The chamber-opera Feng Yi Ting is a high-grade hybrid. The composer/librettist is Chinese, the director is Armenian-Canadian, and both are outstanding in their fields. Guo Wenjing belongs to the elite 200 students admitted to Beijing’s Central Conservatory in 1978 when it reopened after the Cultural Revolution. Although he remained at the Conservatory in Beijing until 1996, Gou Wenjing’s music strongly reflects European styles. Feng Yi Ting is scored for Western winds and strings as well as a core group of Chinese instruments. The director is Atom Egoyan, Cannes Grand Prix winner and multiple nominee of Academy Awards. Initially renowned as a film-maker (Exotica, 1994), Egoyan’s stunning production of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (1996), like Feng Yi Ting, focuses on the theme of fatal attraction.

© Julia Lynn
© Julia Lynn

The femme fatale is legendary beauty of ancient China, Diao Chan, who arouses a murderous jealousy between two warlords that defeats their plot to overthrow the Emperor. In a lengthy opening solo, Diao Chan muses approvingly on the plan her uncle has devised to pimp her out to both the rebel general and his godfather, the rebel Lord. The scenes that follow at Feng Yi Ting (The Phoenix Pavilion) show Diao Chan working the young general, Lu Bu, into a jealous rage against his rival. The vocal styles of the opera are a hybrid of Beijing Opera for countertenor Jang Qihu (Lu Bu), and Sichuan for soprano Shen Tiemei (Diao Chan). My impression is that the high-pitched nasal falsetto employed in both Chinese traditions is an acquired taste quite undeveloped in me at this time, so the less said about it, the better. I can report that Shen Tiemei is a powerful, charismatic stage presence. Her statuesque posturing in flowing scarlet robes by Han Feng, and her hand jive, spoke convincingly about Diao Chen’s ability to carry out her intentions. Her victim, Lu Bu, appears encased in a multicoloured costume ornamental as a porcelain doll, an impression emphasised by the entrances he makes gliding motionless on a conveyor belt.

The excellences that I could appreciate were in the production and the orchestration. I enjoyed the eerie beauty of Chinese strings, erhu and gaohu, flute, reed mouth organ (sheng), and lute (pipa), blending their harmonies with European winds and strings. The strong rhythmic component in Guo Wenjing’s score provided by the three percussionists, Ryan Scott, Trevor Tureski, and Haruka Fujii, provided a cross-over buoyancy between new music and traditional Chinese sound. The instrumentalists also add colour shouting out in a unison choir. At every point, the hybrid harmonic flow of music from the pit conducted by Ken Lam, with its tasteful timbral textures and rhythmic shifts, shaped the story developing onstage.

That stage, with only two characters on it, is mostly stationary, but the brilliance of director Egoyan and his team brought the audience into a living picture. It started before the show. As people were entering the theatre and taking their seats, they were looking at a stage-size screen projecting the audience filing in and taking their seats. We were part of the process, even before it began. That projection faded as Diao Chen took the stage on a set designed by Derek McLane, but her face, as she sang the first aria with her back to the audience, was projected on the full screen, in black and white, as an artifact. From that point, the theatrical artifacts began a flow that supported the story she was telling. The imperial rebel conflict was represented by Tsang Kin Wah’s video projections of armies of terracotta figurines of warriors and horses. The rivals for Diao’s embraces were represented by figurines projected onto translucent scrims, and set spinning by her as a show of her power. Subtitles and supertitles in English and Chinese characters moved in time to the music across screens, and as the action developed, the rise and decay of plans were symbolized by the rise and fall, orderly and chaotic, of those letters and characters. Matthew Frey’s three dimensional play of light and shadow added further commentary to a the depiction of what Egoyan describes as the workings of a “machine in all its ruthlessness and beguiling efficiency”.

The audience, ornamented with Luminato glitterati and celebrities from public life and the arts, gave Feng Yi Ting’s Canadian première a warm and generous ovation. I must report that as the audience drifted out of the lobby in singles, pairs, and small groups, their faces were not radiant with happiness, as people can be when they have thoroughly enjoyed themselves at a show that is entirely to their taste. They appeared more like people who had been through a learning experience. To be fair, I also spoke with one person, an artist, who thoroughly enjoyed it. So, there it is.

Feng Yi Ting continues at Luminato Festival until 22 June.