The opening of Atom Egoyan’s Feng Yi Ting sees Diao Chan, the Chinese courtesan who plots to rescue the Han dynasty by carefully planting the seeds of murder, walking across the stage, absorbed by the small models of emperors, soldiers, and horses that rest on pedestals and turntables, waiting to come to life. As she begins manipulating the models, shadows play upon a thin screen: soldiers ride horses and carry flags in a circular parade, while another long line of soldiers and horses seem to move across the bottom of the screen. A pagoda with a lone figure is on a set of wheels, and Diao Chan moves it according to her fancy. The shadows shift and mingle, while Diao Chan focuses intently on each element, walking purposefully from one to the other as she makes them do what she wants. By the end of this opening scene, there is no question as to Diao Chan’s place in this story. She is the master puppeteer, ready to do whatever is needed to put her plan into action.
Feng Yi Ting, which is based on a true story, takes this idea of control and manipulation and runs with it, creating a powerful, highly visual production that manages to be epic despite its short run time of about 45 minutes. In a prologue sung by Diao Chan (soprano Shen Teimei), we learn that she has plotted to make both Dong Zhuo, a powerful aristocrat, and his godson, Lu Bo, fall in love with her and induce Bo to murder Zhuo, which we realize, as soon as Lu Bo (tenor Jiang Qihu) appears on stage, will not be all that hard. Bo’s impotence is made manifest in several ways, not least by the fact that he is physically pushed onto the stage by a moving platform, with Diao Chan several steps behind, her arms in front of her as if it is she who is pushing him. Bo scarcely ever walks of his own accord, and when he does, it is with the stylized movements of traditional Chinese opera. When these are juxtaposed with Diao Chan’s graceful, natural way of walking, it is easy to see which one is the puppet.
Egoyan has incorporated video in this production as well, with a style reminiscent of early Akira Kurosawa. The projections are black and white and granular and appear to be taken live on stage. One of the most arresting uses of the video element was upon Diao Chan’s first entrance, in which a tiny camera hidden in a hanging mirror on stage captured her in profile, then from the back as she turned to face the audience. It was our first meeting with this self-possessed woman, and what a meeting it was: as she walked, resplendent in a shimmery red cape, her cool determined profile was broadcast in a close-up across the full back of the stage. Knowing her intent, as presumably most audience members did, her commanding visage was almost frightening and drew murmurs of surprise from the audience.
In another fascinating use of projection, Egoyan has created supertitles in both Chinese and English that respond to the music. Certain lines, when sung, would begin to drift apart or dissipate, creating a kind of rain of white letters. While this made for an excellent effect, it was impossible not to notice that while most of Lu Bo’s lines behaved this way, which we assumed were another sign of Bo’s feebleness, the occasional one did not. We were left wondering why he was allowed to speak solidly those few times during the performance. The same thing was true of Diao Chan, whose words came apart only twice, while their behavior appeared unrelated to the meaning behind what she was saying.
“Who says women can’t change the world?” Diao Chan asks at one point early on in the opera, drawing a huge round of chuckles. For if there’s one thing Egoyan has made clear in this production, it’s that this woman, at least, is much more capable of changing the world than any of the men around her. There’s always a woman behind the man, they say — it’s just that sometimes, she’s urging him toward murder most foul.