Last night Toronto Masque Theatre presented a double bill entitled The Lessons of Love. First up was John Blow’s 1683 masque Venus and Adonis and it was followed by the premier of The Lesson of Da Ji; a fusion of Western and traditional Chinese elements by composer Alice Ping Yee Ho and librettist Marjorie Chan.
The Blow was staged in fairly traditional style with painterly projections as back drops and effective use of a pair of female dancers, choreographed by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, dancing in low heels but in a more athletic style than one might see from, say, Opera Atelier. The title roles were taken by Charlotte Corwin and Benjamin Covey who both throttled back their considerable voices to the space. They might not be a baroque purist’s idea of the ideal voice type for the work but I thought they were effective. The third soloist, Xin Wang, playing Cupid did seem underpowered despite the modest space and small band. Among the semi-chorus the stand out was baritone Alexander Dobson. Larry Beckwith led the eight piece orchestra as well as playing violin.
The Lesson of Da Ji is quite an ambitious piece. It tells the story of the concubine Da Ji who is having an affair with the son of a local lord, Bo Yi, who is masquerading as her music teacher. The king covets the young man’s father’s land and finds out about the affair when Da Ji is betrayed by her maid. He invites Bo Yi and his parents to dine. Bo Yi doesn’t show because he’s been intercepted and killed by the king’s agents. He serves the boy up as a stew to Da Ji and his parents before killing them and presenting Da Ji with the boy’s heart. Thus is order restored and betrayal punished!
The music is quite varied and combine western and Chinese instruments with plenty of percussion. Vocal style ranges from whispering to classical western singing to Peking opera style. Use is made of a Peking Opera singer, doubled by a similarly dressed soprano, to provide a “moral” commentary on the action. Again effective use of projections was made both as backdrop and to point up the moral.
There were some good performances, notably Derek Kwan as Bo Ji and Marion Newman as Da Ji. Both showed skill, artistry and versatility. There were good cameos too by Benjamin Covey and Charlotte Corwin as the parents. I was less convinced by Alexander Dobson as the King. He played the role as a very villainous villain; almost a parody. Maybe that was what the creators intended but, to me, it came off as a bit too close to panto. William Lau and Vania Chan played the commentators, the Moons. I’m no expert on Peking Opera but it was clear that Lau is a very skilled and classy performer. Music direction was again by Larry Beckwith who co-ordinated the multi-faceted band with great skill.
It’s great to see so much new work being created in Toronto and I suspect this kind of multi-cultural fusion piece will become more and more usual. There are further performances this evening and tomorrow afternoon in the Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal JCC.