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THE NEWYORKER July 1, 1985

Minoru Miki’s “Joruri” libretto by Colin Graham world premiere
by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

   Miki’s earlier opera “An Actor’s Revenge” was commissioned be Graham for the English Music Theatre Company and was first performed in London in 1979. It was done in St. Louis two years later, and by then Miki and Graham were already working on a successor.
   “An Actor’s Revenge” is a Kabuki opera: the protagonist is a Kabuki actor, and the “real-life” drama in which he is involved is played out within Kabuki conventions. The librettist was the poet James Kirkup. “Joruri” (the name of a medieval princess, adopted as a general term for the narrative ballad style in which her tale was told, while the Japanese characters can also mean “paradise”) was inspired by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), who brought new refinement, realism, and poetry to the Japanese puppet play and was celebrated for the love-suicide tragedies.
   The characters are Shojo, the old, blind master of a puppet troupe; his young wife, Otane; and young Yosuke, who both carves the puppets and animates them in performances while Shojo chants the narrative. They are another Mark, Iseult, and Tristram. In a preface to the libretto, Graham notes that a conflict between giri, obligation or loyalty, and ninjo, human feelings, underlies Chikamatsu tragedy, and so it does this drama, which is not an adaptation from Chikamatsu but an original play, embodying some of his themes, conceived for music and the modern theatre – and specifically for the all-in-one-room intimacy of the Loretto-Hilton.
   The action is as simple as that of Wagner’s “Tristan”, and the working is rich, subtle, and skillful. The basic style is the (comparative) naturalism of sewamono, or domestic drama. In each of the three acts there is also a Kabuki episode, as three supernatural visitors—embodiments of memory or thought—come to Shojo. The first is the tyrannical magistrate who blinded him as punishment when he intervened to save the child Otane from the magistrate’s lust; the second Otane’s jeering mercenary mother; the third Shojo’s doppelganger, come to debate with him once he has realized that his wife and his disciple love one another. There is an episode of kyogen, comedy intermezzo, as three theatre assistants comment on and parody their masters’ plight. And there are experts from three puppet plays. The first, “straight,” introduces the troupe. The second, the rehearsal of a new play, is broken off when parallels to the real-life situation prove too painful. (The heroine is loved by a blind lord; Yosuke has carved the puppet as a likeness of Otane; later, Shojo’s fingers trace its features and sense the passion that went into the caving.) The third, the climax of a love-suicide tragedy—and at the same time the resolution of the opera—is enacted not by puppets but by Otane and Yosuke themselves. Like the characters they play, the lovers disappear into a waterfall, and Shojo is left alone with us in darkling theatre. The simple, ever-effective play-within-a-play device—as of “Pagliacci”—has become something subtler, more intricate, opaline. The contrasted dramatic styles are different kinds of metaphor which mysteriously act upon one another, light the central situation from different angles, and explore the shifting relationships between actors and their audiences.
   The influence of Japanese theatre upon Western theatre has taken many forms—in the work of Yeats, Brecht, Britten, Peter Brook, Peter Sellars. “Joruri” embodies new, fine-grained Western responses to the formality, to the contrasts of obliquity and directness, to the startling changes of pace (near-static musing, sudden violence), to picturesqueness that serves poetic ends. Miki’s score matches—animates, enacts—the drama at every point. He uses an orchestra of moderate size and three Japanese instruments. The movements of a koto (Japanese long zither) concerto provide the overture, the prelude to Act II, and , in Act III, a poignant interlude functioning like “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” in Delius’s love -suicide drama “A Village Romeo and Juliet.” A shakuhachi (bamboo flute) breathes the tenor of Shojo’s sad reflections. A twangling or thrumming shamisen (Japanese lute) accompanies the puppet plays. Of all the cross-culture composers, Miki has perhaps most successfully united Japanese and Western elements in a personal and highly expressive language. His musical training, in Tokyo, was Westernized; the assimilation of Japanese timbres and inflections came later. The score of “Joruri” is notable for delicate, unconventional, affecting color combinations, for supple rhythms and pacing, and for eloquent melodic lines. In a program note, the composer writes of a melodic style growing from “the tone of speech inherent in Mr. Graham’s libretto, fused with my kind of arioso singing.” The music changes idiom so match the changing dramatic styles. The mother-in-law’s scolding is pretty well a cabaret song.
   Miki writes, too, of a presentation in which “the performers make use of their whole body and spirit in their burning desire to communicate with the audience.” The St. Louis production—directed, as I said, by Graham, conducted by Joseph Rescigno, designed by Setsu Asakura, lit by Peter Kaczorowski, and choreographed by Onoe Kikushiro—was a marvelously communicative ensemble of song, instrumental sound, acting, and movement. Faith Esham, the Otane, looked exquisite and moved exquisitely, and her voice has become a flexible, beautiful instrument. John Brandstetter, the Yosuke, acted intently, sang well, and manipulated puppets with skill. Andrew Wentzel was a moving Shojo. Mallory Walker was brilliant in the three Kabuki roles. The three assistants—John M. Sullivan, Gorden Holleman, and Stephen Kirchgraber—deftly played “invisible” assistants in the puppet episodes, similar roles (in a different dimension) within the actions of the opera proper, a sprightly kyogen trio, and three lively individuals. At the performance I attended, the audience seemed spellbound, and at the close the silent that is the deepest mark of appreciation yielded gradually to cheers and a long standing ovation.


[NB 1]   Japanese premiere by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in English sponcored by the Nissei Theatre was held at Nissei Theatre, Tokyo on November 13, 15 and 17, 1988.
[NB 2]   Vocal score is published by the Zenon Music Company Ltd.., Tokyo 1-7-7-24 Nihonbashi Horidome-cho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0012 Japan
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Minoru Miki