ArtsEmerson's "Ouroboros": A Trilogy of Culinary Tails

"Madame White Snake"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

The ouroboros, an ancient icon depicting a serpent eating its own tail, symbolic of eternal renewal, is now also a symbol of three grand operas, created and written by Cerise Lim Jacobs, consisting of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake, along with two World Premieres, Naga and Gilgamesh, presented by ArtsEmerson as The Ouroboros Trilogy. The endless cycle of life, death and rebirth, with each opera a fully realized production, features libretti by Jacobs, each set to music by one of three composers. Naga (composed by Scott Wheeler) is the story of a young Monk who renounces everything to find nirvana, but is tempted to abandon the path when he encounters Madame White Snake (composed by Zhou Long), which is the story of a demon who longs to become human in order to experience love, while Gilgamesh (composed by Paola Prestini) finds the demigod son of Madame White Snake realizing his true power while being pushed into a position where he must choose between his family and happiness. The operas will be performed on separate nights as well as in full day marathon events; each is less than two hours in length, performed in English with surtitles. Any serious opera buff would do well to secure tickets quickly,as these will be performed only twice more, all of them with Director and Production Designer Michael Counts at the helm.

Naga (referring to a semi-divine snake), as noted above, is the story of a young monk (baritone Matthew Worth) who has denied himself everything. The White Snake encounters him saying goodbye to his wife (mezzo Sandra Piques Eddy). Moved by the couple’s grief, she longs to experience such powerful emotion herself. The monk subsequently comes upon Xiao Qing (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo), the Green Snake, who tempts him three times. The monk resists the first two attacks, but his resistance weakens during the third. The White Snake (soprano Stacey Tappan) stops him from turning back and leads him to a renowned healer, the Master (bass David Salsbery Fry), who takes him in as an apprentice. When the healing master discovers the White Snake, he recognizes her magic as the answer to his prayers for the salvation of the world. He believes that whoever eats of her will be healed. The monk, however, feels she should be free so the universe will appreciate her beauty and uniqueness. The Master orders him to hold the White Snake so he can sacrifice her. In the ensuing struggle, the monk releases the snake and the master is stabbed. The singing was uniformly excellent, including an adult choir and a children's chorus. The challenging score by Wheeler, utilizing electric guitar and a soprano sax as well as more ancient instruments, was lovely and wonderfully conducted by Carolyn Kuan.

Madame White Snake (soprano Susannah Biller) is the story of a white snake demon who longs to become human to experience love. She transforms herself into human form as a woman, encountering Xu Xian (tenor Peter Tantsits), a mortal man, and marries him. Afraid to disclose her true identity, she meets Abbot Fahai of the Golden Mountain Monastery (bass Dong-Jian Gong) who recognizes her for who she is. He sows the seeds of doubt in Xu Xian’s mind and gives him a truth potion which re-transforms Madame White back into a snake. The Abbot leads Xu Xian away but White Snake raises the waters to drown the Abbot. A great flood covers the world as she is defeated by the Abbot after giving birth to a son, rescued by the Green Snake (Michael Maniaci, one of the world's rare male sopranos). This too was sung expertly by the entire cast including two choruses, ably conducted by Lan Shui, and beautifully composed by the Pulitzer-winning Long.

Gilgamesh, or Ming (baritone Christopher Burchett), the semi-divine son of Madame White Snake (soprano Hila Plitmann), was abandoned during his mother’s epic battle with the Abbot (bass Andrew Nolen). He encounters her for the first time in her human form as she is imprisoned in the Golden Mountain Monastery. She reveals to him his birthright, the power to control the waters, begging him to use his power to save her. Ming returns home to find that his wife Ku (soprano Heather Buck) has just given birth to a white, iridescent baby girl who resembles her grandmother. Giving the baby to the green snake (Costanzo again), who had saved him when his mother was defeated, he returns to the Monastery. A robe and empty alms bowl are all that are left. Ming dons the robe, takes the alms bowl, and departs. Once again, the singers (and two more choruses) were all in great form, especially Costanzo in his difficult register. Conducted by Julian Wachner, Prestini's music was another wondrous take on this mythological world.

Just as impressive as the audio elements were the visuals created for all three operas: the striking Costume Design by Zane Pihlstrom, the dramatic Lighting Design by Yi Zhao and the absolutely stunning Video and Projections Design by S. Katy Tucker. Tucker's work was especially mesmerizing.

The crowning moment was a (well deserved) standing ovation for Jacobs, whose obvious glowing elation with the reception of this audience was unforgettable. After decades of work on her trilogy, the palpable warmth from the opera-lovers present seemed to overwhelm her, as well it might. It was a magnificent night for opera. And, if you're in the mood for even more of an opera fix, note that Odyssey Opera Boston is producing, for one night, 9/16 only, Dvorak's Dimitrij, and Boston Lyric Opera begins its season at the end of this month with several performances of Carmen. Suddenly, Boston is awash with operatic opportunities, and Ouroboros truly shouldn't be missed.

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