Spoleto Festival’s Paradise Interrupted
Paradise Interrupted, which made its world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA 2015, is an opera that melds traditional Chinese kunqu drama with contemporary art. It tells the story of a woman searching for an unattainable ideal and freeing herself from the confinement of that search. The set and light designs are profound achievements that dazzle the eyes. The music, though unusual, is well crafted and masterfully performed. But a dreadfully slow pace hinders the experience, and the repetitive nature of the story will test your ability to maintain focus. If you can muster the strength, a powerful finale will eventually reveal itself, bringing clarity and closure.
First and foremost, the visuals are truly astounding. The inventive set design employs the use of a multi-media installation, digital projections and hundreds of laser-cut paper sheets. Shadows also play a pivotal role. Be it a tree or a character’s silhouette, shadows are present throughout, playing with the notion that the woman’s desire has no substance, that it’s simply a phantom that cannot be attained. The multi-media installation and paper sheets serve a similar purpose, mirroring her confusion by appearing as a massive garden covered in ink. But for all their grandeur, these elements only provide symbolism and visual delight. They do not propel the story forward.
The music parallels the visuals in both its beauty and inactivity. Though rooted in Chinese folk music, it is undoubtedly modern. The orchestra is comprised of both western and eastern instruments that create a unique blend of timbres. The note selection, being equally distinctive, stretches our understanding of rhythm and melody. It is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but its pervasive dissidence becomes an encumbrance. The melodies and orchestrations coalesce into a repetitive din that can’t help but coax the viewer towards inattention.
Even with the lack of momentum created by the soundscape and set design, the libretto itself is the main cause of stagnation. It is rife with symbolism and allusions to nature. Though occasionally lovely, it persistently requires inference and interpretation, which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t so terribly redundant. Repetition is essential to the story being told, but it becomes repetitive to a fault, to the point where focus is almost impossible to maintain and apathy a more appealing alternative.
All that being said, the actors perform remarkably with the material they are provided. Qian Yi, in the lead role as The Woman, floats around the stage with grace and ease, all the while flawlessly delivering complex melodies. The four male performers are also impressive, particularly John Holiday singing countertenor, belting out high notes that defy preconceptions of what a male voice can achieve. But for all their effort, their virtuosity gets lost in the mire of slow pacing and lack of artistic direction.
If you were to walk in on the performance at any given moment, the next few minutes would surely impress and entice. But soon, the novelty would wear off and disinterest would set in. The sum of its parts is certainly greater than the sum of its whole. But if you’re able to sustain the drudgery and maintain interest, the finale is emotionally impactful and conclusive. Paradise Interrupted is an artistic vision that will intrigue, challenge and perhaps even bore, but a keen observer will find purpose in its telling and may even be rewarded by it.