Opera ‘Matsukaze’ superbly performed

“Matsukaze” is the third opera by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, and the only one sung in German.

Grace Beahm

Infusing Western contemporary art music with non-Western (non-contemporary) influences is as old as contemporary music itself, going back to Debussy and Ravel being exposed for the first time to Gamelan ensembles at the grounds of the 1899 Paris World Fair.

Toshio Hosokawa, a Japanese-born composer in mid-career, carries the torch of a strong and important tradition that rose from post-war Japan, whose most renowned representative was Toru Takemitsu.

Fluent in the ambiguity of his multicultural identity, Hosokawa is finding fresh ways to reinvent musical genres by allowing all of his influences to coexist and evolve together.

His several stage works are influenced by the Japanese dramatic tradition, but don’t stop there. The conceptual parallels that can be drawn between Western opera and Noh theater are hard to miss, the latter being a ritualistic form dating back to the 14th century, involving non-realistic stories presented mostly through song, dance and emotion masks.

“Matsukaze,” Hosokawa’s third opera (and the only one sung in German), was commissioned by the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and has received performances at the Berlin State Opera, Luxembourg and Warsaw.

Based on a 15th century play by master Zeami, shaped beautifully into a sparse, poetic libretto in German by Hannah Dubgen, “Matsukaze” is essentially a ghost story of love and revenge about the unresolved longing of a dead soul that did not find closure in life and won’t go away.

How operatic, indeed: two peasant sisters, Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines) and Murasame (Autumn Rain), in love and abandoned by the same lover (Yukihira), a high-brow city boy who left, never to return.

A wandering monk from the city arrives at the scene seeking shelter, and the ghost sisters appear, tell their story, becoming obsessed in the process, until Matsukaze sees her lover’s face in a pine tree.

Convinced that Yukihira has returned, the sisters dissolve into the ether. Since the girls’ story is told to the monk early on by a lingering villager, most of the opera is really an extended aria with moments of extreme emotional anguish.

Natural elements (air, water, snow, moon, shadow, salt) are as important as the two ghosts in the story, becoming points of reference for the music and the staging.

Chen Shi-Zheng’s direction is about sparseness in the use of space and movement, in sharp contrast to the European productions, which were heavier with elaborate sets, busier stage movement and visual textures.

The Spoleto team opted for a minimal set consisting of a huge pine tree made of surgical plastic tubing hanging inverted over the stage, and a hut made of salt, also lowered from above, while the stage floor is covered by a shallow pool of water, through which the singers drag their long dresses, as if drawing calligraphy.

Similarly, costumes are tailored from man-made materials to reflect modern life. Colors are kept muted and almost grey-scale, except for the striking crimson red of the cloak that Yukihira has left behind, which bleeds its color into the whole production. One cannot avoid drawing a parallel with contemporary Japanese horror film aesthetics, an approach that mirrors the composer’s stylistic melange.

The opera begins with distant recorded sounds of waves and wind, gradually transitioning to a wash of expertly scored instrumental textures from the ensemble, beautifully shaped into a long arch, climaxing with dense, brassy outbursts during Matsukaze’s vision, and eventually fading back to the water texture of the beginning.

Episodes of loud, low skin percussion, reminiscent of taiko drumming, and high-pitched clouds of handbells (some coming from onstage) and crotales create another parallel formal design, this one almost periodic, at first shocking, but by the end of the opera familiar and comforting.

The superimposition of these two formal designs creates an engaging musical narrative that manages to surprise and excite while maintaining coherence and structure. This is quite a contrast to the slow-paced narrative form of the traditional Noh, although there are moments, most notably at the end of the opera, where a sparse texture of flute and low drums does point to the Noh style.

The most striking aspect of “Matsukaze” is Hosokawa’s ability to invent musical gestures and textures that are outside the cliches you would expect from a work with folk origin.

Despite the occasional connotations, a koto-like harp pluck here, or a shakuhachi-like breathy glissando in the flute, the score draws heavily from the avant-garde: extended instrumental techniques, spectral textures, dense harmonies, aleatoric passages, extreme registers.

The strings are not playing soaring melodies, save the occasional pizzicato cello and bass gestures; instead they are mostly on harmonics, at times on a perpetual “seagull” glissando, yielding — quite appropriately — an eerie, ghost-like effect.

John Kennedy excels in putting together this kind of music, drawing a sensitive, yet robust ensemble sound, with an ear for resonance, balance and blend.

The vocal writing and interpretations were outstanding. The German language lends an added dimension to the piece, with pure vowels and strong consonants, and the composer is an expert in vocal writing. Usually angular and dissonant, yet without lacking several emotional, even quasi-tonal moments, with the occasional folk-like microtonal inflections, all the way to Wozzeck-like sprechstimme, murmuring and shrieking, Hosokawa knows how to get the right vocal sound for dramatic content.

Notable are the moments when the two sisters sing in quiet, sotto voce, humming pure fifths, alluding to an otherworldly medieval sound. Pureum Jo and Jihee Kim in the roles of the two sisters are nothing short of spectacular.

One could go on praising each one separately, yet it’s in their togetherness that their excellence is found: emotionally intense yet appropriately detached, haunting, with impeccable intonation and timing, and an incredible high register.

Equally effective was Gary Simpson as the monk, who managed to bring substance to a role that didn’t offer many opportunities.

The onstage vocal ensemble, a chorus of sorts (an element also drawn from the Noh tradition) dressed like sea creatures that come alive from within the texture of the opening curtain, is another important presence, commenting, echoing, hissing, handling complex harmonic textures that bridged the main characters’ vocal lines with the instrumental textures of the pit with perfect intonation, especially in the haunting epilogue.