San Francisco Opera presents the world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber
This work was composed by Chinese American composer Bright Sheng with libretto by the composer and David Henry Hwang. It was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and co-produced with the Hong Kong Arts Festival. I travelled from the scorching heat of the Central Valley to the cool bundled-up and foggy San Francisco to see this show.
The opera is adapted from the novel of the same name. It is a Chinese classic, as The Great Gatsby or Tale of Two Cities is to an Anglo-American where many houses in China will have a copy and many Chinese children would have been introduced to the story in school. While the novel is a complicated narrative of love and politics, the opera concentrates on a love triangle between two women and one man (Boa Yu). At stake is a family fortune where in a marriage to one woman (Boa Chai) the family will prosper but the man will be unhappy and the other (Dai Yu) there will be true love but no money. In the end there is a ruse and Boa Yu marries a woman who he thinks is Dai Yu but it turns out to be Boa Chai wearing a disguise. The family is saved for a moment until the Emperor uses the excuse of their marriage to take the property of both families, leaving them in ruin.
"It seems that the family is saved by this marriage, only to be betrayed and attacked by the Emperor and left destitute."
The opera, performed in English with Chinese and English supertitles is in two acts. Act one is brighter in tone and more elaborate in color as we learn of the family wealth. Act two is darker and more stark as the family descends into despair with death and the impending doom. It seems that the family is saved by this marriage, only to be betrayed and attacked by the Emperor and left destitute.
"The set is exquisite, stunning and other-worldly. It is a feast for the eyes, almost in constant motion, detailed and always impeccable."
Tim Yip’s production here deserves first mention. The set is exquisite, stunning and other-worldly. It is a feast for the eyes, almost in constant motion, detailed and always impeccable. Enough cannot be said about this production in that regard and it has a “see it to believe it” quality in which my words can do it no justice. I dare say, because of the movement, neither do the press photos.
The libretto hangs together quite nicely and the story is a good one. It is a lean narrative and well crafted for the operatic stage. The music is also well crafted and is through-composed. The music leads the stage movement and never leaves the actor hanging with little to do. It is divided between the various traditional operatic structures from arias, accompanied recitative, arioso and duets. There is even a septet at the end of the first act. There is some spoken narrative well stylized by actor Randall Nakano. While I was listening to the music I was trying to think of where I would place the style and the sound. I would place it firmly in about 1970 with influences on the western side mostly from Stravinsky and Britten. There is an atonal and angular quality to it with a Chinese sheen.
"To make matters worse this was an audience of friends and supporters at this performance at yet the music give them no opportunity to clap or participate or enjoy it."
But in the end the music fails to impress mostly because there are too few opportunities to really enjoy the climactic moments and there is no opportunity for the audience to show their appreciation. I don’t think that great art and pleasing an audience are mutually exclusive, in fact I believe in this day, for opera to survive there needs to be a little less “art” and a little more satisfaction. (Apologies to the Rolling Stones) It seemed that time and time again the composer would take an exciting finish away and chose the more anticlimactic ending. To make matters worse this was an audience of friends and supporters at this performance at yet the music gave them no opportunity to clap or participate and enjoy it. Perhaps as the work becomes more known these moments will show themselves, because as with many a premiere throughout the history of opera, the audience sat and listened trying to figure out what they were seeing and hearing. Overall however, with this audience, in this hall, it was a big #opportunitymissed in my opinion.
I would also encourage some look at the libretto because on first blush some of the similes and metaphors didn’t seem to make sense. For example, how are two stars in a constellation like two rivers rushing to the ocean? Perhaps something was lost in translation but that is a head scratcher for this guy.
"Special mention to Irene Roberts as Boa Chai who had no problem filling the hall."
As is the standard at the San Francisco Opera the hall was filled with some glorious singing this night. Special mention to Irene Roberts as Boa Chai who had no problem filling the hall. Tenor Yijie Shi who played Boa Yu has a beautiful light lyric tenor voice but was overmatched at times by the sizable orchestra and hall. His English diction needed work. Overmatched slightly was Pureum Jo playing Dai Yu whose voice was pleasant but waivered at times under the weight of the expansive line.
This is a different kind of American opera, one commissioned in America and written by Chinese Americans on a Chinese story. It is wonderful to see these kinds of artistic endeavors that reflect and symbolize our place in a global world. This production runs until the end of September.
Overall it was an nourishing night of opera, well played and well suited to the highest standard of the world-class San Francisco Opera. I just wish I was allowed to enjoy it more.
Dr. Anthony P. Radford, Review Editor, Opera Journal, National Opera Association,
Associate Professor of Voice, California State University, Fresno
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Opera Association, its Board, Officers or Membership.
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