The Sound of a Voice

Although they do offer musical and visual pleasures, these two new chamber operas by Philip Glass and David Henry Hwang are not convincing examples of East-West fusion. Glass' score makes good use of non-Western instruments. But the score's talk-sung style and the supertitles serve to underline the lack of subtlety in Hwang's libretto.

Woman - Suzan Hanson Man - Herbert Perry Woman - Janice Felty Yamamoto - Eugene Perry

Although they do offer musical and visual pleasures, these two new chamber operas by Philip Glass and David Henry Hwang are not convincing examples of East-West fusion. Composer Glass’ often charming score makes good use of a variety of non-Western instruments. But the score’s talk-sung style and the supertitles serve to underline the lack of subtlety and nuance in Hwang’s libretto, which is inspired by Japanese ghost stories and films of the 1970s and ’80s.

The singers and instrumentalists are all first-rate, as are Robert Israel’s spare, modern-art set designs. But even the acting and Robert Woodruff’s direction are compromised by the librettos. While the program notes suggest all sorts of depths and subtleties within them, few if any are revealed in actual performance.

The first, hourlong opera, “A Sound of a Voice,” is concerned with the relationship between an aging, sword-wielding samurai and the witch in the woods he plans to kill. He relents; she urges him to stay because she’s so lonely; a sexual attraction becomes evident between them; he leaves, but returns to find that she has hanged herself.

In the second, slightly shorter opera, “Hotel of Dreams,” a 72-year-old widower goes to a brothel, where he eventually announces himself as a novelist. Its madam fears he will write an expose that would result in the loss of her livelihood. A relationship develops, and the pair ultimately commit dual suicide.

In both cases, there is not enough going on between the lines of the librettos, which are obvious when they’re not vaguely puzzling.

The score, which makes use of pipa, bamboo flute, wood block, tom-toms, tar, dumbeck, wind chimes, tam-tams, castanets and finger cymbals, starts out with a tinkling incandescence that is not immediately identifiable as Glassian, although Glass’ repetitive minimalism does become more evident as the operas progress.

There’s some lovely lyrical flute music played by Susan Gall (the woman in the first opera plays a flute to entertain and seduce the samurai), and pipa virtuoso Wu Man is nothing short of magical at her lute-like instrument. Alan Johnson is a most supportive conductor.

All four singers are excellent, although they are given little opportunity to express deep emotions. While identical twins Herbert and Eugene Perry look too young for their roles, they are splendid vocally. And both Suzan Hanson in the first opera and Janice Felty in the second sing with ravishing musicality.

Israel’s basic set is part sculpture, part abstract art; one of its walls, a black square floating on a white background, looks like a vast Rothko canvas. In the first opera, the stage is dominated by a tilted room made of transparent “paper” within which the “witch” can sometimes be seen playing her flute. A galaxy of colored lights plays across the room as the opera ends. In the second there’s another paper room, this time completely askew and featuring a flight of stairs with huge flowers painted on them.

The Sound of a Voice

Loeb Drama Center, Harvard U., Cambridge, Mass; 560 seats; $68 top

Production: An American Repertory Theater presentation, in association with Chicago's Court Theater, of two one-act operas with music by Philip Glass and text by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Robert Woodruff. Music director-conductor, Alan Johnson.

Creative: Sets, Robert Israel; costumes, Kasia Walicka Maimone; lighting, Beverly Emmons; sound, David Remedios; fight director, Doug Elkins; film projections, Burt Sun, Shalom Buberman; production stage manager, Thomas M. Kauffman. American Repertory Theater artistic director, Woodruff. Opened, reviewed May 28, 2003. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Woman - Suzan Hanson Man - Herbert Perry Woman - Janice Felty Yamamoto - Eugene PerryMusicians: Wu Man, Rebecca Patterson, Susan Gall, Robert Schultz.

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