by Angela Sutton
The Lincoln Center Festival provided a respite from a steamy, stormy, July Thursday with a trip to ancient China in Guo Wenjing's Feng Yi Ting, a one-act opera set during the decay of the Han Dynasty (late 2nd century AD). The events swirl around a plot to murder the autocratic imperial councillor Dong Zhou, in which Diao Chan (Shen Tiemei) seductively persuades Lu Bu (Jiang Qihu), Dong's godson, to do the deed. They meet at the tea pavilion which gives the opera its name, and is the only scene of action.
Guo Wenjing's storytelling, based on Chinese traditions, upends most of what we have come to expect from western opera. Diao lays out much of the plot in a prologue, and when Lu Bu appears, their conversation is matter of fact - no hugger-mugger drama, here. Jiang Qihu sings Lu Bu in countertenor, where Western convention would probably have him a baritone. And the climactic murder, though on-stage, takes place buried behind scenery.
Yet there is no lack of drama in this production. Atom Egoyan's cleverly minimal direction, featuring careful shadowplay with lines of Chinese figurines, creates a foreboding sense of armies on the move with Diao Chan, playing among them, as a puppetmistress. The choreography, willowy for Diao Chan and aggressively stilted for Lu Bu, also contributes to the dramatic contrast.
Finally, there is Guo's brilliant score. Much like Baroque opera, the music attaches certain moods to the characters - seductive and resolute for Diao Chan, dark and martial for Lu Bu - and the subtle slippage between moods tells the story at least as well as the words. Guo is a master of transition, seducing the ear throughout the opera's forty-minute length. The Ensemble ACJW, supplemented by traditional Chinese instruments, gave a controlled, menacing reading under conductor Ken Lam.
Feng Yi Ting wraps up tonight at 7:30 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater (John Jay College). Tickets available online or at the box office.