Monday, 5 June 2017

Hosokawa - Matsukaze (Brussels, 2017)

Toshio Hosokawa - Matsukaze

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Bassem Akiki, Sasha Waltz, Barbara Hannigan, Charlotte Hellekant, Frode Olsen, Kai-Uwe Fahnert

ARTE Concert - March 2017

Using music as a means of bringing out or fusing the drama with another more spiritual dimension is I imagine is something that most opera composers attempt to do, but based on the few works that I've heard from him, it seems to me that Toshio Hosokawa manages to do this rather better than most contemporary composers. It's perhaps because Hosokawa shares an affinity with traditional Japanese Nôh drama, an aspect that was alluded to in Hosokawa's most recent opera, Stilles Meer, but which is even more apparent in direct adaptation in his earlier 2011 opera Matsukaze.

Still, it's not easy to translate expression of the stylised movements and gestures from Nôh to the western form of lyric drama, and it usually requires other techniques and instruments to bring out a sense of the other. Adapting two Nôh dramas in her 2016 opera Only The Sound Remains, for example, Kaija Saariaho made effective use of the otherworldly sounds of the Finnish kantele harp. Hosokawa often uses recordings of sounds of wind, rain and waves as well as other instruments to evoke nature, but he also makes effective use of other Nôh elements not commonly used in opera to such an extent: movement and dance.

And to that end, Hosokawa has dance choreographer Sasha Waltz as an effective collaborator and in La Monnaie an opera company willing to explore such new collaborations and extend the range modern opera by commissioning such experimental works. Musically, theatrically, dramatically, in terms of performance and yes perhaps even spiritually, Matsukaze is one of the most successful new productions of contemporary opera and its 2011 production revived here for La Monnaie's 2016-17 season demonstrates this beyond any question.

As with Stilles Meer, Hosokawa takes time to establish a sense of mood and place that is outside of the common experience and the common opera tradition. To the sound of wind through trees and the distant sound of the sea, grey and white clad figures spin, swirl, roll and interweave like crashing waves, crosswinds or perhaps invisible spirits. Into this space walks a priest (Frode Olsen), again singing in a manner not typical of the western tradition, but more like a ritual chant or prayer. Hosokawa paints the scene of this introduction with a flurry of percussion, shimmering strings and whispering flutes that gasp and blow.

In an adaptation of the original 14th century Nôh drama, Matsukaze relates the story of two women, Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines) and her sister Marasame (Autumn Rain), whose names the priest sees carved in a memorial on a pine tree. In a dream, the ghosts of the sisters tell their tale, how they became the lovers of Yukihara, a courtier exiled to Suma for three years. Soon after his departure, the women learned of his death and died from grief. Unable to let go of their earthly longing however, they are condemned to remain tied to the world of mortals.

Although the question of abandoning earthly attachments in order to pass over to another state of is an important aspect of the Buddhist doctrine, there doesn't appear to be any deeper message or moral to be drawn from Matsukaze than this. As in the original Nôh drama however, the true meaning or value of the work is in the ritual and the expression of the drama in performance, and it's here that Hosokawa's music conducted by Bassem Akiki, its use of sounds and silence, the dance moves of Sasha Waltz and the set designs of Pia Maier Schriever and Chiharu Shiota all create an effective environment for Barbara Hannigan and Charlotte Hellekant to struggle to cast off those powerful human emotions.

The darkened stage following the priest's discovery of the memorial to the women related to him by a fisherman, opens up (to the rippling of a stream) to reveal a webbed background of black threads, representing the seaweed that the women gathered, as well as a barrier that separates the spirit world from the world of mortals (not unlike the curtains and barriers in Peter Sellars' production of Saariaho's Only the Sound Remains). Scurrying high up in the tangle of the netting are Matsukaze and Marasame, who descend - their white robes turning to black robes - to re-enact the story of their own entanglement with Yukihara in the mortal domain that they have not yet escaped.

The production, like the original Nôh drama, uses a variety of means to relate the story and find other ways to delve beneath the surface and represent the less tangible emotions that are in conflict. Much of that in the opera is taken up by the dancers, some of whose movements and roles are somewhat abstract and difficult to define. One figure with his upper face and eyes masked could be 'blind desire'. The use of props are limited, but a hat left behind by Yukihara is used as a representation of Matsukaze's emotional attachment to the material world, which is also represented in the latter part of the production as a large boxed frame. Within and without this the dancers also shift and gather to form the pine tree that is a representation of Matsukaze's love. Her sister Marasame is able to resist being wound up into the tree and consequently succeeds in eventually passing over to the other side.

The role of the singers then is somewhat unusual as in addition to the considerable singing challenges and differences that define the two sisters, Barbara Hannigan and Charlotte Hellekant also have to move, interact and dance with these abstractions, fluidly moving from one state to another. Hosokawa's score, conducted by Bassem Akiki, also works fluidly with Sasha Waltz's choreography to give the simple tale of Matsukaze's fate a sense of momentum and urgency. Matsukaze's ghost would appear to be doomed to remain unable to depart entirely from the physical plane, but Hosokawa and Waltz suggest a more peaceful if unclear resolution as an older woman, dressed in white, moves slowly across the stage as all the other elements fall away into a silence broken only by the rippling of water.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt