The story of Pan Yu-Lin, a Shanghai courtesan turned concubine turned painter and toast of Paris in the 1920s, is a dramatic tale particularly suited for Taiwan, with its history of interaction between east and west and a more recent trend of “biopera” putting historical figures on the musical stage.

La Peintre, Yu-Lin, which had its premiere last week under the auspices of the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra, is so full of ideas, in fact, that the opera provokes narrative whiplash. Her brothel days confined to flashbacks, Yu-Lin first appears as a student at the Shanghai Art Academy on the verge of presenting a ground-breaking nude. The resulting uproar causes the model to kill herself and the artist to flee to Paris, where the art world soon accepts her with open arms. After her husband tracks her down, Yu-Lin’s longing for China becomes so intense that she returns, but the lingering scandal (intensified by her time abroad) drives her back to Paris.

An-Chi Wang’s libretto, largely a tale of transcultural displacement seasoned with reactionary aesthetics and gender politics, had an empathetic champion in director Juliette Deschamps, who wove the story’s various themes without loosening its dramatic thread. The Verona-based soprano Chu Tai-Le (Pan Yu-Lin) and the New York-based bass Hao Jiang Tian (Mr Pan) fully turned on the charisma, finding deep emotional resonance beneath their characters’ struggle to seem carefree.

Indeed, only Nan-Chang Chien’s score fell noticeably short. For a story that is ultimately about provocative art, Chien plays it surprisingly safe, content to drop a few Debussy and Satie quotes or having the chorus erupt in the brindisi from La traviata to celebrate Yu-Lin’s Parisian success. Despite a few clever touches – some integration of Chinese-opera singing (rarely successful in composed works) and a reworking of La Marseillaise in the style of Wagner’s opening to Das Rheingold – the music lacked any conventional sense of drama. That the performance maintained any momentum was due mostly to conductor Wing-sie Yip in the pit.

As a nation of essentially displaced Chinese, the Taiwanese have practically made nostalgia an artistic tenet. But this is no mere period piece. It is not so long since Beijing banned the actress Tang Wei from movies after her nude scenes in Lust, Caution and the Chinese government still uses an anti-pornography campaign as a rather flimsy excuse to crack down on personal freedoms. La Peintre seems drawn from the headlines rather than the history books. ()

3 star rating
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