February 7, 2002, Thursday


OPERA REVIEW; A Heartstrings Tug of War: Husband vs. Homeland


It's the story of a woman, abducted from her native land, who's forced to choose between love and country: the stuff of which operas are made. It's based on a historical figure, Cai Wenji, whose life has inspired many stage works. And since ''Wenji: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute'' by Bun-Ching Lam portrays a heroine caught between two linguistic and artistic idioms, unsure which represents her true home, it has contemporary autobiographical overtones as well.

That's because Ms. Lam, born in Macao, lives in New York, and her music incorporates both Eastern and Western elements. And in her operatic adaptation of Wenji's, which premiered at the Asia Society last Thursday night, this contrast expresses the work's basic dramatic tension.

The score juxtaposes East and West: cello and zhonghu, oboe and dizi. The libretto moves between Chinese and English. And the three performers represent two distinct traditions with the Beijing Opera on the one hand (Zhou Long, the acclaimed performer and director, takes the Chinese roles) and Western opera singing on the other. Ethan Her schenfeld, a booming basso, plays the Hun general Zuoxian, who abducts Wenji and takes her for his wife. The woman who is caught between these two poles is played by Li Xiuying, an opera singer who is Chinese, singing Chinese lyrics in a full, Western, operatic voice.

The work's creators form a parallel triangle: in addition to Ms. Lam, there's Xu Ying, a playwright, representing the Chinese tradition, and Rinde Eckert, who directed, the American one. What they've produced is an elegant, slightly static but beautifully crafted piece that's conveyed in clear gestures, spare but not elliptical.

The Chinese elements furnish a lot of the spark; pipa (a lute-like instrument) and zhonghu (a lower cousin of the erhu) act as the flickering inspiration to heat and lift the larger, more lumbering Western-opera expressions. Cello and bass clarinet, on the other hand, hover in low sustained notes to express the Hun's hulking menace (although the Hun's first appearance is signaled by a brief burst of jazz).

There's a special role for the guqin, the plucked zither that was Wenji's own instrument. In the story Zuoxian breaks her guqin, then obtains a new one for her when he sees her heartache at its loss. In the score the solo guqin line, with its mournful fourths, incorporates a few passages of traditional Chinese music (Mr. Xu's text also works in traditional elements: excerpts from the historical Wenji poetry).

Underlining the energy and color of the Chinese musical elements is the virtuosic Mr. Zhou, who has physical virtuosity as well as musical ability. Now a clownlike henchman, now Wenji's bearded father, now a Chinese warrior pirouetting through a graphically mimed battle scene, Mr. Long carries expressivity to the tips of his fingers, which vibrate rapidly in one passage, to illustrate at once the fire that's burning his books and his character's anguish at their loss. In contrast, Mr. Herschenberg, a singer of imposing stature, impressive voice and rather clumsy vocal technique, seems every inch the barbarian.

Ms. Li does a beautiful job with a very taxing and difficult role, which includes perhaps one too many melancholy arias of loss, delivered in a sweet and powerful voice. One of the work's most poignant moments is her last scene: swaying in indecision between Zuoxian and their children and a return to China, she sings quietly, sadly, in the middle of her voice, dying away to a final, closing piano. In this version the story's ending is ambiguous, Wenji's choice uncertain. Whatever she decides, it's clear, she will have to lose a piece of herself.

Published: 02 -07-2002, Late Edition - Final, Section E, Column 1, Page 8

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company