Stage Door Review 2019

The Raven / Futari Shizuka

Sunday, January 20, 2019


by Toshio Hosokawa, directed by Paramita Nath

Toronto New Music Projects and Wallace Halladay, Walter Hall, University of Toronto, Toronto

January 17, 2019

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” (from “The Raven”)

Toronto New Music Projects has presented an exciting double bill of one-act operas by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, who is currently the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Not only were the two operas linked by Hosokawa’s exquisite, tension-filled music but both focussed on the obsession of a central female figure.

The first to be presented was The Raven from 2012 receiving its Canadian premiere. Based on the well-known 1845 poem by Edgar Allen Poe, it is written for mezzo-soprano and and ensemble of twelve musicians. The second was Futari Shizuka translated as The Maiden from the Sea but more strictly meaning “The Two Shizukas” which was receiving its North American premiere. The libretto is based on the Noh play Futari Shizuka (二人静) attributed to playwright Zeami Motokiyo (c.1363-c.1443). 

One might wonder what the relation could be between a 19th-century American poem and a Japanese Noh play, but Hosokawa has said, “When I read ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, it reminded me of the Japanese Noh play. A view of the world in the Noh is not anthropocentric. Some of the main characters in the Noh are animals and plants, and some are unearthly spirits. Poe describes the process of the collapse of the modern rational world, as a consequence of an invasion of the world by a weird animal ‘raven’ which lives in the other world”. Indeed, in the case of both operas, the world of the protagonist is invaded by a representative of another world. Hosokawa, in fact, conceived of Futari Shizuka as a companion piece to The Raven to make up a full evening.

In The Raven Hosokawa’s music slowly arises from silence to form a skittering background against which the Narrator (Krisztina Szabó) recites Poe’s poem. Szabó is in a flowing nightgown and sheer robe designed by Janna Lüttmann and is discovered on a 19th-century chaise-longe in a small space marked by piles of books. In Poe’s original a male poet mourns the loss of his beloved Lenore. Changing the sex of the protagonist opens up the possibility that the Narrator is mourning her own lost youth. 

This would seem to be reinforced by director Paramita Nath’s projections that depicts the Narrator arising from bed as three people who merge into one and later shows scenes of a girl and then a young woman riding a bicycle through a field. 

Hosokawa’s music matches the continually more anguished outcries of the Narrator but also seems to trap her in them. The tap-tap-tap of the Raven against her windowpane is echoed through the ensemble and comes back when she pronounces it again. It is as if the Narrator's perceptions are building the world around her rather than that she is perceiving anything objectively within it. This perfectly reflects the strange nature of the poem wherein the speaker suspects that the Raven has been taught only one word “its only stock and store / Caught from some unhappy master”, yet we can see the beginnings of madness rising in the speaker as he starts to attribute meaning and menace in the bird’s repeated one-word reply. 

Szabó, who has played a deranged women on a much larger scale in Arnold Schönberg’s Erwartung (1909), is so fully at home in the role one could easily imagine it had been written for her. Her full, lush voice makes the transitions from speech to Sprechgesang to full-out singing sound completely smooth and natural. Her interpretation with voice, facial expression and gesture is so detailed that she makes the Narrator's descent into madness both thrilling and disturbing. 

The Narrator's narrowing self-generated world comes to a climax in the music when the Narrator's cries are echoes by the ensemble which make it seem as if they are continually echoing through the Narrator's mind. Hosokawa has the piece end just as it began, the ensemble gradually decreasing in volume until its skittering sounds vanish into silence. Gregory Oh conducted the student orchestra in a taut, riveting account of the score. Afterwards, one couldn’t help thinking this a work that should be produced at least as often on this side of the Atlantic as it is on the other.

Futari Shizuka presents us with another woman Helen (Xin Wang), who is haunted by loss. In Hosokawa’s conception of the role, reinforced by director Nath’s projections, Helen is one of the many refugees escaping war-torn homelands across the Mediterranean for a better life in Europe. Helen’s boat, however, has capsized. She finds herself alone on a small island, her child, presumed dead, nowhere to be found. “Where am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?” are her constant refrain.

