The Tale of Genji

By Minoru Miki; libretto by Colin Graham, adapted from the novel by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Opera Theatre of St. Louis)

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The Tale of Genji, a new opera by Minoru Miki with a libretto by Colin Graham, premiered Thursday, the fourth and last of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' productions for its 25th season. It is genuine grand opera. Its hero, Prince Genji, is larger than life. The plot, driven by the characters of the personae, particularly Genji's, is simple, dark and -- as tragedy demands -- inevitable. The majestic, rich music of the orchestra contrasts tellingly with the simplicity of most of what is sung. The sets are rich but deceptively simple, the stage action stylized but minimally so. The opera jerks at you like a trainer keeping her terrier attentive to its duty.

The Tale of Genji is based on portions of a long work of fiction by an 11th-century woman of the imperial court, the Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Its title hero, Prince Genji (whose name means "the shining one"), is the emperor's favorite son but is barred from the throne by his mother's having been a concubine, not an official wife. Genji is a most competent man, superbly gifted, but with a major flaw of character: He hunts obsessively for love among women who resemble his mother, discarding one for another. He is unhappily married and, as the opera opens, has seduced his father the emperor's favorite wife and impregnated her. The only person who hates Genji is the mother of the heir apparent, who, when the emperor abdicates in his favor, persuades her son to exile Genji for the treason of his affair with the empress, despite her husband's having named the resulting child as the new emperor's heir apparent. Genji survives the exile and is recalled to a position of great power, but his life is blighted by the curse of a former lover (who does not hate him but is quite vexed by his treatment of her). Genji can no longer take pleasure in anything. His life is duty. He muses continually on the harm he has caused others. He is a Shakespearean hero whose end is devised by Corneille.

The opera is made of short scenes whose individual identities are signaled by painted gold panels moving in front of stationary painted gold panels. The synopsis of the plot supplied in OTSL's sumptuous program helps the audience keep up with the shifts in place and understand the soliloquies, duets, trios -- whatever. To a great extent, the opera is gorgeously accompanied recitative whose sole topic is Genji. There's not a trace of humor anywhere to lighten the darkness of everyone's (including his own) obsession with him. There may be some irony, however, in Genji's use of the word "love." We twice see him make his move on a very young or very inexperienced girl, and both times he forcibly removes the young woman's outer garment and the scene blacks out with the girl cowering. Love as rape or samurai decisiveness?

As baritone Mel Ulrich (so impressive last year in The Pearl Fishers) plays him, Genji seems scarcely to know where he is, so wrapped up in self-examination and women is he. Ulrich's voice is as rich and nuanced as the best chocolate, which makes the austere lines he sings seem more melodious than they actually are. As the Lady Kokiden, mother of the crown prince and Genji's implacable foe, mezzo Josepha Gayer conveys, in both singing and acting, a disquieting hatred palpable several rows back from the stage. When Gayer -- who, like several other members of the cast, doubles in another role -- portrays the nun Shonagon, she is all gentleness and quiet. The most musical voice of the evening belongs to baritone Eric Jordan, who sings the part of Genji's servant: One waited for him to reappear and sing again. Soprano Elizabeth Comeaux sang the roles of Fujitsubo, the emperor's favorite wife and Genji's initial love object, and Murasaki, the young girl who becomes his one true love, with winning sweetness. Soprano Cheryl Evans, whose singing and acting forward her characterizations extraordinarily, is almost as impressively wrathful as the angry Lady Rokujo as Josepha Gayer is hateful as the heir's mother. Like Gayer, when Evans takes another part, the Lady of Akashi, she is gentle and loving. In fact, all the singer/actors performed at the high level (diction was superb all evening long) we expect of an OTSL production, particularly when Colin Graham is the stage director.

Continues on June 21, 23 and 25.

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