One synergistic delight of the confluence of East and West is the revitalization of the operatic form, as evidenced in “Poet Li Bai,” which blends post-modern orchestral atmospherics, traditional Beijing Opera and a dreamy, imaginative libretto that paints an impressionistic portrait of one of China’s greatest poets. Jointly commissioned by Colorado’s Central City Opera, for its 75th season, and for the 20th anni of Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, the auspicious 7/07/07 premiere (in a gambling town, no less!) — preceded by ancient rites with ceremonial drums and dragons — heralds a prominent international afterlife.
Against a shimmering backdrop, the poet, in exile on a houseboat for siding against the emperor, awakens from a drunken stupor to wrestle with his muses — Wine, Moon and Poetry — and make sense of his life.
Hao Jiang Tian, who performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in December with Placido Domingo in “The First Emperor,” exudes jovial well-being as the gifted wordsmith blessed with Mozart-like spontaneity and a Taoist disposition. Hao’s expressive basso cantante captures Li Bai’s sensitivity and visionary phrasing, while his imposing stature argues for immortality.
With his persuasive tenor, Chi Liming’s impetuous Wine challenges Li Bai to write poetry in exchange for drink, but the two are at odds over what constitutes a well-turned phrase (or, in this case, an original ideogrammatic expression). Each in turn ups the stakes in their battle.
The Moon (Ying Huang) then appears, slowly making her rounds, calling to Li Bai as a siren, playfully reciting his poetry. Wine and Li Bai debate whether this is an angel or a ghost.
As the elusive silvery orb, Ying is a serene presence with a seductive soprano, much as Li Bai’s verse paints her. They sing a lovely duet that honors their quixotic relationship, as she remains just out of reach, her reflection beckoning to him from the water.
Poetry (Jiang Qihu) enters and recalls its glory. Singing in the traditional style, Jiang and a chorus from the U. of Denver’s Lamont School of Music treat us to stanzas of one of Li Bai’s paeans to revelry as an antidote for our brief life.
Li Bai’s heyday is relived, including an evocative poem recollecting spring on the Jade Mountain peaks sung by Li Bai, Poetry, Wine and Chorus. But the poet falls from grace, is enveloped by court intrigue, imprisoned and tortured.
Performed without intermission, the story moves quickly through three acts, with Yi Liming’s simple yet effective scenic elements in consonance with the material.
Diana Liao and Xu Ying’s libretto renders the poet’s phrasing sensitively, pleasing to the ear in Chinese and to the reader of the English surtitles. Composer Guo Wenjing’s score is a marvel of Western orchestration and Eastern tonality, flavorfully performed by Dutch maestro Ed Spanjaard with the 50-piece festival orchestra and one Chinese flute.
Yi’s traditional costumes match the elegance and simplicity of his set. Lin Zhaohua’s direction makes every gesture count, in perfect imitation of the poet’s economy. In sum, the elements present an impressive marriage of form and content — with action, libretto, and music reflecting Li Bai’s fluid life as art — and a hopeful sign for the future of global opera.