Operas are notoriously rough on characters lacking a Y chromosome. But Diao Chan, the bloodthirsty beauty of Guo Wenjing’s Feng Yi Ting, rejects that notion, raising the challenge: “Who says women can’t change the world?” Directed by Atom Egoyan, the 45-minute opera reaches levels of bloody mayhem worthy of Lady Macbeth or Salome, adorned in costumes by Han Feng (famed for her designs in Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly production), Derek McLane’s shadow-puppet-dominated sets and Kurosawa-esque video by Tsang Kin-wah.
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But as seen during its indelible American premiere in May at the Spoleto Festival USA, multitextured design is only part of the allure of Feng Yi Ting. Strains of pipa and erhu coil around a string quartet and wind trio; Western idioms blend with nasal, Peking-opera-style singing. Guo’s constricted vocal lines are ripped open by the rash actions of his characters. In an effort to save the Han Dynasty, Diao pits her two would-be lovers, the aristocrat Dong Zhuo and his godson Lu Bu, against one another, persuading Lu to murder Dong. Telling her story with a calmness that would make Hannibal Lecter anxious, Diao gives the audience the impression that she is both victim—a woman with a vast amount of potential, trapped because of her gender—and victor.
The opera’s final moments are given over to Lu, who offers an unexpected twist in the vein of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” It gives the opera the eerie sense of a breakup song waiting to happen: What we don’t see, but what folklore tells us, is that Diao’s actions ultimately spell her downfall.—Olivia Giovetti