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BWW Review: Mesmerizing, Tantalizing PARADISE at Lincoln Center Festival

Kun opera soprano Qian Yi. Photo: Lihe Xiao.

"The word and genre 'opera' is much broader and more inclusive in the 21st century than it was in the past," says Huang Ruo, composer/co-librettist of PARADISE INTERRUPTED, his opera that was one of the opening selections of this year's Lincoln Center Festival. I think he also should have included "demanding," in the case of PARADISE.

This mesmerizing, tantalizing work combines elements of kunqu, one of the oldest and most refined styles of traditional Chinese opera, with Western-influenced music, as performed by the Ensemble FIRE, comprised of both Eastern and Western instruments, including the pipa, a Chinese lute. Under the sure, knowing hand of conductor Wen-Pin Chien, PARADISE challenges as much as it entertains audiences, integrating opera, theatre, dance, music, poetry, made up words, installation, multi-media, Eastern and Western operatic spirits, voices and instruments.

With a libretto co-authored by Ji Chao and Qian Yi (the piece's kun soprano), as well as Director-Visual Designer Jennifer Wen Ma, who devised a breathtaking visual framework with set designer Matthew Hilyard, it is divided into four scenes. They "fuse and reimagine" (the composer's words) the biblical story of Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden with an imaginary relationship taken from the Chinese kunqu drama, THE PEONY PAVILION--that 20-hour marathon love story from the 16th century that is still performed as a whole in China (and at an earlier Lincoln Center Festival), though composer Tan Dun came up with a version that was shaved to 75 minutes. Ruo's piece runs marginally longer at 80 minutes.

While the opera is undoubtedly a showcase for soprano Qian Yi, known as The Woman, the ornamental traditional style--where several notes are sung to a single syllable--and flexible pitch provide an obstacle to total involvement by the Western ear. The role calls for her not only to sing and act but dance (choreographed by Gwen Welliver) as part of the emotional journey she takes, whether dreamy, erotic or feisty, and she is fearless--totally enthralling in every part of her performance. The sound nonetheless presents a formidable challenge to warm to.

In comparison, the more familiar, tonal Western idiom of the music assigned to the quartet of male singers, who portray the Elements, shows off the composer at his most alluring, to my ears at least. Their roles are supremely well sung by tenor Yi Li (notable in his duet with Qian Yi), baritone Joo Won Kang and bass-baritone Ao Li. But it is the standout voice of countertenor John Holiday (whom I first heard on the same stage at John Jay's Gerald Lynch Theatre in Vivaldi's CATONE IN UTICA) that I won't soon forget. His pure sound--often singing higher than Qian Yi--was sure and infinitely expressive.

Designer Ma's physical vision of The Woman's journ--from rapturous dream, to the new world of the black garden, to the fireflies that take the form of a man and, finally, the white flower that enable her to be reborn--was stunning, aided by the costumes of Melissa Kirgan and Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard, the video design of Austin Switser, the interactive video of Guillermo Acevedo, the sound by Lew Mead and the lighting by Lihe Xiao adapted by Andrew Cisna. In particular, I was taken by the use of rumpled black paper, which transformed into the garden and that, in the end, almost magically disappeared, falling like the ashes after a volcano has erupted.

Yes, there were many challenges in accompanying The Woman on her journey in PARADISE INTERRUPTED--but it was certainly worth the trip.

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