Genghis Khan

In 'Genghis Khan,' Salvage Vanguard Theater crafts a surprisingly traditional, surprisingly intimate, and absorbing operatic portrait of a lion in winter

Arts Review

Genghis Khan

The Off Center, through April 9

Running Time: 1 hr, 50 min

His eyes scan the horizon, raging, restless. You can see in them the cold fire of the conqueror, living for battle, taking whatever he desires by force – deadly if need be and without mercy, no sooner having won one prize than anxiously seeking out the next to claim for his own. And as those steely eyes dart here and there, the music that helps tell his story here picks up in tempo, the insistent march going faster and faster until it gallops along like a steed, the short slashing notes of the strings and staccato pounding of the piano and drums like hoofbeats beneath this warrior who cannot ride soon enough into the next battle.

It's with such small strokes that the artists of this Salvage Vanguard Theater production paint their operatic portrait of the larger-than-life conqueror Genghis Khan. The 13th-century Mongol leader may have carved out an empire from the Yellow Sea to the Persian Gulf, may have been feared across Asia as the "wrath of God," but composer Graham Reynolds and librettist/director Jason Neulander have eschewed the epic approach of world-conqueror biopics such as Alexander and the monumental grandeur of old-school opera in favor of a minimalist profile. No cast of thousands ranging over dozens of locales, just Khan and two other characters on a sandy plot of land barely the width of two spears set end to end, their arias scored simply to a piano, violin, viola, bass, drums, and vibraphone. Neulander and Reynolds have endeavored to distill the man to his essence, to portray who he was rather than what he did.

Their Khan is, as he says, in the winter of his days, his greatest conquests behind him and the prospect of eternity and posterity looming ahead. Not one to surrender what he has acquired, he summons to him a Chinese monk said to hold the secret of eternal life, with which Khan can ensure that his empire endures 1,000 years. Eager to see him succeed in this, as in all things, is Khan's mother, Hoelun, the person for whom Khan has done all he has done. She lost one son to the reaper and cannot bear to lose another. For his part, the monk has agreed to meet with Khan in the hopes that he can teach the conqueror to be a more merciful and compassionate ruler, respectful of life.

Given the scope of its subject and his ferocity, Genghis Khan is a surprisingly intimate affair, the unfolding of a few hearts in the night – a mother and son, a man of war and a man of peace. Reynolds complements the martial character of Khan's music with elegiac melodies drawn achingly from one stringed instrument or another, melodies that suggest, as the monk says, the price that comes with killing. The solo instrument's nakedness, alone with a song so tender, pulls us in close to these characters, and Neulander as director works to keep us there, limiting movement, keeping us focused on the actors' faces and voices, where the heart of the story beats. Min Kyung Lee's Hoelun truly beams with pride as she sings feelingly of her son, her broadly smiling face catching the illumination of Diana Duecker's lighting and radiating it like some celestial body. The monk Chang Chun is by nature reserved, and Edward Philip Kuntchef keeps his countenance a mask of placidity, but his expressive tenor is ripe with emotion as he pleads with Khan to turn from war. Alas, the glare in Keith Gipson's eyes, his cruel grin, and the harsh edge to his commanding baritone reveal how much his conqueror relishes being the "wrath of God." Before the dawn, he will learn the price he has to pay for killing, and the cost – the treasure he holds most dear – will leave him broken, a tragic figure in the classical sense. Genghis Khan is a man who does not know himself, and as with kings from Oedipus to Lear, that sows the seeds of his undoing.

That the characteristically rebellious and raucous Salvage Vanguard should turn out a traditional opera with a classical sensibility is at least as unexpected as the Vortex turning out a traditional musical based on a fairy tale. But as with Sleeping Beauty, Genghis Khan shows how much our alternative theatre companies have grown and how capable they are of surprising us, not only with the new but with the established. SVT has crafted an absorbing portrait of a lion in winter, his roar fading into a haunting requiem.

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Genghis Khan, Graham Reynolds, Jason Neulander, Keith Gipson, Minkyung Lee, Edward Philip Kuntchef, Chase Staggs, Diana Duecker, Laura Cannon, Sleeping Beauty, Vortex

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