A Monk’s Tale – Jianzhen Goes East

JapanJapan Tang Jianping, Jianzhen Goes East: Soloists, Orchestra & Chorus of the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group Co., Ltd / Cheng Ye (conductor), Bunkamura Orchard Hall, Tokyo, 6.7.2017. (RP)

Jianzhen Goes East © Zhang Jun
Jianzhen Goes East © Zhang Jun

Jianzhen – Tian Haojiang
Rongrui – Xue Haoyin
Jinghai – Ke Lüwa
Jingkong – Liu Yudong
Madame Feng – Yin Guilan
Buddhist Monk – Master Renru

Production: Jiangsu Performing Arts Group Co., Ltd.
Artistic Directors – Xu Ning, Gao Yun, Ke Jun
Librettists – Feng Baiming, Feng Bilie
Stage Director – Xing Shimiao
Set Designer – Sheng Xiaoying
Lighting Designer – Wu Wei
Costume Designer – Yang Donglin
Style Designer – Jia Lei
Video Designer – Zhao Hai
Sound Designer – Mao Linhua
Props Designer – Hong Liang
Koto Player – Erina Matsumura
Guzheng Player – Lu Xingyan

The caravans that travelled the Silk Road carried more than goods and people: culture and religion were also transported along the length of the route. Traders from India brought Buddhism to China around the first century AD, although the ruling Confucian Han Dynasty wasn’t too keen about this sort of import. The religion spread further via the East Asian route of trade that ran from northern China through the Korean peninsula and across the Korean Straits to Japan, arriving there in the sixth century.

In the capital of Nara, the Japanese upper classes patterned themselves after the Chinese, adopting their writing system as well as their Buddhist rites and rituals. In 742, an official invitation was issued to Jianzhen, also known as Ganjin, the abbot of Daming Temple in present-day Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province, to journey across the sea and preach. After five failed attempts, Jianzhen finally reached his destination 11 years later. Welcomed by the Emperor at Nara in the spring of 754, he presided over the temple complex of Tōdai-ji, where the great hall houses the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world. In 763, Jianzhen died at Tōshōdai-ji, a nearby temple that he had established a few years earlier. A statue of Jianzhen made shortly after his death is one of its treasures.

The libretto for Jianzhen Goes East is in six scenes, each corresponding to one of the voyages. It tells of the hardships that the monk and his three fellow travelers endured, which included shipwreck, pirates and feudal lords who feared the threat that a foreign religion posed to the established order. The most exotic and colorful of the scenes is based on the fourth attempt in 748, when the travelers were marooned on a tropical island reigned over by Madame Feng, where human sacrifices were offered to appease the gods. The travelers escape a fiery death when the master’s medical knowledge and skills alleviated the island’s sufferings.

The dramatic apex of the opera is the fifth unsuccessful voyage in 750-751. The Japanese monk Rongrui, who had been his stalwart supporter, dies before they leave China. The nun Jingling is disillusioned and weary, while Jinghai, who had previously betrayed Jianzhen, abandons him to return to China, believing that it is the will of Buddha that he go west to India rather than cross the sea to Japan. Then Jianzhen is suddenly struck blind. The monk’s resolve is tested, but he vows to persevere.

Tang Jianping’s eclectic score is infused with the exotic sounds of the Japanese koto, the Chinese guzheng, temple blocks, Buddhist chants (intoned by Master Renru, a monk from the Daming Temple where Jianzhen once preached) and Japanese song (sung by Erina Matsumura as she strummed the koto). For the orchestra he composed sweeping melodies, but often only the sparest of accompaniments (a splash of percussion or the strumming of the koto and guzheng) underpinned the solo vocal lines. The latter’s simplicity and beauty illuminated the spiritual journeys of the master and his followers as they endured their many trials and setbacks.

The set was simple: strips of white cloth that fell from above boxed in the stage on three sides. They were the canvas upon which lighting designer Wu Wei conjured atmosphere with vibrant colors. Simple projections set the locale with depictions of temple precincts, tropical islands and stormy seas. The koto and guzheng players, richly robed in white and red respectively, slid off and on the stage. Master Renru in saffron robes sat off to the side of the stage on an elaborate monk’s throne throughout the opera. For the final scene, pink cherry blossoms fell from a huge suspended tree. It had the potential to be kitsch but was instead joyous.

The excellent cast assembled by the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group was anchored by bass Tian Haojiang, resonant of voice and commanding in stature as Jianzhen. Throughout, he impressed with his dignity and impassioned singing. Ke Lüwa has a lovely soprano that surged with emotion in the Puccini-like melodies of Jinghai’s aria, although her pitch noticeably sagged at times. Jianzhen’s two followers were lyric tenor Xue Haoyin as Rongrui and the fine lyric baritone, Liu Yudong, as Jingkong. Sinuous in black with huge feathers atop a spectacular headdress, Yin Guilan’s Madame Feng was as exciting vocally as she was visually.

The singers were miked, hardly necessary with voices of this caliber. There were a few annoying technical glitches, such as the microphones failing during the opening chorus and a moment where Tian’s mike just cut off. For a cast that was called upon to do little more than stand and sing (Yin Guilan’s Madame Feng being the exception), the singers created fascinating characters through their vocal artistry alone. Just imagine how much impact they might have had without the ‘benefit’ of technology.

The straightforward staging for the main protagonists and chorus did not mean it was devoid of movement. That was provided by the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group’s dynamic troupe of dancers. Dressed in white and a variety of red masks and headdresses, they charged the performance with energy whenever they bounded on stage.

There was a sense of repose to this production that was all the more remarkable given its varied and disparate visual and musical elements. Credit for that goes to the fine balance struck by director Xing Shimiao and the control exerted by conductor Cheng Ye in the pit. The constant stimulation could have easily become exhausting but instead was engrossing. Two-plus hours in the theater flew by.

With the opera, Jianzhen has again crossed the sea to Japan; perhaps he and this glorious musical pageant can sail even further. They deserve to.

Rick Perdian

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