Beethoven's 9th at SFS
SF Opera's The Bonesetter's Daughter Media Round-Up

The Bonesetter's Daughter Opening

Bonesettersactii * Notes *
The opening performance of The Bonesetter's Daughter proved to be a rather maudlin and self-indulgent affair. The beginning was promising, the call of the suona players from the Grand Tier was regal and imposing, and the aerial acrobatics combined with projections of water and fire during the overture were impressive. The first trio of Ruth (Zheng Cao), LuLing (Ning Liang), and Precious Auntie (Qian Yi) was also pretty. It is too bad that the set makes such a loud squeaky sound as it moves forward during that scene, it was completely audible from the back of the orchestra level last night, as it was from the boxes during the dress rehearsal. It was also obvious that amplification was used for Qian Yi.

Unfortunately, the music lost focus from there, and seemed very much in the background compared to the elaborate plot, which seems to have as much to do with Greek tragedy as it does the book The Bonesetter's Daughter. Reading Amy Tan's book only confused me, as the characters and story line have been compressed nearly beyond recognition. The players here have been reduced to mere caricature, whether it is the meanness of the Kamen family, the madness of LuLing, or the evil embodied by Chang. I found it extremely difficult to relate to any of the people on stage because all of the personalities were so flat and the music did nothing to illuminate them. As over the top as scenes of urination, threats of vomiting, suicide, attempted incestuous rape, and castration are, all this in 2 hours and 40 minutes is simply too much and is not dramatically effective.

The production is overwrought, one almost feels that director Chen Shi-Zheng doesn't trust composer Stewart Wallace to pull the opera off either. Every moment is filled with either choreography or video projection, if not both. Particularly ridiculous was Act II, Scene 1, when LuLing is in Hong Kong, writing letters for abandoned wives. Not only is she singing about this as she goes, she waves a brush against paper on stage with an apparent wife and her daughters. So far this is fine, but do we really need projections of letters folded into boats to get this message across? Or dancers depicting abandoned wives wandering around the stage?.

As for a few positives, first of all, Act I, Scene 1 has a birthday cake flying through the air, which is certainly unusual. It is brought in by an acrobat suspended by wires, and she does some flips after depositing the cake on the table. The music as we enter Immortal Heart in Act I, Scene 2 was an exuberant breath of fresh air. The suona and percussion were all played beautifully, though again, the singing was amplified. Generally, the singing and acting were very good. Hao Jiang Tian was quite the villain as Chang, and his voice is warm and resonant. Qian Yi was an ethereal Precious Auntie, her movements were perfect. The way she could just glide on stage as if she were on rollers did make her seem otherworldly, and her hand gestures were gorgeous. Ning Liang (LuLing) sounded fabulous in her lower range, though she did have a couple of shrill gasps. Zheng Cao (Ruth) had no such problems, her voice is simply beautiful. It was very nice to hear her in a substantial role, finally.

* Tattling * 
The audience was respectful of this world premiere, there was very little talking, and I heard no electronic noise. There was some talking heard from backstage during a quiet scene in the second half of the opera, but this was not as distracting as loudness of the set in the first scene, so one cannot really complain. Near the very end of the opera, I heard a woman express aloud her confusion about what had just happened on stage. However, the work received a standing ovation.