Toshio Hosokawa’s opera Matsukaze is in many ways a model of modern cross-cultural creation. Premièred in Brussels in 2011, it sets a story from the traditional Japanese Noh theater in a more or less Western operatic framework. And the text is in German. But unlike some other recent efforts to merge Asian and European traditions (such as Tan Dun’s The First Emperor), it is a fully-formed and rewarding work of art rather than a self-conscious experiment. Despite a pedestrian production, Lincoln Center Festival’s presentation is a valuable opportunity to hear Hosokawa’s impressive score.

Jihee Kim (Murasame) and Pureum Jo (Matsukaze) in Matsukaze, photographed at Spoleto Festival USA 20 © Olivier Roset
Jihee Kim (Murasame) and Pureum Jo (Matsukaze) in Matsukaze, photographed at Spoleto Festival USA 20
© Olivier Roset

The story, rendered in elegant German by Hannah Dübgen, takes place on the seashore. A wandering monk is told by a fisherman about two sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, who lived on the beach gathering salt. Abandoned by their mutual lover, their ghosts haunt the shore. Sleeping on the beach, the monk encounters the sisters, who finally, in telling their tale, are absorbed back into nature. The opera ends as it began, with the ghostly sounds of wind and water.

Hosokawa’s score is written for a cast of four, a small chorus, and a chamber orchestra. The scoring creates a transparent but complex wash of sound that sighs, gasps and breathes, characterizing the world of nature more than any of the characters. The climactic mad scene for the sisters in particular is a tour de force of vocal and instrumental writing. The chorus hovers in the background, largely unseen, echoing the proceedings (the function they assume in Noh). Hosokawa evokes the static pace and ghostly atmosphere of Japanese theater without its form or, indeed, many of its sounds. The vocal writing at times echoes the drone of Noh chanting, but the wide intervals, twisting counterpoint of the two sisters, and vocal production are all those of modern Western opera.

The first production of Matsukaze was directed by the German choreographer Sasha Waltz and included, by all accounts, a great deal of movement that worked in sharp contrast to Hosokawa’s ethereal score. Chen Shi-Zheng’s Lincoln Center Festival production (first seen at the Spoleto Festival) is rather static. A gigantic shiny tree statue dominates Chris Barreca’s set, and the visuals are largely monochromatic with a few flashes of colored light. It includes a few striking images but too often falls into convention and cliché, adding nothing to what the score already tells us. The sisters, wearing gauzy, trailing white robes with long black hair, tend to twirl around and wave their arms like zombies. It is nowhere near as subtle as the music.

The strongest singing came from sopranos Pureum Jo and Jihee Kim as the sisters. Jo sustained the very high writing of Matsukaze with great stamina and confidence, and Kim’s richer-toned soprano blended well. As the Monk, Gary Simpson struggled with a wobbly lower range and proved short on vocal and theatrical presence. Thomas Meglioranza was more distinctive and present in the brief role of the Fisherman. The Talea Ensemble, directed by John Kennedy, sounded excellent in the pit, though the balance between orchestra and the chorus (the Westminster Voices) sometimes favored the orchestra.

This is the sort of opera we don’t often hear in the US. New commissions by American companies seem to be pressured to be timely, patriotic, and very ambitious. Hosokawa’s score is modest and almost understated, and its setting timeless. Despite the heterogeneity of its sources, it feels organic and even magical. Hopefully we will hear more of Hosokawa in New York in the future.