In the original Noh play, a Village Woman is approached by a mysterious Young Woman who implores the Village Woman to ask the priests to say prayers for her relief from suffering since she is weighed down by the heaviness of her sins. Should anyone doubt her, the Young Woman will possess the Village Woman and reveal her identity. She is famed dancer Lady Shizuka, lover of the samurai Yoshitune (1159-89), who was declared to be a traitor by his brother Yoritomo.

In Hosokawa’s opera there are no priests for Helen to speak to so that the emphasis in Shizu’s possession of Helen is quite different. Before Shizu’s arrival Helen had been mourning her own fate and her own loss. After Shizu’s arrival, Helen sees that her losses are like those of people everywhere throughout the ages. Shizu’s message is to make people know the harm that war causes to those far beyond the battlefield. 

In the opera Helen awakes on a beach signalled by the various views of sea and sand in Nath’s projections on the screen behind her. Wang’s bright, firm voice is able to tackle the highest-lying lines in Hosokawa’s score and lend them an air of lament. 

Shizu is played by Ryoko Aoki, who created the role in 2017. She has made a name for herself as a Noh singer and dancer in the otherwise all-male realm of Noh drama. While Wang remained trapped on the stage area, Nath has Aoki descend through the audience to the stage as a sign of her otherworldliness. Then, too, Helen is clad in a modern jeans and a top whereas Aoki is in full traditional Noh robes for a ghost, all white, with obi, fan and tabi socks. On the stage with Wang, Aoki walks in the traditional suriashi manner of Noh theatre. Although Aoki does not wear a mask, she keeps her whitened face so completely expressionless that it might as well serve as a mask. 

For her singing Aoki casts her voice down as low as it will go into her chest. Aoki sings in Japanese in the typical Noh chanting style, so it is quite a shock when she occasionally stops to speak in English or even chant in English. 

In a reference to Noh drama, Hosokawa gives Shizu a short dance sequence which Aoki, dancing with horizontally unfurled fan, performs with great intensity and authority. Hosokawa even contrives to have both Shizu and Helen dance together, although it is Aoki who gives the signal foot-stamp at the end of each movement. Hosokawa also gives the two performers a duet where both sing the same words in unison in their very different styles.

When Shizu appears Hosokawa alters his orchestration to feature the flute, tom-toms and wooden concussion sticks to imitate the sounds of the nohkan, kotsuzumi and hyōshigi in Noh music. Hosokawa brilliantly blends his technique of creating varying fields of tension with what is basically its 13th-century Japanese equivalent. Under conductor Lorenzo Guggenheim, the 23-member ensemble played with complete unanimity of concentration and produced a gorgeous texture of sound. 

Futari Shizuka ends as does The Raven with the sound gradually retreating to silence. In both cases we feel the protagonist has been granted a final vision before death. The two make an excellent double-bill, the inward-looking Raven paired with the outward-looking Futari Shizuka

The chance to see these two operas by Hosokawa together made this an unmissable event for anyone who cares about modern opera. While the requirement for such a specialized performer as a female Noh singer may prevent Futari Shizuka from gaining a wider public, The Raven is clearly a work that should become standard repertoire among chamber operas. 

It is a pity that there was no second performance date for the double-bill, but those interested in hearing more from the pre-eminent Japanese composer of today should know that the New Music Festival will feature works by Hososkawa from January 20 through 25. It is shimmering, dramatic music that is immediately appealing and not quite like any other. Were it possible one longed to be able to hear this operatic double bill the following evening simply to savour it in greater depth. Many thanks then to Toronto New Music Projects and Wallace Halladay for their vision in bringing these worlds to life in Toronto. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Ryoko Aoki as Shizu; Krisztina Szabó as Narrator; Xin Wang as Helen, © 2019 Paramita Nath.

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