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

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

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

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

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