Since its 2004 Aix-en-Provence premiere, Toshio Hosokawa’s Hanjo has been performed in no less than eight countries. The composer’s self-fashioned libretto, based on a modern Nō play by Yukio Mishima, hinges on a newspaper story about a former Geisha named Hanako, who waited repeatedly in vain at a train station for her lover Yoshio to return. She was later discovered as a curiosity by an artist named Jitsuko, who ostensibly took the deranged woman into her care, but in truth held her captive. The newspaper account makes Hanako’s whereabouts public, enabling Yoshio to locate her. Such a plot-triggering news story and the score’s Sprechstimme vocal style, ranging from straight spoken text to florid wordless melismas, have roots in experimental theatre aesthetics that flourished in 1920s Berlin. So do the cutaway multi-room set (Stephan von Wedel, set and costume design) and filmic dimensions of this new virtual production launched by Staatstheater Braunschweig. Modern audio-visual recording strategies and design elements steer the story in contemporary directions, heightening our attention to unsettling aspects of role-playing and Hanako’s imprisonment.        

Hanjo
© Björn Hickmann

Unlike many recent digital releases of staged opera performances, this version of Hanjo is mostly lip-synched. The separation of initially recorded soundtrack and visual material enables some provocative moments, such as when characters reflect to themselves and we hear their sung thoughts as interior monologues, with their lips still. At other times, we register that what we see and hear work against each other or are misaligned. When Jitsuko, for example, enters her atelier/office to launch the narrative, mezzo-soprano Milda Tubelyté’s presence is coolly two-dimensional, lacking the physical evidence of actual vocal expression. In other words, the act of singing is concealed invisibly within the sound recording. Taken together, she appears to repress her emotional, musical side – something of a control freak. At the same time, the way we see her sing is not smoothly aligned with what and how we hear her sing. Tubelyté’s disjointed, layered enactment suggests that Jitsuko’s mastery over Hanoko has been threatened by the news story. She has been rendered uncertain and uncomfortable. This Hanjo project, as conceived by Selina Girschweiler and executed by the company SiegersbuschFilm, focuses heavily on such destabilized aspects of role-playing, often by creating mixed audio-visual messages. In the case of Jitsuko, Tubelyté’s vocal artistry and her character’s authentic voice are made remote in the process.

Hanjo
© Björn Hickmann

Fresh-faced Maximilian Krummen as Yoshio also cuts against the musical grain, this time of markedly dark and forceful stretches in the orchestral score. Conductor Alexis Agrafiotis leads a tight orchestra through the tension. As conflict between Jitsuko and Yoshio erupts to reveal their destructive narcissistic cores, baritone Krummen unleashes considerable focused energy. Yoshio flashes the fan he is supposed to return to Hanako like a knife, leaving it behind as he descends a staircase to approach his abandoned lover. Approaching Hanako like a child, the ruthless monster dons a jacket with a cheery Japanese textile pattern and hand puppet.

Jelena Banković in Hanjo
© Björn Hickmann

The role of Hanako flowers musically and character-wise across the 80-minute act work, as directed by Isabel Ostermann. Initially a curious mix of mute street urchin and fetishized Japanese schoolgirl in this production, Hanako occupies a room below Jitsuko’s office. Empty paper coffee cups taken from the office are strewn about, used as toys. We periodically see Hanako on a mattress on the floor through black-and-white security camera footage. Her reunion with Yoshio lacks musical complexity, not due to her naivety but by her fixation on a fictional lover rather than the man who stands before her. We see before us a manipulative practitioner of deception. Power roles continue to shift when Hanako rejects the patronizing Yoshio and adopts a more mature, polished persona – the one depicted in paintings in Jutsiko’s office. Soprano Jelena Banković navigates her transformation into a siren with gleaming voice, soaring, seemingly free, or at the very least in control of her captor at that moment. However, her authentic identity and voice remain elusive as conductor Alexis Agrafiotas leads the orchestra into magical, illusory textures. Remoteness and deceptive appearances are important and complex aspects of Hanjo. In this production they are magnified, in several instances in ways that hinder our access to the vocal and orchestral music that physical distancing has kept far away from us for too long.


This performance was reviewed from the Staatstheater Braunschweig video stream

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Hanjo
© Björn Hickmann
Hanjo
© Björn Hickmann
Jelena Banković in Hanjo
© Björn Hickmann