Reviewing a world premiere can be a privilege, albeit a somewhat daunting one. This first production of Beauty and Sadness, a new opera by Elena Langer to an English-language libretto by David Pountney, based on the 1975 novel by no less than Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, is one of the most significant musical events to take place in Hong Kong in quite some time.
Before the opera begins, Oki (a successful novelist) had an affair with Otoko, a painter who lost the baby that resulted. Otoko’s student Keiko, vows revenge and seduces both Oki and his son Taichiro; it ends tragically, as Oki’s wife Fumiko predicts.
Langer’s score is modern opera for those who think they don’t like modern opera.
Beauty and Sadness is one of those rare (although today perhaps less rare) cases where the librettist may be more widely known than the composer. David Pountney is a veteran opera director and librettist, whose work was seen just last year in the Welsh National Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Elena Langer is a Russian-born, now British composer. The two cooperated previously in the 2016 opera Figaro Gets a Divorce.
Langer’s score is modern opera for those who think they don’t like modern opera. Atmospheric rather than lyrical, it eschews traditional arias and duets, but the music—at least under the direction of conductor Gergely Madaras—flows, shimmers and shocks: it is entirely of a piece with the libretto. Although not neo-anything, like Giacomo Puccini in Madame Butterfly, Langer quotes passages both from American music—there are occasional strains of big-band of swing, anchoring the time period in which the work is set—and Asia, which she does directly with a shakuhachi (flute) and taiko (drum) which take prominent position at the edge of the stage.
The setting is a masterpiece of simplicity, functionality and atmosphere. The centerpiece was an abstract Japanese dwelling of moving and semi-transparent walls where the (again central) scenes of Otoko and Keiko play out. Oki’s dwelling was one side, anchored with a (writer’s) chair: scenes (of seduction and more) between Keiko, Oki and Taichiro take place on the other side and stage front. Projections on both a backdrop and the walls of the dwelling add changing color and atmosphere without drawing attention from the drama.
The English language subtitles were, for once, superfluous.
The entirely Asian cast was exemplary, marked by both control and clear enunciation: the English language subtitles were, for once, superfluous. The most striking performance was perhaps one that was completely silent. Anson Lam’s Oki says not a word, stoically communicating solely through body language and, in particular, his eyes. The unnerving contrast between song and silence was integral to the tension that underlies the opera, making the finale, when it comes, all the more powerful.
A silent operatic lead was not the only unusual feature. Taichiro, Oki and Fumiko’s feckless son, and the object of Keiko vengeful manipulation, was written for a countertenor, here Korean Siman Chung. Rarely does a voice seem as central to character as in Chung’s portrayal of the easily-manipulated and unsettling Taichiro.
But it was the female leads who dominated the singing. Otoko was sung with alternate restraint and fervor by Pureum Jo, who made an impression in Dream of the Red Chamber at the 2017 Hong Kong Arts Festival. She was well-paired with local soprano Etta Fung in the dramatic role of Keiko. Keiko switches from coquetry to Medea-like vengefulness; she’s almost certainly mad. In a work whose success depends as much on acting as singing, Fung not just held her own in this rather exalted company but created a complex character out of whole cloth. If her career continues to develop, this may be remembered as her breakout role.
The put-upon wife Fumiko was ably sung Yanyu Guo, who has also appeared in Dream of the Red Chamber. The smaller roles were filled without blemish by local sopranos. Jessica Ng and Gladys Ho were geishas who sang poetry as scene divisions; Joyce Wong and Samantha Chong gave personality to their two cameos of a nurse and hotel attendant in the penultimate scene.
The is an an almost Chekhovian feel of bourgeois domesticity floating on a dark pool of suppressed angst and guilt.
It was unclear in Dream of the Red Chamber and Madame White Snake that English is the best language for an Asian-themed opera. In Beauty and Sadness, for better or worse—and the argument can admittedly be made both ways—the language pulls the opera into a Western orbit, much as the Italian libretto to Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is what lends the work much of its “spaghetti western” character. Despite the references to Buddhism in the house programme, there is—whether as a result of this Western filter or something else—an almost Chekhovian feel of bourgeois domesticity floating on a dark pool of suppressed angst and guilt.
Beauty and Sadness, at just about an hour and a quarter, is a relatively short work, perhaps too short to contain all that is in the story. An opera libretto, furthermore, has far fewer words than a play script. The necessary conciseness elided things that are of apparent importance to the narrative: that Iko is a writer, that Otoko is a classical painter, while Keiko is her student and she paints abstractly. These things were at most hinted at.
But the ultimate value of a new work is whether it gives the audience something to remember and think about. Beauty and Sadness does that and in spades. One of those questions is, if this production is anything to go by, not so much why such a premiere took place in Hong Kong, but why there aren’t more of them.
Beauty and Sadness runs at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts through 12 April.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.