mentioned before, the language neatly fits into the larger picture as an object of sorts.

Egoyan is a master storyteller, and he is the real auteur of this production, as he was able to capture the concept of the score and blow it up on the stage and screen, using technology seamlessly, with an eye and sensibility that channeled Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone. Surely he must have had in mind the shadow theater scene in “Once Upon a Time in America” when he was devising his concept for “Feng Yi Ting.”

Through the use of projection, shadow play, and spectacular video art by Tsang Kin-Wah, he and his set designer Derek McLane create a surreal surrounding veil to the story that takes it out of its geographical and temporal confines and turns it into a universal experience.

The juxtaposition of the characters dressed stunningly in vivid colors by Han Feng, against black and white grainy projections of themselves, shadow figures, and a moving assembly line of statuettes combined seamlessly into a swirling collage that consumed the audience.

The highest achievement of this production was getting all the proportions right. The duration, scope, size of ensemble, stage and projection proportions, even the choice of venue — the wonderful Dock Street Theatre — came together perfectly to tell a story. Isn’t that the very essence of opera?