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Opera: East Meets West

  THE 25TH-ANNIVERSARY SEASON of Opera Theatre of St, Louis was full of delights, with theatrical and musical values at a very high level. The centerpiece of the season, the world premiere of Minoru Miki's "The Tale of Genji," was a particular success. Colin Graham, also the company's artistic director, adapted his libretto from the classic Japanese novel by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 1000 A.D.). This sprawling work of more than 1,000 pages explores the imperial court of the Heian period through the life and many loves of Genji, son of the emperor's favored concubine. The novel is a tapestry of sensibility and indirect poetic allusion, but Mr. Graham, reading between the lines, streamlined the story to create a more Westernized and operatic drama.
  Genji (Mel Ulrich) seeks female perfection and finds it in Fujitsubo, his father's favorite wife, and Murasaki, a young girl. Underlining their importance to him and their mutual resemblance, both characters are played by soprano Elizabeth Comeaux. Genji neglects Aoi, his wife (Jessica Miller). Two women plot to destroy him: kokiden (Josepha Gayer), mother of the crown prince, who has him exiled, and Rokujo (Cheryl Evans), a jealous mistress who possesses and kills Aoi, Fujitsubo and Murasaki.
  Mr. Miki's score was an atmospheric masterpiece, its style Western but with an unsettled tonality recalling Debussy and Britten, a modern work that seems absolutely faithful to its ancient poetic source. Japanese gestures, like haunting flute tunes, were seamlessly integrated into the musical fabric so they never sounded like jarring color effects. Music played exquisitely on the traditional koto (harp) and pipa (lute) by Reiko Kimura and Yang Jing was firmly associated with particular characters. Mr. Graham's well-crafted libretto, which told the story without calling attention to itself, was carefully set for intelligibility and drama. Rokujo's fury was especially virtuosic, small ensembles were delicately rendered and the big choral numbers stood out. The conductor Steuart Bedford, the orchestra and all the singers-who also included Andrew Wentzel, Richard Troxell, Carleton Chambers and Eric Jordan-were splendid.
  Setsu Asakura designed stunning golden Japanese screens and magnificent Heian court costumes, complete with long trousers for women that flowed under their wearers' feet and behind them like trains. Tom Watson did the period wigs: waist-length hair for the women, top knots for the men. A spare turntable design facilitated scene changes. Colin Grahham's eloquent staging, complemented by the choreography of Kikushiro Onoe, paid careful attention to gesture, and the American singers, especially Mr. Ulrich and Ms. Evans, did an impressive job of incorporating the stylized movement that Noh and Kabuki actors study for years to master.

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