S&H Opera review

Eiko no Inochi (Beyond Brain Death): an opera by Shiho Fujimura and Kazuko Hara Tokyo Chamber Opera Theatre, QEH, 24 July 2001 (MB)

Eiko no Inochi is now ten years old and this performance was its UK premiere. Its subject matter - the emotional and cultural approaches to organ transplantation and brain death - are as relevant today as they ever were but do they make great opera? The answer must be no. There is little action to speak of in this opera (even though it spans, geographically, Otsu and Kyoto), and the drama is mostly reflective rather than physical - in fact, it is much like a philosophical argument set to music.

Yet, it is riveting - especially when the performances were so compelling to watch and hear. Starting with the Heike Tale played on a Biwa it gives the impression of bustle and action (an orchestra takes the stage, women are returning from a tea party) yet the tragedy is almost immediate, the action sublimated. Moriko (sung by the outstanding Eiko Hiramatsu) receives a telephone call (startlingly improvised by the small chamber orchestra) informing her that her husband, Eichi (whom we see only bandaged and bed-ridden) has been injured in a car accident. She rushes to the hospital, not knowing the extent of her husband's injuries, but is soon told her husband is brain dead - a possibility she finds impossible to accept. Her arrival is conjoined with a fierce argument between a young kidney donor who has decided, against his family's wishes, to under-go a transplant rather than waste years of his life going through dialysis. Moriko insists her husband is moved to Kyoto where he can be treated by a family friend, the surgeon Dr Shigematsu. The prognosis is merely confirmed - but Shigematsu tries to persuade her to let some of her husband live on through transplantation. Initially she is horrified - 'it is vile', she says - but remembers that Eichi's mother received a cornea transplant and this persuaded her husband to consider transplantation in the event of his own death (although he did not actually sign anything to state this wish). She hears the conflicting voices of her family - her uncle saying that Eichi will be denied a place in heaven - yet decides to allow the transplantation to proceed. The rest of the opera plays out the turbulent anxieties of waiting for a transplant - a young man fog-bound on his way to the hospital, a young woman told she is next but isn't and so on. As the Day of the Gion Festival begins Moriko listens then prays. She puts on a mask and dances the Okagura - when she removes the mask her face shows relief and peace.

It is certainly an unconventional story for an opera made all the more fascinating by a luminous score. Written for a chamber orchestra (2 violins, a cello, flute (doubling piccolo), percussion, horn, cor anglais, and an assortment of Japanese instruments) it is both powerfully and movingly composed. The moment she finds out about her husband's accident the orchestra unleashes a maelstrom of sound, yet her moments of anticipation and reflection are almost universally accompanied by a soulful melody on solo cello. The playing was intense and beautiful: there were wonderful arpeggios on violins which often suggested more than two players, haunting, almost Debussyian woodwind lines and dramatic, but subdued, percussion which highlighted not just the moment of death but the philosophical debate between the 'voices' and the 'characters'. The libretto (given in English surtitles) is less convincing. It is often very mundane, frequently dense and unsubtle yet the subject matter probably demands that this is the case.

Performances were universally excellent - but Noburo Hisaoko as Dr Shigematsu and Tomoko Noda as the Female Doctor stand out for being, respectively, passionate and chilling. Eiko Hiramatsu acts and sings with equal refinement.

Marc Bridle

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