A stylised and intense form of high drama, Japanese Noh is undoubtedly as well suited to operatic treatment as Greek tragedy. Powerful emotions, violent actions and brutal social strictures abound in Noh, an art form which places great importance on formal gesture and minimalist staging. Lliam Paterson's Spirit Harbour takes the Noh play Sesshoseki, The Killing Stone, as its principal subject, within a framing device which uses a survivor of the 2011 tsunami as overall narrator.

Hannah Partridge in <i>Spirit Harbour</i> © Laurel Turton
Hannah Partridge in Spirit Harbour
© Laurel Turton

The lion's share of this small opera is undoubtedly taken by the story of The Killing Stone, in which a beautiful Imperial courtesan (the Lady Tamamo, played by Hannah Partridge) is discovered to be in fact an evil fox spirit in disguise who is casting spells to affect the Emperor's health. Chased out of the Court, the fox spirit transforms into Sesshoseki, the Killing Stone, a stone so balefully poisonous that any living being who comes within its reach will die: even birds who fly directly above it fall from the sky, dead. Years later, the Buddhist priest Genno (Hamish Mackay) finds the Stone, confronts it, discovers the fox spirit within and heals it with his teaching, converting the venomous stone into an eternal rock symbolising the power of Buddhist enlightenment. As Genno explains: “People say that trees and stones have no heart; yet the Sutra maintains that grass, trees, soil can all become Buddha.”

Director Bryony J. Thompson has created a simple, minimalist production in the restrained and intense spirit of Noh. Her characters are dressed simply, move in ritual shapes around the stage, and often deliver lines confessionally directly to the audience, drawing us in to the action. Some ambitious choreography, meanwhile, particularly for Hannah Partridge in her role as the Evil Fox, contrasts excitingly with all other highly stylised stage movement, emphasising the fox's animal wildness and malevolence in an otherwise restrained world. Thompson's opening sees the tsunami survivor Ayako Hamasaki (also played by Hannah Partridge) sitting in a pool of light on an otherwise black stage, carefully folding origami cranes which later become the dead birds fallen around the Killing Stone: a powerful and arresting first image.

For me, the absolute highlight of this performance is the wonderful Gennō, sung by Hamish Mackay with mesmeric dexterity, breadth and richness. Mackay's earnest, sincere attitude to his character makes him thoroughly likeable and believable, a Buddhist monk who accepts adventure calmly and with humble courage. Mackay is particularly skilled at delivering his lyrics clearly, singing some words with great emphasis, others with resonant softness. Hannah Partridge is excellent as Lady Tamamo and dynamic as the evil fox spirit, singing with clear and lovely diction; although she gives equal expression to Ayako Hamasaki, that rather dowdy character can only feel bland to us beside the exciting beings from the world of Noh. Judy Brown and Oliver Marshall help to tell the story in almost Greek Chorus fashion as the Mezzo and Tenor Reciters respectively.

Hannah Partridge and Hamish Mackay in <i>Spirit Harbour</i> © Laurel Turton
Hannah Partridge and Hamish Mackay in Spirit Harbour
© Laurel Turton

Credited unusually as Music Designer rather than composer, Lliam Paterson's music is generally slow and river-like, with ripples of changing rhythms. To me, the music within the Noh play seemed to have far more creative breadth and interest than the rather more static writing for the framing device, but the gentle palette of piano (Ben-San Lau), clarinet (Joy Boole), and cello (Christopher Brown) created a dreamlike mood throughout. At times, however, the vocal lines did sound like a strain for even these very competent singers: some phrases seemed only to be on the edge of singable.

Altogether, the central, large episode is an elegant and charming piece; the framing device around it, however, doesn't really add anything, and fails to interact with the piece in any interesting way. Although the mournful Hamasaki and the mysterious Lady Tamamo are played by the same person, their characters do not resonate with each other; the plaintive nostalgia of the tsunami survivor can't be illuminated by the metaphysical adventures of the fox spirit, nor vice versa. Without a convincing or intriguing link from frame to story, the Noh play itself feels oddly disjointed, while the opening and closing feel strangely irrelevant. If this weak device could only be removed, Spirit Harbour would work very well for the future as a small Noh-inspired opera in the mould of Britten's Curlew River. At the moment, it is charming and mysterious, but ultimately leaves us without enlightenment.