Eötvös - Lady Sarashina

Opéra Comique, Paris, Tuesday 17 February 2009

Conductor: Alejo Perez. Production and choreography: Ushio Amagatsu. Sets: Natsuyuki Nakanishi. Costumes: Masatomo Ota. Lady Sarashina: Mary Plazas. Trio of singers: Peter Bording, Ilse Eerens, Salomé Kammer. Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Lyon.

A cliché it most certainly is, but it is awful how time flies. My blog starts in March 2003, but Eötvös’s Tri Sestry isn’t on it, which means it’s already over 6 years since I saw it. It was because I still had such good, clear memories of it that I was happy this season (as part of my policy always to take at least some of the contemporary stuff on offer, except the dreaded Saariaho) to book tickets to Lady Sarashina at the Opéra Comique.

Eötvös’s fourth opera, like Tri Sestry commissioned by Lyon and directed by Ushio Amagatsu, is in nine tableaux, based on as many fragments of an 11th-century Japanese biography-cum-travelogue called As I Crossed The Bridge Of Dreams or, more or less, Mrs Sarashina’s Diary. They make a far more minimalist libretto than the Chekov play. To many people, I imagine, the result, especially in this Japanese production, is wonderfully delicate and poetic. To me it is a bit thin on interest or sense, reminding me of the short, enigmatic Zen texts we had to study when I was at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, and that we called “Zen jokes.”

The staging is minimalist too. One singer plays Lady Sarashina; three others play all the other parts, with beautiful, chrysalis-like costumes that peel back, as it were, in layers to form a train at the back as characters change. I must say that, as the curtain rose and the set appeared, I did wonder how long the Japanese can go on “doing minimal.” It looked furiously 70s: four tall, white laths standing vertical in the middle, some little orange triangles dangling inside, four squares on the floor. At times, accessories - a headdress, stoles, etc - were lowered on wires: a nice, unexpected, witty touch. The acting was Japanese-style, à la Bob Wilson, but the singers didn’t necessarily look either appropriate (clumsy western features and extremities) or at ease doing it.

Eötvös writes well for voices, and though this certainly isn’t Tosca it isn’t the dismal, pretentiously wordy sort of oratorio often presented as opera these days. I’m tempted to say that, by contemporary standards, it’s easy listening, only that sounds like an insult. What I mean is that it’s music you can find your way around on first hearing. It is plainly well-crafted. It has recognisable themes and forms (the whole opera is an arc, a fact emphasised by two giant steel hoops at the rear of the stage that cross imperceptibly slowly and, in the middle of the fifth tableau, briefly make a single circle), interesting sounds (including some miked whispering) and effects (clarinets dotted around the house) and varied timbres, rhythms and tempi. It would take more talent than mine to describe it in greater detail; all I can say is that I could imagine myself listening quite happily at home (if, these days, at home I listened to anything other than Turkish pop and Bombay Beats).

Mary Plazas was excellent as Lady S. The others were a notch below, but nothing to complain about, and the orchestra shimmered and harrumphed admirably under Alejo Perez. It has been said in the press that this is one for a DVD; personally, I can do without the “Japoniaiseries,” however authentic, and would plump for a CD.

[Edited later] Reading the FT review of the original outing of Lady Sarashina in Lyon reminded me that I meant to mention, as an example of Eötvös's skill at coming up with intriguing sounds, his remarkable musical treatment of erratic rainfall. Very striking. I forgot, hence this addendum.

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