The Chicago Opera Theater’s Midwest-premiere production of Book of Mountains and Seas is a solemn, reverential, and determinedly abstract work of vocal theatre. Drawing on an eponymous collection of ancient Chinese creation myths from the Qin Dynasty of the 4th Century B.C., librettist and composer Huang Ruo has created a theatre piece limning primal themes of the natural world incorporating twelve choral singers, percussion, gnomic supertitles in Chinese and English, and a massive proto-human puppet wielded by six puppeteers.
It is the kind of production that sounds fascinating in description but is only intermittently involving onstage. There are a few moments of austere beauty in the music, and in the slow-motion assembly and disassembly of the golem-like giant, which appears to have been constructed of a kind of rolled paper or papier-mâché-like material that resembles human bones in a state of advanced desuetude.
The myths are retold in simple fashion, one of them involving the giant’s attempt to follow the sun back to its hidden source, in the process developing a gargantuan thirst and drinking up all the rivers of the earth, symbolically represented by lengths of silk. Another story is about the appearance of ten simultaneous suns, which once upon a time burnt up the entire planet. The relevance of these ancient stories to contemporary concerns cannot be understated.
The vocals, performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen, and sung in Mandarin and an invented language, sounded to these ears like a complex hybrid of polyphonic choral music and 12-tone or atonal music. The result is a hypnotic near-drone intended to accentuate the primeval themes onstage. It’s the kind of music that probably bears repeated listening to yield its rewards, but over the course of a single performance is difficult to absorb.
Directed by renowned puppeteer Basil Twist and presented in partnership with the Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival, Book of Mountains and Seas is a choral presentation complemented by puppet-work, supertitles and props, rather than a puppet performance that is underscored with music. One can see in the onstage performances an attempt to enact a slow and meditative minimalism and single-mindedness, but the intended simplicity of the visual presentation is frequently undercut, rather than accentuated, by the complex choral recital. The movements of the puppeteers, as well, detract slightly from the overall impact of the piece; they are never obtrusive, yet they lack the intensely compressed, hyper-controlled quality one sees in, for example, the Japanese theatre art of butoh.
Book of Mountains and Seas is, in short, not for everyone. It might, in fact, disappoint lovers of the art of puppetry, and is in no sense either a traditional opera nor even a straightforward or poetic retelling of ancient Chinese mythology. But for those who appreciate contemporary Chinese classical music and wish to learn more about the work of Huang Ruo, and for those who appreciate theatre with an abstract and meditative quality, there was much to recommend in this production.
The Book of Mountains and Seas was presented on the weekend of January 26 – 28 by the Chicago Opera Theatre at the Studebaker Theatre in Chicago.
Photos provided by The Silverman Group, Inc.
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