Arts: Edinburgh: China with a scent of jasmine blossom

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS tempting to see Qu Xiao-song's opera Life on a String as representative of the real China, the China that Puccini was parodying and travestying in Turandot. It was crystalline, detached, strange, full of pentatonic melody.

But this would itself be a travesty. There is an ancient genre of Chinese opera, and Life on a String is not remotely like it. Qu is a thoroughly Westernised modernist, who has lectured at Columbia University.

To judge from his music, he knows about composers such as Kagel, Nono and Berio, and he uses his Western learning to refocus the Chinese tradition.

This extraordinary piece, then, is just as much an imaginative vision of China as is Turandot; and like Turandot, which was also heard, earlier in the Festival, it is a meeting of East and West, a re-telling of Chinese culture using the means of European 20th-century music. The difference is, of course, that Puccini was Italian and Qu is Chinese.

The opera uses just one singer - the versatile Don-Jian Gong - and 14 instrumentalists, who were drawn from the Nieuw Ensemble of Amsterdam. In case we should assume that Gong is more Chinese than the composer, we should say that his successful career until now has been in Western opera, singing in Vienna, Berlin and New York.

This made it all the more remarkable that Gong was able to speak, whisper, sing falsetto and play character parts in a totally convincing style, though the whole libretto was in Sichuan, a Chinese language that, presumably, no one in the Lyceum Theatre understood. We were provided with surtitles, but most of these were even more puzzling than the original.

The accompanists, dressed in traditional garb with broad hats that suggested work in the rice fields, sometimes shouted and sang and joined in the action. Otherwise, they executed this extremely spare score with complete conviction. Qu likes to make a single sound, a bass-drum beat or a bell- stroke, and then leave a moment for us to digest it. Sometimes the strings hold a chord, fragrant as jasmine blossom, while the soloist proceeds, singing and talking without regard for the background. At other times there is a tinkling of small gongs and antique cymbals, suggestive of a Buddhist monastery.

There are even brisk rhythms, almost buffo, and vocal numbers, such as the light aria "Came a day in spring" - if we are to accept its translated text.

The singer impersonates an old blind musician, who has been told that his blindness may be cured when the 1,000th string of his lute is broken. He has only to get his friends to read a secret formula. Yet when this occurs, the page is blank. There is no redemption for him after all. You can imagine the groan of despair that would come out of Puccini's orchestra at this point. But this score is vastly beyond such things. It seems to portray figures on a porcelain dish, abstract and immobilised. The music is largely made up of silences. It is totally mesmerising.

Raymond Monelle