The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is based on an ancient Vietnamese folk tale depicting a woman who is banished from her married home, disguises herself as a monk in a local temple, and is eventually awarded the eternal bliss of Nirvana for her grace and moral diligence in the face of severe hardship. What could have been a powerful depiction of the rewards of faith and humility ended up being awkward, slow, and poorly constructed on many levels.
The orchestration is heavily influenced by Asian music and Vietnamese culture, and David Effron captured this affectation with aplomb. Tonally, I enjoyed the pentatonic harmonies juxtaposed with contemporary dissonance, as they created a lovely atmosphere transporting us across continents and time. The rhythmic motives were constantly ebbing, which created a delightfully unpredictable pulse. However, unfairly proliferous vocal ornaments challenged the singers beyond the comforts of classical vocal technique, and they interrupted the text unnecessarily. Additionally, I felt as though the entire piece only communicated at a singular loud dynamic level, with little variation or nuance.
The libretto would probably have been more communicative if it had been left in Vietnamese. The English text appeared to be a poorly translated version of the ancient story; it used strange words, awkward phrase structure, and on more than one occasion caused unintentional laughter among the audience members. I found the story difficult to follow because the words were chosen so poorly, and I felt it difficult to care about or empathize with the characters because my eyes had to be glued to the supertitles. When the singers had lines of spoken text, the supertitles dropped out and I had to try to furiously decipher what was being said - and most of the time, I failed.
The stage direction by Vincent Liotta aimed to be visually picturesque and regal, but ultimately felt uninspired and static. I found it difficult to empathize with the characters when large emotional moments were swallowed by seated positions or closed-off postures. The chorus was in the exact same symmetrical position every time they came on stage and often stood in straight lines, which appeared extremely unnatural and two-dimensional. Additionally, I felt as though all the characterizations on stage were very Anglicized - aside from a few traditional bows and seated lotus positions, the actors had overtly Western mannerisms. On several occasions, singers bowed to the floor or turned fully upstage while singing, which interrupted the sound and drew me out of the moment.
The scenery by Erhard Rom was quite lovely. I felt that the moving bamboo panels were a perfect compliment to the setting, although I would have preferred to see a simple dirt floor over the sectioned faux-tile, which looked cheap in contrast with the rest of the set. The lighting by Todd Hensley was also vibrant and elegant, particularly in the final scene of the production when Tiểu Kính Tâm (formerly Thị Kính) rises high above the mountains in her glorified state. The costumes by Linda Pisano were surprisingly disappointing. In general, the Pisano costumes I've seen in other IU productions have been vibrant and excellently executed. These costume pieces seemed inappropriate, overly colorful, and some items looked as though they were store-bought.
Although all of the singers were left the unpleasant task of combating extremely demanding vocal lines and cumbersome text-setting, a few artists triumphed on both Wednesday and Saturday nights. Walter Huff's collaboration with the chorus was, as always, a pure delight for the listener. The ensemble was uniformly expressive and had a wonderfully crisp interpretation of the material. Sarah Ballman's portrayal of the title role was humble and feminine with a warm, balanced timbre, while Veronica Jensen's Thị Kính was rich, steely, and flawlessly controlled. Sandra Periord was fiercely accurate with jewel-like coloratura as the lusty Thị Mầu, and Angela Yoon's warm bell tones complimented the blushing adolescence of the character. Sư Cụ, portrayed by Adam Walton and Rafael Porto, was the most honestly Vietnamese character in the production. Walton's growly baritone was a perfect fit for the character's commanding presence, and Porto's smooth and luxurious sound was lovely in the upper range, but parts of the role seemed too low for his growing instrument at this time. The role of Thiện Sĩ appeared to be too challenging and strenuous in its vocal demands; Will Perkins valiantly maintained composure but was clearly struggling to push his mellow, sweet sound through the rangy coloratura and dense orchestration. Christopher Sokolowski was voluminous, fresh, and tonally bright but clearly had difficulty with the text, largely due to the composer's poor vowel choices with regards to tessitura. Both Sooyeon Kim and Julienne Park sang the role of Sùng Bà with gusto. Kim has a gleaming tone but an unwieldy instrument that seemed too large for the role, and Park had a lustrous and shapely sound that complimented the character's tyrannical presence.
Also worthy of note were Lorenzo Garcia, who was charmingly effervescent as Nô , and his counterpart Andrew LeVan, who was hilarious and buffoonish with a crystalline high C. David Rugger as Mãng Ông was simply stunning, with an exhilarating and balanced tone. Ross Coughanour was also commanding and lovable in the role, with excellent stage presence and a luminous, rich sound.
In essence, I wish that I could give the overall production a better review due to the efforts of singers and musicians working hard to bring the story to life. But due to a weak libretto, unjustifiable vocal challenges, and a lack of strong direction, the overall experience fell frustratingly flat. With some revision, I believe this work could become part of the contemporary operatic canon. In its current state, however, I am sad to say that this opera is not likely to be performed again.
Olivia Savage, Feb. 10th 2014