Tree Rhapsody, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts

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At first glance, an opera about “a boy, his dog, and a tree” appears to have all the makings of an off-colour joke. But add a spaceship, and move the setting to Dog Planet (where the boy and dog reverse their roles) and you have a pleasant surrealistic fable reflecting on lost innocence and its effect on the world.

Commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Festival to inaugurate its interdisciplinary New Stage Series, Tree Rhapsody has a charm that defies easy explanation. The story is simple to the point of childishness, the music lacking even a remedial sense of stage narrative or text setting. And yet artistic director Tang Lokyin, who is credited with both the score and the story (co-written with Francis Tang, the show’s executive producer), has created a modernist opera that functions much like good children’s literature, defying the rules of the adult world while ultimately transcending age categories.

Much of the credit goes to the projected video animations by Silas Fong and Ant Ngai, which operated rather like an oversized children’s book come to life. And the Ensemble TIMF (the touring wing of South Korea’s Tongyeong International Music Festival, the piece’s co-commissioner), supplemented by local musicians on zheng and pipa, delivered a crisp, clean performance under conductor Kim Suengim.

Less crisp were the vocal lines. Whether the music’s awkward fit to librettist Mak Su-yin’s English text was the fault of the score – it often sounded as if the melodies had been written to Chinese words and later set to English – or the performance was hard to judge. Tenor Kim Dohyun
(as the grown-up boy) and bass Hamm Sukhun (playing both the Tree and the Dogman) managed their lines by sheer force of will, though 12-year-old treble Hennessy Ip showed signs of strain.

The Ensemble TIMF preceded the opera with a set of chamber works, placing ensemble members theatrically around Allen Tsui’s stage set. Chen Xiaoyong’s Volantine set the tone for the evening, unfolding through a series of appealing timbres and theatrical gestures.

Toshio Hosokawa’s Memory (in Memory of Isang Yun) and Kim Namkuk’s Wing II both sounded rather like modernist deconstructions of salon music, differing in intensity rather than offering contrast.

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