Fascinating music lifts “Murasaki’s Moon” premiere at Met Museum

Sat May 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm
Kristen Choi starred in the world premiere of "Murasaki's Moon" Friday night at the Metropolitan Museum. Photo: Stephanie Berger / On Site Opera

Kristen Choi starred in the world premiere of “Murasaki’s Moon” Friday night at the Metropolitan Museum. Photo: Stephanie Berger / On Site Opera

On Site Opera continues to be one of New York’s most ingenious small companies, producing performances in spaces that have a resonance with the works being performed. 

Their latest, from a strategic perspective at least, is quite a coup. On Friday afternoon the company gave the world premiere of Murasaki’s Moon, an adaptation of the eleventh-century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, co-commissioned with American Lyric Theater and MetLiveArts, the Metropolitan Museum’s performance arm.

It’s impressive for On Site to be collaborating with an institution as large as the Met Museum, and the seventeenth-century Chinese courtyard reproduced in the Astor Court provides an ideal setting–right down the hall from a full exhibition on The Tale of Genji, no less. 

The inaugural production of the opera, directed by On Site’s general director Eric Einhorn, uses traditional dress in harmony with the space, representing the various characters of Murasaki Shikibu’s stories with a series of decorated fans. Einhorn’s staging is not complicated, but it is consistently inventive.

The libretto prepared by Deborah Brevoort sadly doesn’t measure up to the rest of the undertaking. Attempting to spin the medieval Japanese story for a modern audience, Brevoort envisions Murasaki writing the novel, trying with it to win the favor of the other ladies at court but losing control over the character she has created even as she falls for him. It’s not a terrible conceit but the verse is flabby and the execution feels glib—especially in the jarring spoken dialogue that interrupts the otherwise formal tone that prevails throughout the hour-long opera..

The stronger element is the music by Michi Wiancko: scored for string quartet with percussion, koto, and Japanese flutes, Wiancko’s music blends Japanese and European instruments in ways that seem to evoke the inner thoughts of the characters. Sounds of empty space in the opening bars–dripping, creaking, and rustling–quickly give way to a bright, glossy sound for Murasaki’s first monologue. 

Most impressive in Wiancko’s writing is the variety that she achieves with such sparse instrumentation. In depicting the progression of Genji’s seductions, she finds three distinct voices for his three brides–all represented by Murasaki herself–before dissolving the sound into chaos as the story spirals out of its author’s control. 

Much of the vocal writing is sweetly lyrical, but when Genji faces the wrath of his first bride it becomes a harrowing scream. Kristen Choi, playing Murasaki, was brilliant here, spitting righteous fire at him and then unsettling the listener with her rhapsodic wailing as she represented the second bride. Choi’s mezzo-soprano is as flexible as the music, able to sear at the top, focused and firm in the chest, warm and easy in the middle. An expressive actress, she found moments of deep anxiety, resentment, and longing even within the largely superficial libretto stayed .

Martin Bakari gave a brash and aggressive portrayal of Genji, bringing a powerful, bright tenor to match his character’s devil-may-care attitude. He underwent a moving transformation, discovering that he is not fulfilled by his affairs and beginning to understand the harm he has done along the way. 

John Noh was admirable, even with a character that felt the most thinly developed of the three, offering a burning, blaring tenor of his own as the court’s Buddhist Priest. The ensemble played tightly under the direction of Geoffrey McDonald, bringing impressive clarity to a work never heard before.

Murasaki’s Moon will be repeated 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. osopera.org

One Response to “Fascinating music lifts “Murasaki’s Moon” premiere at Met Museum”

  1. Posted May 19, 2019 at 9:50 am by Davis Hall

    Will there be a recording?

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