Netsuke and Inrō was a splendid fusion of noh and kabuki theatre traditions with Italian opera, which carefully selected from each while never being confused about what it was trying to achieve at any given moment.
The setup was simple: a small, low stage backed by Shōji and containing the accoutrements of a teahouse; the only scene in this one-act performance. A projector screen stage left was used to display (most of the time – the projector did fail for a few minutes part-way through) either surtitles or evocative images at different points.
The score and musicianship perfectly complemented the action on stage and especially came into its own in those scenes featuring Miori, daughter of the impoverished samurai Gorō. It turned out that the quartet was arranged – or at least, rearranged – on very short notice but neither a note nor a pause was ever out of place to give the meanest clue that this wasn’t their 45th evening playing the show together.
The storytelling of the mute Miori, ‘voiced’ by flute and surtitle, accompanied by a fluidity and delicacy of physical expression belying the fixed expression of her mask, was truly the highlight of the evening for me. Such simplicity of presentation and ease of expression is usually the product of much skill and practice, and such surely was the case here.
Scott Aschauer, who also composed the work, was excellent as the debauched Gorō. I couldn’t say flawless; singing with the gorgeous (if demonic) noh mask on for the final third was clearly very difficult, but he handled it as gracefully as may be. As the only voice on stage much rode on how well his Heldentenor was able to carry the part, and this it did admirably. It wasn’t full operatic range or power, but then that would have quite overpowered both the show and the space itself. There were times when it wandered a little off-script according to the surtitles and others where it (intentionally) wandered a little off-stave, rendering somewhat more of a musical feel than straight opera. I will guess that the acting also relied more on the other traditions than high opera, as there was very little singing directly at the audience while occasionally waving a hand vaguely in the approximate direction of the other actor on stage at the time.*
While the noh and kabuki influences were easy enough to discern physically – the mask, fan, props, and mannerisms – I’m not familiar enough with the forms to be able to ascribe other elements with anything like certainty. The transition from kabuki-style makeup to the demonic noh mask likewise almost certainly had many more subtle weaves than the most obvious, but this reviewer was ill-equipped to follow threads so fine.
The only criticism I have seems a ridiculous one to level at any opera given that it applies to pretty much every opera, but I think it’s fair to point out just the same. I did not enjoy or value the plot for itself. Not because it was a tragedy, with all of the elements which go in to that, but simply because of the – without wanting to give too much away – very archetypal masculine arc of dissolution, rage, revenge and murder. I understand of course that there are traditions to follow and stylised elements to be presented and so on, but it still disappointed me. While there was so much which was original and unique in every other element I felt that the storyline itself could have done with some more nuance, more substance, more feminine energy.
Having said that, in doing something so new and agglutinative the presence of familiar elements and tropes is vital in providing enough of a recognisable backbone from which the novel elements can depend. Further, the immediate presentation of Gorō as self-pitying, self-absorbed and lacking in any ability to do what he recognised he ought to do meant that, quite rightly, there was little opportunity or reason to sympathise with him even when we got more backstory scattered throughout later on.
All of which is to say that some of this criticism may be at least as much a criticism of myself as of the performance itself! And at heart that is, I think, what best illustrates how well Netsuke and Inrō succeeded, ironic as that might seem. Bringing together such disparate traditions in an interesting and challenging way which leaves only the cleaving to established tradition of the plot to be criticised really shows how well put-together this show was. The beauty and execution of the score, the costuming, the singing and stage presence, and most of all the delightful structuring and playing of Miori as a character leaves me excited for what we can expect next from Scott Aschauer.
*Only joking, my dear opera tragics, only joking.**