The annual Prototype festival of new opera and musical theater fell victim to a pandemic in 2021. Regularly scheduled in January, it was again derailed this year by the Omicron variant. Frustrating, although some events were picked up and rescheduled. So Tuesday night, Huang Ruo’s Book of Mountains and Seas made its US debut at St Ann’s Warehouse, under the Brooklyn Bridge. The magic of the evening erased any sense of missed opportunities.
Presented by St Ann’s and Beth Morrison Projects, in association with Prototype and Trinity Church Wall Street, it is a work of ‘vocal theatre’, with 12 singers from the Trinity Wall Street Choir accompanied by two percussionists. It is a collaboration between composer Ruo (who directs) and Basil Twist, who directs and designed the large-scale puppets who are the non-vocal performers of the show. In four scenes, via Ruo’s libretto, Book of Mountains and Seas adapts creation myths from Chinese culture, found in a compilation of the same title dating from the 4th century BC. Myths explain the origin of the Earth (“The Legend of Pan Gu”) and why there is a sun in the sky (“The Ten Suns”), among other things.
Ruo boils that down to a handful of lines for each story. This is where the magic comes in, as he narrates using sound and Twist’s wonderful creations. The singers, their faces lit only by the glow of the tablets on which they have the score, are a ghostly visual and sonic presence, their voices sliding through microtones and attenuating or exaggerating each phoneme. Their faces sliding across the stage, they then disappear into darkness.
Ruo’s score depicts action through form and form, the music soaring as the giant Pan Gu lifts the sky away from Earth, gently swirling like the ocean, weaving a mesmerizing tapestry as the 10 suns originals rise and surround the Earth. It’s tonal, full of detailed and precise dissonances and inflections. Nothing is complicated, but there is always something going on, and it creates the wonderful feeling of being outside of real time, a universe between the seconds on the clock.
The simplicity of Twist’s staging is a perfect balance, solid against the ethereal music. Twist’s taste is so clever that the obvious – each of the 10 suns is a lantern at the end of a pole – becomes, with the music, deeply beautiful. He designed a collection of driftwood-like pieces that are evocatively arranged and joined together. In the first story, they make Pan Gu’s face; in the final tale they are the figure of the giant Kua Fu, chasing the Sun.
It’s the only place where the music is prosaic, using repetition instead of detail. But the giant poseable puppet is amazing to watch as it sits, stands, reaches for the sky. With human voices, this inanimate object becomes touching, and Ruo’s piece abandons text for pure feeling.
As of March 20, stannswarehouse.org