The new operas of Arnoud Noordegraaf and Guo Wenjing which the Holland Festival presented shortly after each other, both thematise the loss of traditional values due to the meteoric developments in modern China. Both also feature a Chinese soprano in the lead role and tie in with classical Chinese opera and folk music. The inner landscape by Guo Wenjing, which had its premiere at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ on Tuesday 16 June, argues As Big as the Sky of Noordegraaf in the shade in terms of music, plot and performance. Yet there is one striking similarity: in both productions, the Chinese music - authentic or otherwise - sounds by far the most convincing.
You can see Guo Wenjing startled in Frank Scheffer's 'making of...' documentary, which was screened prior to the opera. Ed Spanjaard, conductor of the Nieuw Ensemble has just asked him if he already has a libretto. This turns out not to be the case. After some hesitation, Guo says he prefers the small-scale traditional opera Si Fan integral in his new play. In this way, he hopes to save the opera tradition that once flourished in China. He says it introduced an illiterate audience to the ideas of philosophers such as Confucius and Mencius. Today, however, the art form suffers a languishing existence, due to lack of interest among young people. 'How can hair grow without skin?" he asks rhetorically. [Tweet "Guo hopes to save traditional Chinese opera with 'The Inner Landscape'"]
The composer stresses that he is not out to adapt elements of traditional music to his own style, as Western composers often do. It is precisely by using it in its original form that he wants it to enter into dialogue with the Western music of the New Ensemble. We see him conferring with the soprano Shen Tiemei, whom he greatly admires, for whom he has previously composed Fenyiting composed. During rehearsals, he urges Spanjaard to always follow the singer and the Chinese percussionists, who do not allow themselves to be forced into the straitjacket of a prescriptive time signature.
When the conductor plays the piano for a somewhat surprised looking Shen, he helpfully declares: 'This is a waltz. - By Chopin.' To which she replies: 'Korea? A hilarious moment that would not have been out of place in the opera Cows by Misha Mengelberg, premiered earlier in this Holland Festival. Illustrative also of the well-nigh unbridgeable confusion of tongues that, despite all good intentions, resonates ever more strongly in The inner landscape, which was performed immediately after the film.
The set is breathtaking in its simplicity. The stage is framed by two rice-paper-like strips, which reveal the musicians as if through a haze: on the left are the Nieuw Ensemble and Ed Spanjaard, on the right are the Chinese percussionists. In the centre hangs a round disc, on which atmospheric nature and other film images are projected. Shen Tiemei sits at a table, adorned in a magnificent opera dress and flanked by three choristers, who act as her alter ego.
The opera begins with a beautiful overture, in which the Nieuw Ensemble plays elongated lines, laced with wistful exclamations from the sheng (Chinese mouth organ). Once Shen starts singing, Guo subtly dovetails Western music with the sounds of Chinese percussion. The soprano brings to life her character of a love-starved adolescent in a Buddhist nunnery with an unprecedented range of facial expressions, hand gestures and dance steps. Moreover, with her crisp, controlled voice ("like a laser beam," Spanjaard says in the documentary), she manages to make every minuscule inflection audible to the furthest corners. [Tweet "Shen Tiemei makes every inflection audible to the furthest corners"]
Hiss of cymbals and pinched vocals
After she unfolds the first part of her story, an interlude by the Nieuw Ensemble follows. A melancholic viola solo is spiced up with slightly dissonant harmonies by the strings and solos by mandolin, harp and yangqin (Chinese zither), among others. Also during her next performance, Shen is mainly accompanied by the Chinese musicians. The hissing of Chinese cymbals, the tapping of woodblocks and other wooden percussion instruments fit seamlessly with her pinched vocals, which evoke associations with the ligatured feet of Chinese young ladies. The New Ensemble presents only some quietly timed interjections.
Gradually, the euphonious but unexciting notes Guo has the Western musicians play begin to irritate. The many echoes of Stravinsky cannot disguise the fact that the music makes an easy-going impression, meant to support a sentimental B-movie. As in Noordegraaf's opera, the - sometimes artificially modernist - Western sounds appear to completely pale in comparison to the Chinese music. It generates tremendous expressive power with sparse means and fits completely organically with the vocals.
The inner landscape limps too much on two minds. Whereas in operas like Wolvendorp (1994), Night banquet (1898) and Fenyiting (2004) achieved a compelling synthesis between East and West, in his new opera he places the two worlds diametrically opposed. Thus, he seems to want to illustrate Rudyard Kipling's 1889 verse: 'East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.'