We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (photo ©Hiroshi Sugimoto/ Courtesy of Odawara Art Foundation)

New York City has such a plethora of entertainment choices that it is difficult to decide where to go on any given evening. Surely, we made the right choice on Monday evening when Lincoln Center's White Light Festival brought an astonishing work of art to the Rose Theater. It was the United States premiere of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, presented by Sugimoto Bunraku in association with The Japan Foundation and Odawara Art Foundation.

There are many credits for this production including the National Bunraku Theater (Bunraku Kyokai) and the Setagaya Arts Foundation and Setagaya Public Theater. We can only imagine how much work was involved in bringing this rarity to New York and how much artistry was involved in restoring a work from the early 18th century.

The original text was written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, an uncommonly prolific dramatist who is thought of as a Japanese Shakespeare. The work glorified the concept of finding paradise through suicide; so many suicides resulted that in 1723 the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited its performances! The work lay dormant until 1955 and it had to be reconstructed from Chikamatsu's script for the narrator and some diagrams for the puppets. The current iteration was devised by the multidisciplinary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto; the work he created was as artistically valid and emotionally moving as one might wish.

The story concerns an impossible love between a 19-year-old girl who works in a brothel in what is euphemistically called the "pleasure quarter" (she is not so euphemistically called a "prostitute" in the English translation) and a lowly clerk who makes a series of unfortunate decisions. He rebels against an arranged marriage and has to return a dowry; he lends this money to a trusted friend who swindles him and accuses him of slander and trickery. His reputation is ruined; he is a broken man with no prospects. The "logical" decision is for the lovers to die together.

That puppets can make one weep is astonishing! Although we were sitting far from the stage we could not fail to miss the tilt of a head, the sweep of an arm, a reluctant footstep, a desperate embrace. All this without a single facial expression!

A master puppeteer was assigned to each character and a number of assistant puppeteers helped to move them in very humanlike fashion. Several illusions were artistically created, such as removing a sash, slicing it in twain, and tying the two lovers together. All the puppeteers were dressed in black, head to toe, almost invisible. The set was simple--a Torii gate when the heroine Ohatsu makes a pilgrimage, a simple elevated floor representing the veranda of the brothel in the second act and a projected forest for the death scene. Video projections by Tabaimo represented natural elements like birds flying and the forest.

And now about the music! Composer, Director, and lead player of the shamisen was Seiji Tsurusawa whose playing was augmented by several more shamisen players, all of whom had the last name of Tsurusawa. We cannot say whether they are members of the same family or adopted the name as an honorific. We heard what we think was a shakuhachi offstage as well as soft drumming and a gong.

The sung parts were listed in the program as "Narrators". They included Rosetayu Toyotake, Todayu Toyotake, Rodayu Toyotake, and Nozomidayu Toyotake. Again we suspect either a family relationship or an honorific. The sound rose and fell in splendid cadence as if the program were one long recitativo. All the narrators introduced variation of dynamics, tempi, and color to get the emotions of the story across.The overall effect was hypnotic. The effects have stayed with us and stimulated thoughts about hopelessness and suicide.

Not only in centuries gone by have couples wished to leave the earth together. It is not unheard of for elderly couples facing death and decline to do so, although it is uncommon in the young. Solo suicides, on the other hand, have been rising in the younger demographic. We do not think that they are expecting to wind up in paradise. More likely it is a tragic attempt to escape bullying, gender identity issues, or egregious parenting. And these suicides often stimulate "copycat" suicides. In our day these events are tragic.

Only in art can suicide become beautifully poetic!

© meche kroop

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