Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An epic spectacular with marketability: San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber

In a string of commissioned works by San Francisco Opera, the latest is a very marketable one with the potential to reach a new audience of millions. The world premiere of American-Chinese composer Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber, based on the epic Chinese classic written in the 18th century by Cao Xuequin, is sure to have future seasons at any number of impressive new opera houses China can boast.

A scene from San Francisco Opera's Dream of the Red Chamber
When sung in Chinese (Mandarin), it should woo the masses in China, supposedly as familiar with the story as westerners are of Romeo and Juliet. For its San Francisco public, however, it's sung in English with English and Chinese supertitles. Being so, it brings accessibility, but I'd rather have preferred to experience it with its own characteristic diphthongs and song as part of the exotic cultural totality that Chinese director Stan Lai and designer Tim Yip so lavishly offer. It's not as if the opera world is short of accomplished Chinese speaking singers, a few who feature in the production itself, or inexperienced in dealing with a foreign language libretto.

Owing more to western classical tradition, Sheng's music is deliciously bridged with descriptive strands of Chinese music incorporating the qin that form part of a richly textured orchestrated continuum. Apart from obvious snippets of Puccini's popular Chinese-set Turandot ringing through that I wished I wasn't hearing, the soundscape contains a beauty that conductor George Manahan easily conveyed via precise playing from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

David Henry Hwang's libretto is brushed with lines and lines of poetic metaphor and it's sung in broad, sometimes distracting, American-accented English by a cast of powerhouse, predominantly Asian singers to tell a story of love conquering desire and temptation but after which its bloom is ripped apart by clawing interests of wealth and status.

Pureum Jo and Yijie Shi
It's metaphysical framework is established by a narrator, an old monk (Randall Nakano) cautioning a stone and a flower that the Earthly love they desire will not turn out as they believe. The stone has supplied the dew to nurture the flower and, ignoring the monk, they metamorphose as Bao Yu (Yijie Shi) and Dai Yu (Pureum Jo), cousins belonging to two powerful dynastic families. They have the blessing of Granny Jia (Qiulin Zhang) in marriage but Bao Yu's mother, Lady Wang (Hyona Kim), fiercely opposes it. Lady Wang's fortunes depend on her daughter, Princess Jia (Karen Chia-ling Ho), one of the Emperor's concubines, and forging her relationship with the wealthy Aunt Xue (Yanyu Guo), whose daughter, the heiress Bao Chai (Irene Roberts), she wants Bao Yu to marry.

I caught myself momentarily more focused on the richly embroidered and flowing costumes in Act I, not helped by a little sterility in the direction of the larger populated scenes and lines of similes and metaphors that saturate the story. The act's concluding septet soars vocally without little visual tension in the fate at hand with the likely marriage of Bao Yu to Bao Chai.

The eleven scenes over two acts move from The Grand Hall to Dai Yu's chamber to the Pear Court Pavilion and so on, displaying the wealth of the two families with Academy Award-winning designer Tim Yip's detailed and vibrant designs unfolding like intricate picture book pop-ups under Gary Marder's evocative lighting shifts.

Act II's opening bamboo grove is where Stai's direction successfully transforms as the dramatic relief lifts intensely. Greater intimacy emerges between the characters and continues more satisfyingly through to the story's shattering finale of loss.

Structurally, the aged monk's interjecting narration does little to bind the plot that the scenes themselves don't do, though Randall Nakano imparts wisdom and kindness in the role. Warmth and firmness of voice, tenor Yijie Shi skips from youthful nonchalance to passionate young man as Bao Yu, pairing tenderly with soprano Pureum Jo's pure-hearted and lucent, agile-voiced Dai Yu. Together they exert a combined power and sensitivity to attain the believability of their journey.

Karen Chia-ling Ho, Qiulin Zhang and Hyona Kim
Qiulin Zhang's dark plummy richness of voice gives distinctiveness to her motherly Granny Jia. Hyona Kim has formidable presence as the disdainful-faced Lady Wang. Irene Roberts is an assured and graceful Bao Chai, Karen Chia-ling Ho is compelling as the introspective and troubled Princess Jia and Yanyu Guo breathes with authority as Aunt Xue. Supporting roles slot in comfortably and the San Francisco Opera Chorus lend well-shaped potency.

Dream of the Red Chamber does a remarkable job in condensing epic storytelling into three hours of opera. Visually, musically and vocally it pumps out much beauty but its poetic foundation could benefit with directional tweaking and the dream I have of seeing it performed in the language of its origin. It will be performed next March at the Hong Kong Arts Festival again in English before a Chinese libretto is likely to see the light of day in mainland China.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 29th September

Production photographs: Cory Weaver

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