By pure chance, I suppose, the first three performances I saw in New York this season were all afflicted with Orientalism, that hokey variety of East-West fusion which Edward Said brought to our collective attention a number of years ago. This Euro-American take on things Asian invariably includes a strange mixture of aesthetic admiration and moral disdain, seasoned with equal parts of fear and delight. That the mode continues to attract audiences, despite its increasing datedness, says something about its power. Whether or not we approve of it, it clearly has a kind of grip on us.
The most successful of these faux Far Eastern ventures was also the oldest of the three. Puccini’s 1926 opera, Turandot, is so over the top that a little simpleminded anti-Chinese sentiment is hardly noticeable; it seems to match all the other craziness that prevails in this bizarre plot. Opera as a form tends to be unreal anyway, and in this opera—which comes complete with a demonically dangerous Ice Princess and three riddles that lead to her suitors’ deaths—we don’t expect verisimilitude. My sanguine reaction to it may also have been helped by the fact that I don’t know Italian, so if characters named Ping, Pang, and Pong were speaking in pidgin, my ear wasn’t offended. And Puccini did benefit enormously from his attempt to integrate Chinese dissonances and rhythms into his regular Italian mode: the music shows him at the peak of his abilities, reaching modernist and Romantic heights almost simultaneously. For that alone, I was willing to forgive it a lot.
In this Met production, the title role was sung by the incomparable Christine Goerke, a soprano who can do just about anything with her voice (and in this opera just about had to). But though Goerke was excellent in her part, the show was stolen on opening night by a smaller player, the Georgian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, who had the role of the slave-girl Liu. This was not Goerke’s fault, but Puccini’s: he never really liked Turandot much as a character, so although he gave her the most difficult and impressive arias, he saved the melodic heart of the opera for Liu, who sacrifices herself in high Romantic mode, bringing tears to the eyes of all but Oscar Wilde–like cynics. Calaf, the man who inspires both this sacrifice and Turandot’s ultimate capitulation, was played here by Marcelo Alvarez, who did a beautiful, unselfconscious job with his “Nessun dorma,” making it seem like a normal piece of singing rather than the To-be-or-not-to-be of opera. The production, an old one by Franco Zeffirelli, was typically yet suitably excessive: the audience actually applauded the most extravagant of the three sets, thereby proving that their Orientalism and Zeffirelli’s were perfectly in sync.
More dated than Turandot but still within the realm of enjoyability was the Lincoln Center production of The King and I, which has already been going for months. Here the pidgin English (as exemplified in famous songs like “Is a Puzzlement”) was truly embarrassing, and though this production has probably provided employment to half the Asian singer/dancers in New York, it still gives one a queasy feeling to see them bowing and scraping in the manner demanded here. On the star-performer front, Kelli O’Hara was terrific in the central role of Anna—I don’t think any actress could do that part better—but I’m afraid I sorely missed Yul Brynner as the King, especially in the polka of “Shall We Dance.” For a mid-century-born American, there can be no pretense of objectivity about this musical. The songs are so catchy and so memorable that I felt myself internally humming along (with complete internal lyrics) on most of them. And though the movement is at times stereotypical, Jerome Robbins’s ballet for the “Small House of Uncle Tom” sequence remains gripping and novel; as a choreographer, he really seems to have used the possibilities of dance cross-fertilization sooner and more intelligently than anyone else in his field.
The least successful of the three performances I saw was, oddly enough, the only truly Asian one. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan was appearing at BAM last weekend, and I took this opportunity to see a dance group I’d heard much about over the years. I was not exactly disappointed—the skill of the dancers alone was worth showing up for—but I found myself slightly bored. The evening-long piece was called Rice, and it dealt with all the tropes familiar to me from Pearl Buck: watery green fields, men threshing with sticks, women giving birth in the midst of work. I longed to see something novel, but what choreographer Lin Hwai-Min gave me instead were mainly recycled movements from Asian martial art and Western modern dance. So I consoled myself with the details. In particular, I couldn’t take my eyes off the female dancers’ marvelously prehensile toes, which seemed to have the agility, the flexibility, and the unnatural length of a skilled pianist’s hands. The men were slightly less impressive, but only because they were rarely allowed to do anything unaggressive; they were trapped in Bruce Lee mode. The failure here, it seemed to me, was largely one of choreographic imagination—as if the desire to bring the true Asia to an American audience had foundered on the clichés imposed by the least subtle forms of both Eastern and Western art.