TSO’s Der Mond

The TSO continues their presentation of Carl Orff’s operatic works, which began with last year’s performance of Die Kluge in their old stomping grounds the Zhong Shan Hall. That was the primary reason I didn’t go…

But tonight we got Der Mond, a work written around the same time as the composer’s far more famous Carmina Burana. And in some ways it shows. You may not be quite in the mood for the very kid-friendly story and staging, but there’s no denying Orff is an absolute master of color and texture, with outstanding music for this little fairy tale of a work. Even the program for the evening was designed like a children’s storybook. Very cool.

The Taipei Symphony played wonderfully under Chen Mei-An (陳美安), especially the brass, which gave us the underpinnings of triumphant or tragic or exciting moments throughout the work, a horn or tuba or trumpet moving in unison with a tenor or baritone on stage. The brass sound was warm, full, limber. The singers were outstanding. The ubiquitous 羅俊穎 played Peter, and he was phenomenal as always, either standing up in heaven singing down at/to us, or mingling with the heathens, and he sang the more delicate (and very low) passages with the utmost aplomb. I’d like to give mention to the four stars of the show (the original thieves of the moon (林中光,許逸聖,張殷齊,李仁傑), whose very physical acting onstage made for much of the energy of the staging, in a sort of Willy Wonka or “We represent the lollipop guild” kind of way, with a happy dose of the three stooges: a bit slapstick, very exaggerated gestures, the kind of stuff kids love. More on that shortly.

There’s also the farmer (蔡政呈) and his two comrades (王辰驊,李培松). Really everyone was great… of course the storyteller/narrator (林文俊), the chorus, of adults and of children, all very well done.

Once into the second half of the evening (is it really an Act 2?), we left Willy Wonka for what looked and felt much more like a Tim Burton stage design, fitting with the darker setting of the story. Members of the chorus got small parts to shine, and everyone acted very well. It’s a kid-friendly work. And we even got to practice some German.

During a scene change in the first half, the storyteller came out to teach phrases like “Das ist der Mond,” and other phrases that appeared repeatedly in the subsequent scene, like repetitions “What is the moon used for?” (I’m paraphrasing) or “That’s what the moon is good for,” etc., and the spoken parts, which were not few, were all in Chinese, some even in Taiwanese.

For a foreigner like myself, even fluent in Chinese, it’s difficult to read the ‘subtitles’ (is that actually what they’re called for an opera?) at speed, so I’m doing my best to pick up what German I could understand while reading Chinese, except there was no provided text for the spoken Chinese. I saw some other foreigners in the audience, some of whom I’m quite sure don’t speak Chinese, so for them, it’s quite difficult, nay, impossible, to keep up. That’s a shame, but if you know the story, you can at least follow along, although some of the nuance was lost on me as well, with colloquial Taiwanese phrases and cultural references tossed in, things I’m sure aren’t in Orff’s text, but that I suppose he wouldn’t have minded. It’s entertainment after all, and for the little ones. About that:

The Kids

There were lots of them, one of whom a few rows behind me wouldn’t shut up for almost the entire piece.

But if you know the work, even looking at the cover image for this article, taken from the artwork for the piece, you’ll see the idea is fundamentally for children. The story is taken from a Grimms Brothers fairytale, for Peter’s sake. The story lacks the level of irony or drama you’d get from something for adults, more Shakespearean in nature, but that’s fine.

The visuals for the performance were also stunning, with beautiful projections, props, dangling points of flickering light that served as fireflies at the end, so with all of that, of course the kids oohed and ahed, and there were spontaneous utterances of “What’s he wearing?” or “Where did they go?” or “Why…” and even I didn’t mind it. It was a much more casual atmosphere, one in which the kids were the focus. I can’t stand to be around kids in general, usually, especially not during a performance, but one can see through the colorful music, easy-to-follow story, and humor of the work, that it’s really meant for them, and overall, the production showed that, so well done.

Obviously it’s not a serious piece in the same way that last month’s Il Trittico was, but when you think of Orff and his Schulwerk, an entire approach to musical education, he clearly cared about the subject, especially reaching children, and a work like this can easily do that without being cheap or inconsequential. The music is superb, and in Maestra Chen’s hands, it was excellent.

The Conductor

I’d like to squeeze in a small word about her too. I don’t know her, never spoken with her, but we see her here and there conducting an NSO concert. This is, I believe, the first time I’ve seen her baton lead the TSO, and certainly the first time I’ve seen her undertake an opera, and I’d love to see another. From my seat, I could see the flatscreen monitor of her conducting for the stage performers, and she was clear, precise, and energetic. This isn’t Mozart’s magic flute or something you see every other season at the opera house, but it seemed as familiar and comfortable to her as any of the traditional repertoire pieces. She spoke in a small promotional video (in Chinese) about how a work like this is a joy for a conductor, to be able to present a vibrant, fun work such as this, and it showed.

Bravo, everyone. I wasn’t expecting this work to be transcendental or life-changing, and assuredly it was not, but it was humorous, lighthearted, interesting, and extremely well done.

I just wish we could have this more often. See you next time.

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