The Globe and Mail, Music review, Saturday, September 2, 2006

A Wonder in the Wilderness

The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix
Patria Music/Theatre Projects
In Haliburton, Ont . on Thursday

REVIEWED by Colin Eatock

On Thursday night, deep in the forests of central Ontaria, a miracle took place. Through the efforts of an alchemist's daughter, the opposing force of yin and yang were balanced and the order was restored to China's Tang Dynasty.

Anyone familiar with R. Murray Schafer will suspect that this Canadian composer, famous for his mythological music-theatre works, was behind these supernatural events - and indeed he was. This was The Palace Of the Cinnabar Phoenix, the ''Chinese'' work in his massive 12-part Patria Cycles, in a rich and vivid staging from Patria Music/Theatre Projects (Schafer's own company).

In Patria, Schafer has largely turned his back on conventional theatres, and often seeks out remote setups to stage his productions. His works have, of late, found a home at the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, a 60,000-acre tract of land tucked up against the southwest corner of Ontario's Algonquin Park. Peter Schleifenbaum, the Owner of this vast wilderness, is an ardent Schafer fan, and last year agreed to lend his support to five Schafer productions in as many years at the reserve. That, in a nutshell, is how about 400 people, ranging from hard-core Schaferites to curious cottagers, came to the shore of a small lake in the middle of nowhere.

The show took place not just at the lake, but on it. The performers – including a half-dozen singers, four puppeteers (the Puppetmongers) and a 12-pliece orchestra made up of western and Chinese instruments - appeared in boats and on platforms built on the water. As the vocalists sang their various roles, the action was skillfully played out with large puppets, giving the production a ritualized, self-consciously theatrical flavour.

Cinnabar Phoenix is not, in any literal sense, a Chinese legend, although Schafer apparently consulted with a sinologist to assure that his story at least resembled one. At the outset a narrator explains that phoenix once lived in a palace on the lake, until warring factions drove it away. (''Cinnabar,'' by the way, is a mineral used to produce the colour vermilion.) Now the lake is full of dragons, and the emperor seeks a way to restore the phoenix to its rightful place, thereby re-establishing harmony between heaven and earth.

Schafer has a way of bringing out the best in the right performers - and, happily, these were the right performers. The principal cast members - soprano Lyndsay Hunt, mezzo Eleanor James, tenors Eric Shaw and James McLennan, baritone Bruce Kelly, bass Tom Goerz and narrator Dale Yim - threw themselves into their roles. Especially impressive was mezzo-suprano James in her haunting, half sung, half-spoken aria Shamanka.

Under the baton of conductor Alex Park, the performance was taut and consistently engaging. And designer Jerrard Smith was responsible for several astonishing coups de theatre, including the eerily glowing dragons of the lake, and the phoenix's palace, which dramatically rises from the water at the work's conclusion. (It was too bad about the fireworks display though, which went off at the wrong time when it was apparently triggered by a signal from a cell-phone in the audience.)

But the real star of this show is the piece itself - a multifaceted work that's more complex than it initially seems to be. At first glance, Cinnabar Phoenix appears related to Puccini's Turandot (when Schaffer's being serious) or to Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (when he's not). And the narrator, cleverly portrayed by Yim, wouldn't be out of place in a Charlie Chan movie. This sort of thing could easily grow tedious, or possibly even offensive, except that Schafer always finds a way to add a healthy dose of irony to his oriental exoticisms.

The music is also replete with tongue-in-cheek clichés - and it's surpassingly consonant for a modernist composer. But Schafer is a stylistic wizard, with a full palette of colours at his disposal with which he portrays pathos, mystery and gravity. His use of the Chinese instruments - the erhu (like a small cello) and the pipa (a kind of lute) - is inspired and masterful.

The roots of Cinnabar Phoenix reach much deeper than its surface chinoiseries. There are touches of commedia dell’arte and medieval miracle plays. The spirit of Monteverdi, the father of opera, hovers over the 12-piece band and there's Wagnerian drama in the Blue Man (admirably sung by Goerz), the mysterious stranger whose appearance is crucial to the restoration of equilibrium and the return of the phoenix.

And then there's the setting: a remote lake in Canada. There's nothing Chinese about it - but the physical presence of nature in a piece about natural balance invokes larger-than-life forces. Schafer makes his point: There are some things you just can't do in a theatre.

The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix continues to Sept. 9 (705-457-2330)

Special to The Globe and Mail

[back] [More press reviews ...]