Monday, 21 May 2012

THE FLIGHT OF THE JADE BIRD / Singapore Arts Festival 2012 Opening / Review

Singapore Arts Festival Opening
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (18 May 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 May 2012 with the title "Stars shine on long flight". 

Some cultures can draw from centuries of folklore for their myths and legends. We in Singapore have to create our own from a fertile imagination. The Russians have their Firebird, expanded by Igor Stravinsky into a stirring 45-minute ballet for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Singapore Arts Festival commissioned Hong Kong-based Singaporean Mark Chan to compose the Jade Bird as this year’s opening act, and the result was a distended fictionalised 140-minute Pan-Asian quasi-opera.

The story’s premise was however a promising one, with multiple metaphorical threads taking place which sum up Chan’s ethos of finding and staying true one’s own identity while threatened by external forces and influences.

Jade is the semi-precious stone which Asians hold almost sacred and close to their chests. The bird is a highly mobile creature that flies long distances according to its instincts – either homing or seeking fresher fields. The palace of the birds represents the last bastion of hope, peace and solace, which faces imminent destruction as it is being replaced by a commercial theme park. Stay and fight, or quit and take flight? Here, the old ultimately resists the new, and hallowed tradition overcomes erosive values.

One certainly identifies with these inspirations and aspirations, and the sense of struggle he was hoping to engender. The libretto, sung in English, seemed fussy and over-elaboration often blurred and got in the way of the points Chan was trying to get across. Set to music, the narrative might have taken on epic proportions but only succeeded in becoming convoluted and unwieldy. The First Act seemed to run for an eternity. The far shorter Second Act, buoyed by more thematic interest, at least closed with a ringing apotheosis. 

The music conducted by Belinda Foo was gratifyingly tonal, the Asian feel provided by excellent scoring by pianist Julian Wong for Chinese instruments, cellos, piano and percussion. There were some memorable melodies, plucked out from the usual contemporary clich├ęs and platitudes, which could have been further developed.

The five singers, drawn from the best of the region, were well cast. Pride of place went to soprano Yee Ee Ping’s impassioned Woman of the South’s aria at the beginning of Act Two. She was well supported by baritone Huang Rong Hai, tenor Melvin Tan and countertenor Phua Ee Kia. A rising star is treble Matthew Supramaniam, whom as the Boy who befriended the Bird displayed great confidence and was the epitome of purity. 

Kee Thuan Chye, perhaps better known as a commentator on Malaysian politics, was a dependable Lim Kay Tong-like narrator. The all-black stage was disappointingly staid, with the only visual interest provided by Hong Kong dancer-choreographer Mui Cheuk Yin, who sympathetically portrayed the Bird in movement throughout. She was however placed so peripherally that she either became a diversion or a distraction.   

Despite certain obvious strengths and the standing ovation accorded at its end, the production struck as being less than the sum of its otherwise impressive parts. Big and long does not always mean better. While this was certainly no Ring Cycle, but in terms of being protracted, The Flight of the Jade Bird felt like it.

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