Cheltenham Music Festival:  Compelling New Music Drama Inspired by Japanese Prints  

07/07/2014

 Nicola Lefanu, Tokaido Road (world premiere): Soloists, Okeanos / Dominic Wheeler (conductor), Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 6.7.2014.

Cast
Hiroshige: Jeremy Huw Williams
Kikuyo: Raphaela Papadakis
Marika: Caryl Hughes
Mime/Dancert: Tomoko Komura

Production
Director: Caroline Clegg
Designer: Kimie Nakano
Producer: Kate Romano
Lighting Designer: Daniel Whewell
Choreography/Movement: Nando Messias
Photographic Images: Wynn White

Back in 1832 the Japanese landscape artist Hiroshige travelled along the eastern sea road from Tokyo to Kyoto, and produced a famous series of woodblock prints of the places where he had stayed. Nowadays one would think nothing of making this particular journey, but nearly 200 years ago things were different: taking the Tokaido Road was a great adventure with plenty of hazards along the way, including raging rivers, floods and earthquakes.

Inspired by his exquisite prints composer Nicola LeFanu and the poet Nancy Gaffield have joined forces to  recreate Hiroshige’s epic journey in the form of a music drama named after the famous road. The story is seen through the eyes of the elderly Hiroshige, played by Jeremy Huw Williams, who steps into the shoes of his younger self in the course of the action.

The composer describes this as a hybrid work not shaped solely through the singing voice but with both aural and visual elements including dance. The music is hybrid too combining Japanese instruments, notably a sho and a koto, with a four piece ensemble of Western woodwind and string instruments. Not every composer who attempts to marry eastern and western is successful, but I had no such reservations about Nicola Lefanu’s efforts. The strong Oriental character of the music reinforced the stylised nature of the drama, while serving to elucidate the events as they unfolded.

A clever distinction is made between the older Hiroshige, whose picture we see at the start and end of the piece, and his younger self. The former is represented by the delicate sounds of the plucked koto while the latter is associated with the harmonica-like sho. The action takes place before projections of the artist’s prints alongside modern photographs of Japan which lack the charm of the Japanese master’s images. The musicians of Okeanos, who are past masters of blending eastern and western instruments, were arranged on the right side of the stage under the watchful eye of conductor Dominic Wheeler.

An important ingredient in the drama is the versatile Tomoko Komura, who arrives on stage  looking like a modern traveller complete with backpack, and then assumes the roles of mime artist, dancer, and commentator. She it is who helps the plot along, prods the characters into action and demystifies the more obscure passages.  She gleefully pokes fun at the artist’s love affairs – with an apprentice geisha (Raphaela Papadakis), who eventually drowns herself, and with a tea-house hostess (Caryl Hughes), who becomes pregnant with his child.

There is always a danger of drifting into a mood of nostalgia for the good old days, but Tokaido Road avoids portraying an idealistic version of Old Japan. Hiroshige’s prints may appear charming enough, but look closer and they offer a social commentary on the times. Life could be harsh both for the people along the route and those who travelled the Tokaido Road, and the music reflects dramatically the difficulties Hiroshige would have encountered – not least the raging rivers he needed to cross and heavy snow drifts. Yet his travels make a new man of him: he develops a taste for adventure and is determined to follow his dreams; so the idea of settling down to a comfortable family life is not an option which appeals.

As a prelude to Tokaido Road there was a brief recital of Japanese music from the Middle Ages played by Robin Thompson (sho) and Melissa Holding (koto) which helped to attune the ear to the delicate sounds we would hear later. This was a sensible precaution, perhaps, but not absolutely essential.  For although Tokaido Road deals with a world very unlike our own, this original and unusual work speaks with an honesty and clarity which I found profoundly moving.

A Japanese lady I met afterwards was similarly impressed.

 

Roger Jones

Print Friendly

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

Facebook-button-1

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera Celebrates its 25th Anniversary with Nicolò Isouard’s Cinderella __________________________________
  • NEW! Pop-Up Opera’s 2018 Mozart Double Bill __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera in 2018/2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF) 2018 Celebrates its Eighth Year __________________________________
  • NEW! Gloucester Choral Society’s Hubert Parry’s Centenary Celebrations in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Chess at the London Coliseum from 26 April for 5 Weeks __________________________________
  • NEW! The Three Choirs Festival 2018: A Preview __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018/19 Season at the Royal Opera House __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival – 30 June to 15 July __________________________________
  • NEW! Staatsoper Unter de Linden in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! St Petersburg Ballet Theatre Bring Swan Lake to London in August __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Ballet Announces its 2018-19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Booking Open for Longborough Festival Opera 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Additional Tickets Now Available for Nevill Holt Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder’s Four-Day Celebration of Art Song in April 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! World Premiere by Novaya Opera of Pushkin – The Opera in the Theatre in the Woods __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group Perform Massenet’s Thaïs at the Cadogan Hall on 23 June __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Carly Paoli Sings for Chelsea Pensioners, at Cadogan Hall, and Signs for Sony/ATV __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH ITALIAN BARITONE FRANCO VASSALLO __________________________________
  • NEW! A First Charity Classical Music Concert at Finchcocks on 27 May __________________________________
  • NEW! MICHAEL SANDERLING IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • NEW! Trinity Laban Moves to Abolish All-Male Composer Concerts __________________________________
  • NEW! ARABELLA STEINBACHER IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella in Cinemas on 15 May with Live Q&A __________________________________
  • NEW! THE CONDUCTOR LAURENCE EQUILBEY IN CONVERSATION WITH COLIN CLARKE __________________________________
  • NEW! Newly Discovered Song by Alma Mahler to be Performed in Oxford and Newbury __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH LISETTE OROPESA AS SHE RETURNS TO LA OPERA FOR ORFEO ED EURIDICE __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH ANDREA CARÈ AS HE RETURNS TO COVENT GARDEN AS DON JOSÉ __________________________________
  • NEW! Rafael de Acha Introduces Some of Cincinnati’s New Musical Entrepreneurs __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H