Lincoln Center Festival’s production of Toshio Hosokawa’s “Matsukaze”

Last night I attended the New York premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s one-act opera, “Matsukaze,” presented as part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a few blocks from Lincoln Center.  To the best of my recollection, this is the first time I’ve been in this theater.  It’s a bit out-of-the-way, several long blocks west of the nearest subway stop (at Columbus Circle), but seems to be a nicely-appointed facility with good sight-lines from the balcony (where I sat) and decent acoustics.

I had bought a ticket for this because one of my favorite singers, Thomas Meglioranza, was in the cast, but I was disappointed to discover that he appears only in the first scene of this five-scene opera.  He plays the part of a fisherman who comes upon a monk who is wandering on the beach at Suma, Japan, on his autumn pilgrimage.  The fisherman recounts the story of two women whose names appear on a commemorative plaque afixed to a pine tree on the beach, and then he departs.  That’s it for Tom.  I enjoyed his singing, as always.

The rest of the cast was also quite strong.  Gary Simpson played the monk, and Pureum Jo and Jihee Kim sang the part of the ghosts of the two women, the two lovers of a nobleman who had been called back to the city and died.  Their ghosts now haunted the spot, pining for his return, but somehow his ghost never shows up.  But, as usual in these things, it is all a dream — the ghosts are in his imagination, and he awakens at the end and continues on his pilgrimage.

Hosokawa had his libretto adopted from a traditional Japanese “Noh” play, and set the story in German.  No explanation in the program book why German, but one infers this is because the composer, who was born and had his early education in Japan, now bases his career largely in Europe and studied and teaches in Germany.  It did seem a bit odd to have a story set in Japan, with sets and costumes clearly based on Japanese models, sung in German in an American theater, but there it is.  I thought the entire production was really gorgeous, beautiful lighting and sets, exquisite costumes….

Which takes me the long way around to mentioning the music.  I find nothing offensive is Hosokawa’s music, but on the other hand I just didn’t find most of it particularly interesting.  The 70 minute work seems much longer due to the predominantly slow pace of the music, with lots of sustained chords emanating from the pit orchestra underlining extended slow lines in the vocal parts.  There were a few moments of rhythmic variety and there was plenty of intensity, but ultimately I found the music more atmospheric than involving, more like a film soundtrack than an opera, despite the nearly continuous singing once they got past the instrumental prologue.  The staging was also very much of the “stand and sing at the audience” variety, so there was not much dramatic physical activity to enliven the scene.

That said, all of the performers – conductor John Kennedy, cast, instrumental and choral ensemble – seemed totally committed to the work, and the audience that remained at the end (a few seemed to have slipped out along the way) responded with enthusiastic applause.  I found my own attention wandering frequently, perhaps affected as well by the humidity and heat, as the ventilation system in the theater seemed to be laboring under the adverse atmospheric conditions we’ve been suffering in NYC the past few days.  When I left the theater it seemed almost as warm and damp outside as it had seemed when I arrived for the evening performance 2 – 1/2 hours earlier. . .

“Matsukaze” will get two more performances as part of the festival.

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