Tea: A Mirror of Soul at Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

By William Dart, Reviewed by William Dart

It may seem an unlikely premise for an opera, but the significance of tea and its various ceremonies provided just that for Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul.

Staged in a Michael Fowler Centre than could well have had more filled seats, Tea blended Oriental mysticism and soundscapes with moments of Puccinian ecstasy.

Presented in its Lyon Opera production, immaculately staged by Stanislas Nordey, and conducted by its composer, Tea was more than just opera; it was the full music theatre experience.

Three svelte percussionists ushered the work out of darkness and silence, dancing their way to the stage, bowing what looked like multi-stringed incense burners; throughout the piece, the trio created a universe of sounds from water, paper and stone.

Water was poured and beaten, evoking everything from fragile tinkle to the sort of sounds familiar from the remix brigade; rows of ceramic pots provided gamelan-like ambience. Then there was the tearing, battering and waving of paper; wall-to-ceiling blinds whipped back and forth while a chorus of monks made sonic semaphore with unfurled scrolls.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra may have turned pages back and forth for sonic effect but also gave us Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon climaxes and lulling poetry from flautist Kirsten Ede and harpists Carolyn Mills and Ingrid Bauer.

Much has been made of an all-Chinese cast in this production and Xiuying Li was outstanding as the Princess Lan, poised in her lyricism throughout and heart-rending in duet with Haijing Fus Seiko, some of which was a little on the saucy side.

Warren Mok was the perfect heldentenor as Lan's brother, while Dong-Jian Gong as the father was the most eloquent, and human, of Emperors.

Haijing Fu and Ning Liang as the multiple characters of Lu showed the authority that comes from having been with the opera since its premiere back in 2002.

New Zealand is only the fourth country to experience this important work, and history is being made. The International Arts Festival has every reason to be proud.

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