Years and years ago in Viet Nam at the end of the harvest season, small touring companies would put on evening long entertainments based on folk tales. The tale that composer and librettist, Jacobs School of Music faculty member P.Q. Phan chose for his opera is Our Benevolent Budda Thi Kinh from the tenth century.
Phan's The Tale of the Lady Thi Kinh at the IU Opera Theater is a creative, bold and largely successful grand opera. Thi Kinh's story as told in the opera is a sad one. As a happily married young woman her attempt at a bit of barbering on her husband is misinterpreted and she's banished. Disguising herself as a man and seeking the sanctuary of the Buddhist temple Thi Kinh is falsely accused of fathering a child. When the child is deposited at her doorstep she seeks to raise it and perishes from the hunger and stress. As a reward for her virtuous long suffering she is raised to buddahood and those who despised her bow at the radiant spectacle.
Saturday night's Thi Kinh was resolutely and pathetically sung by Veronica Jensen. Julianne Park was very effective as her viciously accusing mother in law. Vocal honors of the evening went for the composer's delightful coloratura sung by Angela Yoon as the partying girl who sought to seduce Thi Kinh. Rafael Porto was a unique figure as Thi Kinh's only supporter, her mentor and the head of the temple.
The Viet Namese audience for these folk tale dramas did indeed want to be reminded of the truths of ancient stories. They wanted to be enlightened, to feel, to cry, but they also wanted to laugh. The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh's creator P.Q. Phan admits that comedy in the midst of a western style grand opera is a tricky thing, but he's tried with some success to be faithful to his drama's traditions. Ross Coughanour as Thi Kinh's father with his skewed mathematical account of his fortunes was charming. Andrew LeVan's posturing as a house's defender got welcome laughs. Jerome Sibulo as the village chief and Marlen Nahhas as the reluctant wife of the missing town crier as they battled over the announcement of the trial of Thi Kinh were a mini operetta unto themselves.
The orchestra, the soloists and even the chorus of The Lady Thi Kinh seem at times to be recreating sounds of centuries old traditions. At other times, it's a quite modern lush sound. Transitions are smooth and many times a scene begins simply and as the drama becomes more complex the music does as well. Throughout the percussion section is always very active in keeping a distinct character and flavor.
David Effron is the conductor. Stage direction and very active collaboration throughout the project is by Vincent Liotta. Set design is by Erhard Rom. Linda Pisano is the costume designer.
The IU Opera Theater offers final performances of P.Q. Phan's The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh Friday February 14 and Saturday February 15. WFIU radio will offer a broadcast of Saturday night's finale hosted by David Wood.
At the theatre for you, I'm George Walker.