Henrietta Horn





A chamber opera of Akira Nishimura


Akira Nishimura's musical stage work „Eshi the Painter” is based upon the short novel „Jigokuhen” (the Torments of Hell), written in 1918 by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. Akutagawa decided to chose his material from stories and legends of medieval Japan, which he interpreted with a modern and psychological insight and an impressive use of allegories. In ”Jigokuhen”, he illustrates through the fate of a talented painter, the devastating consequences of an excessive concept of Art, which places art above life itself.
For his libretto Akira Nishimura compressed Akutagawa's short novel into eight scenes with several short dialogues. In doing this he has tried to define not only the character of the protagonist, but also to interpret the motivation of their actions.
Nishimura composed his stage work ”Eshi” as a chamber opera for a small, 7-piece instrumental ensemble with solo voice, consciously orientated on Japanese Bunraku theatre. Bunraku theatre, which belongs to the three classical stage arts in Japan, is a puppet theatre with incredible diversity. The puppet figures, which can be up to one and a half meters tall, are guided by three puppeteers simultaneously, who, although open for the audience to see, are almost invisible because of their black clothing. A special characteristic is that the puppeteers stay silent throughout the performance and that all monologues and dialogues are preformed by the tayû, a singer-speaker, who is accompanied by a second musician on a 3 stringed shamisen lute. The most interesting part of a Bunraku performance is the way the singer-speaker, using every imaginable vocal facility, gives every appearing figure a distinguishing character and psychological realism that develops the puppet theatre into a huge dramatic experience.
In „Eshi”, Nishimura gives, in a similar way, all the monologues and dialogues of the figures to one singer. Her voice is the sole medium of expression of the psychological constitution of the figures and therefore must possess a vast amount of modulation and versatility. As the tayû in Bunraku theatre, this singer has no immediate acting duties. She performs off stage. The scenic presentation of „Eshi” is undertaken by the dancers, who like the figures in Bunraku theatre, perform pantomimic.
Different as in the Bunraku theatre dancers and musicians are together on stage, trough which dancers act amongst the musicians. So the movements of both grow closer and influence each other in the immediate space of the stage.
The dance itself concentrates on the main characters. Each personage is represented by two dancers. One dancer is the character itself as the other dancer takes the role of the puppeteer which either actively or passively influences the movements of the other performer.
The influence of the Bunraku theatre on the music of ”Eshi” is very effective the musical level. Instead of the shamisen lute, which is used for all of the sound effects in Bunraku, the instruments; flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, viola, and cello are used, frequently as soloists, for the musical underscoring of the vocal parts. Nishimura revealed, that while composing he was influenced by the sounds of the Japanese Nô theatre, an older form of theatre in which the music is preformed by a shrill flute an three percussion instruments.
The music develops linear, which is determined by the syllabic-recitative structure of the vocal part. The instrumental parts unfold to complex structures, although ones with a heterophonic basis, meaning, coming out of a simultaneous variation of the main melody. Even in the passages based on tonal layers, the music stays text-oriented, meaning that it delivers a tonal comment of the recitation, underlining with tonal material, character and emotion of the figures as well as setting the scenic atmosphere. This illustrates that it is also obliged to the musical expressional style of the Bunraku puppet-theatre.


(Heinz-Dieter Reese)



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