Toshio Hosokawa - Hanjo

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 10 2011

Conductor: Koen Kessels. Production: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Sets and lighting: Jan Joris Lamers. Costumes: Tim Van Steenbergen. Hanako: Ingela Bohlin. Jitsuko Honda: Frederika Brillembourg. Yoshio: William Dazeley. La Monnaie chamber orchestra.

It was interesting to have Hanjo so soon after Akhmatova. As I mentioned when writing up the latter, there has been little praise for Mantovani’s score, though I found it serviceable enough. Hosokawa's music is really something else: often (not always: there are plenty of drums, of different sizes, for times of drama) delicate and diaphanous, refined, subtle…sometimes infinitely quiet, quieter than any music we usually hear. So poor old Akhmatova seemed positively rustic and clodhopping in comparison. There’s little more musical “action” in Hanjo than in, say, L’Amour de Loin (though I must say at times it reminded me of Turn of the Screw or Death in Venice, only more modern and with a still lighter touch); but the music is so beautiful, the text is a great deal less corny, and in this case the production and singers were so good, that 90 minutes without a break weren’t too much. I might even be tempted to listen to Hosokawa at home; though that would require being very calm, having plenty of time with no interruptions and probably using headphones, as he sometimes calls for such tenuous threads of sound and tiny tinklings.

The staging was “stage-within-a-stage,” possibly in a nod to the way Nô is done – I wouldn’t know. I’m told in a Nô play the instrumentalists are on stage; here they were in the pit as usual. And I believe in Nô there are dancers; here, thank goodness, even though the production was by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a notorious choreographer, there were none. There was a central wooden floor with, at the rear, a slatted wall down-lit by a row of strong spotlights, and a couple of little “school” chairs: tubular steel and bent plywood. On either side, beyond a stretch of buff matting, there were large revolving panels, cream-coloured on one side, blue the other, edged with the lacquer red of the structure that was also echoed in a band of red across the front of the stage. The panels were swivelled in sight by stage-hands in black. Beyond the panels, in the wings, was scaffolding supporting more spotlights, horizontal. Horizontal lights were a feature of the production, which ended with strong spots blazing through the slats at the rear into the house.

Hanako spent much of her time in a slip, but sometimes donned a large and elaborate, many-folded, dove-grey kimono structure and a vast, circular skirt that, at the start, took up most of the stage and later formed a giant, heavy train. This naturally impeded her movements considerably, presumably in line with the story, in which she refuses to budge. Jitsuko, far from being an arty diesel-dyke in jeans and a leather jacket, had her hair neatly up and wore timeless, figure-hugging cocktail dresses of the kind chic Japanese ladies wear at cocktail parties and which are now so popular in modern productions: one champagne lamé, one silver-grey and the last, at the very end, black with touches of deep, dark lacquer red red. She changed from one to the other at the rear of the stage, with a helper in black, showing her “one-piece foundation garment” and suspenders as she did so. Yoshio was also very smart in a kind of Norfolk or safari jacket and broad-brimmed hat. The acting was slow-moving (not a great deal actually happens in this tale: it’s more a recital of monologues or exchanges) but well managed; the confrontation (between Jitsuko and Yoshio, fighting over Hanako) was a powerful moment.

And the singing was excellent, especially the strong, straightforward, interestingly grainy bronze mezzo of Frederika Brillembourg, which came close to creating an imbalance with the lighter, sweeter voice of Ingela Bohlin.

The orchestra pinged, ponged, sighed, hooted, tooted and tinkled beautifully and was as enthusiastically applauded at the end as the singers and, above all, the diminutive composer himself, there for the occasion. It’s nice to see contemporary works drawing a fair crowd to a biggish, generalist house and going down so well: apparently opera isn’t dead yet.

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