The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
Zuni Icosahedron
St Ignatius Chapel, Wah Yan College (Kowloon)
Reviewed: Nov 5

Based on the book by Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is styled as a digital opera in seven acts recounting the epic undertaking of a late 16th-century Jesuit priest trying to sell Christianity to the Chinese; it's a new commission by experimental troupe Zuni Icosahedron, marking the anniversary of Ricci's death near Beijing in 1610.

The story is contemporaneous with the earliest Italian operas that were fashioned simply and shunned musical complexity, giving an idea of how this meaty tale was delivered with a certain period feel in less than 90 minutes, using a plain chapel with wooden pews that tested the audience's stamina.

Taking the title part, bass Tian Haojiang carried the evening, his wonderfully resourceful voice and stage presence an antidote for Spartan seating. The one reservation lay in his vowel formations that, for example, rendered his 'memory' a less cerebral 'mammary'. But who could forget his ecstatic reaction when eventually granted an audience with the emperor?

Diana Liao's concise libretto proved the linchpin, neatly laying out the clash of two irreconcilable cultures in which mundanity interweaves with lofty themes: Ricci becomes energised at being able to buy a haunted house at a bargain price, while prostitutes and beggars engage in the general discourse.

Secondary characters were sung by talking-head projections mouthing electronically tweaked vocalisations; they worked a treat. Two unexceptional puppets contributed further roles while Takao Kawaguchi, mostly in fluent mime, played a catalogue of subsidiary parts.

Mathias Woo Yan-wai's direction successfully navigated the chapel's fixtures, but there were periods of stasis in which Steve Hui Ngo-shan's music for small ensemble wasn't up to carrying the drama, despite Manuel Nawri's precise direction. Ricci's final moments seemed interminable with strings of faux-Messiaen organ chords; a lengthy Road to Emmaus scene churned out simplistic counterpoint redolent of baroque ballet; sensing failure in his efforts to spread the gospel, Ricci was given pastiche Moody and Sankey to declaim, inappropriately saccharine, even if suitably evangelical.