Friday night at Tawes Recital Hall, a program titled "Opera and Dance of Japan" offered fascinating snapshots of the country's compartmentalized musical culture: Western-style opera and traditional, unchanging dance -- neither of which influences the other.
The only thing stranger than Western opera in Japanese is the idea of a traditional Japanese dance society in Riverdale, where dancer and choreographer Graceanne Adamo runs an troupe called Kotobuki Kai, the presenter of Friday's program. Kotobuki Kai is an American outpost of Japan's thriving preservation movement, devoted to keeping the ancient songs and dances in their correct and authentic forms -- unblemished by Western influences.
Yoko Harada King choreographed and danced two pieces, "Paradise" and "Seasons of Love," which also featured Adamo. King moved with formality and grandeur appropriate to the classical dances, but in both, Adamo's more forceful, controlled and unmannered performing style stole the show.
Scenes from Ikuma Dan's "Yuzuru/The Twilight Heron" -- an operatic fairy tale whose popularity has remained undiminished since it was composed in 1962 -- exhibited formidable Western influence. Japanese opera composed in Italian-derived musical idioms sounds odd to Western ears, because opera is so dependent on language and speech nuances. The gritty passion of "Heron's" verismo, halfheartedly staged by Yasuhiro Miura, clashes violently with the folk tale's timeless suspended reality. Hitomi and Yasuhiro Miura had few troubles with their vocal parts. But they wavered between the story's fantasy elements and its direct emotionalism. As a result, their stage work seemed unfocused.
The music, a competently rendered pastiche of thickly harmonized pentatonic melodies a` la Ravel, Puccini and Menotti, did not come across well in the piano score, performed by Yoshinori Hosaka. A piano emphasizes too much of the Ravelian about this music. There is no shortage of student musical talent at the University of Maryland -- why didn't it occur to the presenters to put together a small student orchestra?