With “Troubled Water,” premiered on Friday by Guerilla Opera, the 19th-century Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi joins a long list of writers and artists turned operatic protagonists.
It makes sense: Write what you know, after all, and what composers know best is the day-in, day-out of creative work, quotidian routine concealing inner struggles and triumphs with seemingly irresistible dramatic potential. What differentiates “Troubled Water”— composed by Mischa Salkind-Pearl, to a libretto by Frederick Choi — is that the invoked virtues, literary and musical, so fascinatingly and congruently avoid the conventionally operatic.
Higuchi’s formidable reputation — she remains a Japanese cultural touchstone, even appearing on currency — rests on a mere 21 stories and novellas, as well as her diary, published after her death at the age of 24.
Impoverished and in a society discouraging female agency, Higuchi forged ahead, finding fame and success by marrying classical literary style to the stark realities of Meiji-era Japan’s lower classes. “Troubled Water” sketches Higuchi’s career by way of snapshots of her relationship (and eventual break) with her more populist mentor, Tosui Nakarai, interspersed with scenes drawn from her fiction, all translated into appropriately formal language.
Production designer Julia Noulin-Mérat’s trapezoid of gauzy curtains delineated the space, forming a screen for Daniel Chapman’s lighting effects and projected quotations from Higuchi’s writings. Allegra Libonati’s direction was appropriately, efficiently spare, characters drawn with a few physical strokes.
Mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux’s Higuchi, sung with rich vocal focus, started out shyly stooped, straightening into confidence when silently stage-managing her stories. Brian Church sang Nakarai and a series of Higuchi’s characters — a student monk, a courtesan’s client, a disillusioned suitor — with the same light baritone, but found different postures and gestures for each. Soprano Aliana de la Guardia approached three of Higuchi’s demimonde women with cautiously controlled singing — on the verge of more dramatic vocal sounds but rarely letting them soar — while deftly shifting between a straitjacket of stylized choreography and a more naturalistic physicality encapsulating private despair.
Salkind-Pearl has a mobile-like musical style, contemplating sonic ideas as much as arranging them. “Troubled Water” was largely meditative, slow-shifting respirations of sparse, uneasy, sandpapery sounds; even the fast music illustrating Nakarai’s character orbited a single, repeated note. The four-player orchestra — clarinetist Amy Advocat, violinist Lilit Hartunian, saxophonist Kent O’Doherty, and percussionist Mike Williams — conjured ascetic, astringent atmosphere.
Guerilla Opera productions often emphasize opera’s ritualistic qualities; “Troubled Water” took them to an extreme, but otherwise sidestepped operatic indulgence. Dramatic confrontations were, for the most part, implied rather than shown (Higuchi’s rift with Nakarai happened in the latter’s absence, for instance) and fraught dialogue was compressed into melodically understated speech. The most direct conflict, a romantic betrayal drawn from Higuchi’s story “Separate Ways,” was scored — and staged — in the most abstract, Noh-like style.
The opera engineered a quiet determination to avoid one of opera’s most characteristic qualities: its cathartic sensuality. But, in its own way, it was true to Higuchi’s style, eschewing flamboyance for shades of mood and emotion, precisely drawn, exquisitely polished, thoroughly aestheticized.
In Higuchi’s story “A Snowy Day,” the narrator envies “those who see the snow spread out before them and fashion their metaphors.” “Troubled Water” honors that impulse to view the world from a vantage — and distance — of artistic possibility.
Mischa Salkind-Pearl: “Troubled Water”
Presented by Guerilla Opera;
Allegra Libonati, stage director; Mike Williams and Rudolf Rojahn, artistic directors
At: Zack Box Theater, Boston Conservatory, Friday (repeats Sept. 19, 20, 24, 25)
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.