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Poet Li Bai

[The following review appeared in Variety magazine the week of July 15th.]

One of the synergistic delights in the confluence of East and West is the revitalization of the operatic form, as evidenced in Poet Li Bai, a sublime blend of post-modern orchestral atmospherics, traditional Beijing Opera, and a dreamy, imaginative libretto that paints an impressionistic glimpse of China's greatest poet.

Interior of Central City Opera House
Interior of Central City Opera House
Jointly commissioned by Central City Opera, in honor of its 75th season, and Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, for its 20th anniversary, the auspicious 7/7/07 premiere (in a gambling town, no less!)—preceded by ancient rites of ceremonial drums and dragons—heralds a prominent afterlife in future international program rotations.

Against a shimmering backdrop, the poet, in exile on a houseboat for having sided against the emperor, awakens from a drunken stupor to wrestle with his muses—Wine, Moon, and Poetry—and make sense of his life: "The Way's open as the sky, as the sky / I alone cannot fly!"

Hao Jiang Tian as Li Bai
Hao Jiang Tian as Li Bai
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Hao Jiang Tian, who performed at the Met in December opposite Placido Domingo in "The First Emperor," exudes jovial well-being as the gifted wordsmith blessed with Mozart-like spontaneity and a Taoist disposition. Hao's expressive basso cantante captures Li Bai's sensitivity and visionary phrasing, while his imposing stature argues for immortality.

In a persuasive tenor, Chi Liming's (Beijing Music Festival, La Fenice) impetuous Wine challenges Li Bai to write poetry in exchange for drink, but the two are at odds over what constitutes a well-turned phrase (or, in this case, an original ideogrammatic expression). Each in turn ups the stakes in their battle, with Wine following his denigrations of Li Bai's poetry with unflattering characterizations of his very substance.

(L to R): Hao Jiang Tian as Li Bai and Chi Liming as Wine
(L to R): Hao Jiang Tian as Li Bai
and Chi Liming as Wine
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Li Bai brushes off these remarks, describing the poet as immortal, greater than emperors: "Would I stoop before men of power / And deny myself a pleasant hour?" In a final dare, Li Bai tosses his poetry to the four winds, and Wine quickly retrieves each page, unable to bear the potential loss.

The Moon then appears, slowly making her rounds, calling to Li Bai as a siren, playfully reciting his poetry. Wine and Li Bai debate whether this is an angel or a ghost. Li Bai begins a famous stanza, "Born with talents destined to shine," and the Moon correctly answers, "Scattered riches will again be mine." Li Bai calls the moon his soul mate, while Wine mocks this as idiocy.

But the poet persists, "How long has moon graced the sky? / I stay my cup to ask you why. / Man tries in vain to reach the moon, / Yet moon can follow his every stride." The moon assures Li Bai of their unity.

Hao Jiang Tian as Li Bai and Ying Huang as Moon
Hao Jiang Tian as Li Bai
and Ying Huang as Moon
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Ying Huang (Santa Fe Opera, Teatro de la Opera) is serene, her soprano seductive, as the elusive silvery orb, much as Li Bai's verse paints her. They sing a lovely duet that honors their quixotic relationship, as she remains just out of reach, her reflection in the water beckoning him to join her in the stars, "beyond worldly cares."

Poetry enters and recalls its glory. Singing in the traditional style, Jiang Qihu (China Peking Opera Company) and the Chorus of University of Denver's Lamont School of Music treat us to stanzas of one of Li Bai's paeans to revelry as an antidote for our brief life, "See you not! / The Yellow River tumbling from the sky ...?"

Li Bai's heyday before the emperor is relived, including an evocative poem recollecting spring among the Jade Mountain peaks sung by Li Bai, Poetry, Wine, and Chorus. But the poet falls from grace, enveloped by court intrigue, and is imprisoned and tortured.

Performed without intermission, the story moves quickly through three acts, with Yi Liming's simple yet effective scenic elements in consonance with the material. Diana Liao and Xu Ying's libretto renders the poet's phrasing sensitively, pleasing to the ear in Chinese and to the reader of the English surtitles.

In the final scene, Li Bai sings bitterly of his reversal of fortune. The moon's beseeching, another of the his poems—"Beauty O beauty, go back to whence you came, / Wander no more like dawn clouds and dusk rain!"—becomes irresistible to the poet, and he follows her reflection into the water, just as myth has it.

Composer Guo Wenjing's score is a marvel of Western orchestration and Eastern tonality. Dutch maestro Ed Spanjaard curries a precise yet flavorful performance from the 50 piece festival orchestra and one Chinese flute. Yi's traditional costumes match the elegance and simplicity of his set. Lin Zhaohua's direction makes every gesture count, in perfect imitation of the poet's economy. In sum, the elements present an impressive marriage of form and content-with action, libretto, and music reflecting Li Bai's fluid life as art—and a hopeful sign for the future of global opera.

Central City Opera's world premiere of Guo Wenjing's Poet Li Bai runs through July 28th. 303-292-6700, 1-800-851-8175, or www.CentralCityOpera.org.

Bob Bows

 

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