Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Dream of The Red Chamber
Composer Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber is my favorite world premiere at the San Francisco Opera since John Adams' Doctor Atomic in 2005. Like the Adams opera, Dream of the Red Chamber will probably spend most of its life on the fringe of the operatic repertory, but both operas have such interesting scores that they will probably have a long life. The production by Hong Kong artist Tim Yip, the designer for the Ang Lee movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was one of the most lovely and inventive collections of sets and costumes I have seen on that stage. The backdrop consisted of painted ephemera, deliberately shown hanging from strings, that constructed themselves into an almost realistic whole and then deconstructed surrealistically while transitioning into other, dreamlike scenes.
The costume for Karen Chia Ling-Ho above as Princess Jia, the Emperor's favorite new concubine in a court filled with schemers, was one of the most amazing pieces of clothing I've ever seen. I wish Cory Weaver, who took all these production photos, gave us a shot of Ling-Ho with the whole costume monty. Her robe went on seemingly forever, one embroidered yard after another.
Her character doesn't come to a good end and neither do any of the other matriarchal and young female figures who populate China's most revered novel, a 4,000-page, five-volume, 18th century poetic, philosophical, and romantic tale of the end of a few aristocratic family clans during the Manchu dynasty. Currently, I sit next to two Chinese-born coworkers in adjoining cubicles in Silicon Valley, and both of them knew the tale from reading the book in adolescence. One of them even memorized the poems written by Dai Yu (the reincarnated Flower, sung by Korean soprano Pureum Jo above, with the contralto Qiulin Zhang as the soulful Granny Jia) and my coworker can still recite them.
The music by Bright Sheng, a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution as a young person, and a survivor of American academia as an older one, has written a complex score that's also very accessible, with traditional, almost Italianate arias mixing it up with 21st century percussion and interesting differences in tone from scene to scene. It never sounds cross-cultural gimmicky which could have happened very easily, and was brilliantly performed by the SF Opera orchestra under conductor George Manahan. At one point early in the opera, Bao Yu goes off to her bamboo forest quarters and sings a very famous poem from her heart while strumming on a qin, an ancient plucked zither consisting of a narrow box strung with seven silk strings played in the pit by Shanghai-born musician Zhou Yi. It was enchanting.
The one male hero of the tale is a teenager, Bao Yu (the reincarnated Stone to Dai Yu's Flower), and he was perfectly sung and acted by tenor Yijie Shi, in a performance so sweet, smart and attractive that I can imagine him becoming a matinee idol in Hong Kong where this production is traveling next. All the singers, most of them making their SF Opera debuts, were very good, including Hyona Kim as Lady Wang below, a scheming villain played as an honorable person who ends being foiled by the even more scheming Emperor.
My companion at the Sunday matinee was James Parr, who grew up in China as a child, and whose excellent spoken Mandarin tends to astonish people who are not expecting to hear that language coming from his mouth. There were both English supertitles over the stage and vertical Chinese titles on the side, and James mentioned that the latter were way more interesting and poetic than the clunky English of the original libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang, working from the composer's scenario. At intermission, we were introduced to one of the Chinese supertitle translators, and I mentioned how much more poetic my companion was finding the idiograms to be. "We went back to the language of the original novel as much as possible," she replied. I think for this opera to really prosper it should immediately be translated into Mandarin, "with as much of the original as possible," and presented as such. The condensed novel scenario and music and production are already wonderful.