by Steven Pisano
Part theater, part dance, part chamber opera, Hagoromo, which played last week to sold-out houses at BAM’s Harvey Theater, is based on a centuries-old Japanese legend that is a staple of Noh theater. It is a slim story about grand themes, partly about the ephemerality of beauty and art, and partly about the spirituality of the mortal versus the eternal.
Developed by America Opera Projects and directed by David Michalek, the production gathers together dancers, musicians, singers, and puppeteers to form a multi-art whole. At the center of it all is retired New York City Ballet (NYCB) principal dancer Wendy Whelan as the tennin. The work was created by Michalek specifically for her (they are married). The fisherman was performed by another NYCB principal dancer alum, Jock Soto.
But, dance aficionados expecting City Ballet fireworks from two such eminent ballet luminaries as Whelan and Soto, could not help but be a little disappointed by a production adhering closer to Noh traditions than to the flights of Balanchine. There was much graceful movement to be sure, but little of what could be described as dancing, even at the climax of the story when the tennin performs her celebrated celestial dance for the simple fisherman.
The ballet tells the story of a fisherman, blown far from shore to a remote island where he discovers a beautiful hagoromo (a feathered robe), hanging in the branches of a tree. While he is entranced by its magic, its origin is a mystery until he is greeted by a tennin, a Buddhist spirit much like an angel. The tennin explains that the hagoromo was dropped from Heaven and she cannot return home without it. The fisherman at first thinks he will enrich himself by charging people to pay to see this magnificent robe. But the tennin appeals to him morally, and thus shamed, the fisherman agrees to return the hagoromo--but only if the tennin will perform one of her celestial dances for him, here on Earth. The tennin agrees, dances, then rises up into the mists and disappears.
High on a platform at the back of the stage were stationed 20 young singers from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (BYC), the mezzo soprano Katalin Károlyi and tenor Peter Tantsits, and five members of the International Contemporary Ensenble (ICE). The music by Nathan Davis ranged from random percussion through lush swells of dramatic harmony that in some cases was content to take a back seat accompanying the dancers and in other cases was the driving force on stage.
The musicians of ICE brought a particularly thrilling brio to Davis’s score, sometimes with skittering rhythms, like crabs across a beach, and sometimes with soaring waves. Special plaudits go to Claire Chase on bass flute, Rebekah Heller on bassoon, and Ross Karre on percussion. Chase’s contributions, in particular, were one of the highlights of the evening, combining first-rate blowing and stylized vocal breathing to make the spirit of the tennin come vitally alive, even as Katalin Karolyi gave the angel her ambrosial voice.
Singing the role of the fisherman, Tantsits successfully conveyed the character’s varying emotions, from awe at the discovery of the hagoromo, to selfishness when boasting he would use the robe to grow rich, to humility when he observed how the tennin suffered, Earth-bound, without her robe to fly back to Heaven.
As the voices of Heaven, the young singers of BYC (all of them in high school, or younger) were exquisite in their unified harmonies, summoning the voices of angels.
Less successful were two life-sized mechanical puppets, said to have been modeled on Whelan herself, each manned by three puppeteers. With six puppeteers on stage, they overwhelmed the performers. Also, dressed in black as if to blend in on a darkened blackbox stage, they actually stood out all the more on a blond wood stage (which looked like an IKEA countertop) lit as brightly as an operating room.
In the end, the thin production seemed swallowed up by the size of the theater. By definition, a chamber opera is a work a great deal smaller than grand opera, and such a simple story as this, told in such a slow minimalistic way, with no scenery changes, no notable lighting changes, and with basically only two characters, might have been more effectively performed in a more intimate venue. Much of the time at the Harvey, the fisherman and his angel seemed like small specks floating in the middle of a vast and endless sea.