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WSJ 'In A Grove' Review: Kurosawa at the Opera House

Composer Christopher Cerrone and Librettist Stephanie Fleischmann offer an updated, Americanized take on the Japanese director's 'Rashomon'.

By Heidi Waleson

Wall Street Journal

Photo Credit: David Bachman

'In a Grove' by composer Christopher Cerrone and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, which had its world premiere at the Pittsburgh Opera’s Bitz Opera Factory on Saturday, is all about atmosphere. Based on the Ryūnosuke Akutagawa story that inspired Akira Kurosawa’s renowned 1950 film “Rashomon,” the 60-minute opera’s moody, haunting score, laced with electronics, explores the uncertainties—multiple, conflicting testimonies—that are the hallmarks of the story and the film. However, its libretto insists on resolving the mystery, which the story does not.

The setting has been updated from ancient Japan to Oregon in 1921; other significant details have been changed as well. The Outlaw, Luther Harlow, sees The Settler, Ambrose Raines, and his wife, Leona Raines, riding through a mountain landscape left desolate by a wildfire. Luther decides that he wants Leona. He lures Ambrose into a grove with the promise of a hidden treasure, ties him up, and then goes back to rape Leona. Ambrose ends up stabbed to death.

Seven testimonies—four from witnesses with fragmentary knowledge, three from the participants themselves—offer conflicting interpretations of what happened. Each of the three participants claims responsibility for Ambrose’s death. In the Japanese original, the woman having been raped is the core of the story, making honor—that of the woman and that of her samurai husband—a critical factor. In a modern feminist twist, the opera’s woman is given more agency. Leona saves herself from being raped; she tries to rescue her husband and intervenes in the fight between the men. Finally, the revelation that Ambrose has a weak heart as a result of rheumatic fever in childhood—the frailty in the relationship is his, not hers—becomes central to the unraveling of the mystery. Mr. Cerrone’s score, for nine instrumentalists and electronics, opens with a wind-like wash of sound; the instrumental soundscape, with fragments of melody subtly woven into a foundation of percussion, remains alluringly and dramatically hypnotic. Vocal lines are direct and unembellished, often with repeated notes and a sudden drop into a lower register for just a syllable or two. Like the instruments, the voices are amplified and sometimes electronically manipulated and distorted, alerting the listener to the fact that a character may be lying, or remembering wrong. Turning points are carefully signaled: For example, when Leona realizes—or thinks she realizes—that her husband hates her, the pounding orchestration disappears to leave her voice nakedly and poignantly exposed.

Four skilled young singers each sang two roles—a participant and a witness—with only slight changes of hair and costume. Baritone Yazid Gray gave Luther a harshness as well as the seductive allure that tempts Ambrose off the path, and he brought stolid clarity to the Woodcutter who finds the body. Andrew Turner’s lyrical tenor supplied Ambrose’s pathos and the directness of the Policeman who arrests Luther. Soprano Madeline Ehlinger was luminous and sympathetic as Leona and forthright as her mother, who describes her missing daughter as an aspiring botanist. Countertenor Chuanyuan Liu sang the Medium through whom the dead Ambrose tells his version of events with an otherworldly flourish; his final duet with Mr. Turner—two Ambroses together—was a high point. He also illuminated the brief role of the shy Priest who sees the couple on the road before they meet Luther. Conductor Antony Walker, working with the instrumentalists from a loft high above the singers, ably welded the ensemble together.

For the stage, set designer Mimi Lien placed a runway, marbled in black and white, down the center of the small, black-box theater, with the audience seated on both sides. A translucent panel, its utility unclear, bisected the runway and moved from one side of it to the other between testimonies. The only other set pieces were two glowing images of naked tree trunks, one on each long wall behind the audience, which also shifted position, sliding along the walls, between scenes. There were no props. Mary Birnbaum’s acute, choreographic direction told the story clearly, with the aid of Yuki Nakase Link’s ghostly lighting and Oana Botez’s monochromatic period costumes that hinted at Japanese shapes. The look of the show paid homage to the story’s Japanese origins, coexisting ingeniously with the opera’s more American style in its dissection of this young couple’s tragedy.

Read full Wall Street Journal review here.

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