Patchel's background as a film composer is evident as he has created a tapestry where the music flows without interruption, sometimes as the dominant feature and other times as commentary on the scenes of intrigue, exploring the motives of political characters and agents involved in the bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War.
The "Plain of Jars" is a garden-of-eden-like place in Laos that was life sustaining for Laotians, who led a simple, peaceful life until their homeland was violated by the US to test new weapons and bombing strategies during the Vietnam War.
Besides the Laotians, the cast of characters includes JFK, played by Robert E. Turner, Nixon, portrayed by Timothy McCown Reynolds, LBJ acted by Jon L. Peacock, and Henry Kissinger, depicted by John Hayden. Patchel's treatment of the characters satirizes them in the light of their criminal and covert actions, with the exception of Kennedy, regarded as the hope of change for the direction for the country. Turner's stately and passionate enactment of JFK provided a stark contrast to the political trio who plot the death of Kennedy. In addition to the rich diversity of these characters, two CIA cohorts (played by Sayaka Aiba and Clare Francesca) add to the scheming and deceit, playing a critical role in persuading the politicians to use the Vietnam War to test new weapons.
The Laotians are performed by Sayaka Aiba, Clare Francesca, Jialin Li, and Xi Yang, and their opening scene of the tranquility of the Laotian natives was serenely projected with their melodic lines interweaving and overlapping, shimmeringly mystical.
The scene shifts to the White House with JFK and the political trio in which the assassination of Kennedy to prevent the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, establishes the symbolic presence of his spirit. Patchel's conception of having JFK portrayed by an African American is an inspired gesture, and Robert E. Turner brings a sense of dignity and destiny to the role. It stands in stark contrast to a CIA-directed White House and State Department intent on using the "falling domino" theory as an excuse for the war.
The trio of conspirators, provided a bitingly satirical commentary, and each actor emerged sharply etched as a caricature deeply embedded in a personal grasp of the demeanor and rhetoric of politicians caught in the web of their own deceit. Timothy McCown Reynolds was brilliant in capturing the expressions and blustering mannerisms of Nixon. John Hayden's Kissinger was covertly evil in his quest for power and posterity, a stunning range of characterization. LBJ was indeed "with heavy heart" as possibly the most powerful and reckless one of the trio, but traumatized by the enormity of his transgressions against America and Vietnam. The Vietnam War was a force that spiraled out of control, and each response only made matters worse. Peacock's characterization was accurate, revealing a troubled LBJ who could not overcome his own tragic flaws.
There are two extraordinary scenes that seem to transcend the structure: a "Death Dance" danced by Robert Turner, Cantata Fan, and Sayaka Aiba, an eloquent gesture mourning the death of Laotians. This was a powerful moment, abstract but also immediate and irrevocable.
The other, concluding scene of the opera is the final aria of Gaia (Yang Xi), a compelling apotheosis of the Laotian pride whose survival in the world exacts a justice, a redemption for having endured the slaughter of innocence. The pride and purity of the Laotians remain untouched. The aria begins in the symbolic demise of Kissinger, Nixon and LBJ entombed in the ancient jars of the Plains. The music celebrates triumph of Laotians over evil. In many ways, the structure of the work is a series of climaxes, each surpassing the previous. Yang Xi's musical sensibility and strength of interpretive expression uses her remarkable voice to shape each nuance and climax demanded in this dynamic and expressive aria.
Patchel's music unfolds as a continuous tapestry of sound embellished by live instruments performed by Kento Iwazaki (Koto), Cantata Fan (Pipa), Alan Gruber (violin), and the keyboard manned by the composer. Their presence as a substantive texture, provided an evolving spontaneity.
Adding to the ambiance of the evening was the wonderful set created by Alexis Kandra, simple, but enriched with the nuance of an primeval space invaded by the technology of 20th Century war... the enduring, giant jars on the Plains ultimately serving to entomb Kissinger, Nixon, and Johnson, indicted for their crimes against humanity.
A highlight that must be noted is Clara Francesca's solo "This is the only war we've got..." Her performance was powerful, Brechtian, yet bitterly poignant, confirming the opera's pervasive tone as satire. Perhaps the strength of the libretto is the tension between the gentle presence of the Laotians and the sharp, caustic satire enacted with such brilliant individuality by Reynolds, Peacock and Hayden.
The Plain of Jars theatrical premiere created an unforgettable quality for New York City on December 10, and 11 by bringing to our attention a regrettable and shameful time in American history. The opera focused on the violence in Vietnam and the culpability of the United States. Even though video footage of the bombing and violence in Laos was included in scenes, the libretto did not explore the atmosphere in this country that was violent, explosive and cruel, with riots, demonstrations and killing of innocent protestors. This is clearly a work in progress, and Patchel faces many options as he develops this new opus.
Patchel is to be commended on creating a work that reminds us that Time does not erase such moments, but elevates them to renewed significance as we discover new meaning from events of the past.