SF Opera's Dream of the Red Chamber
September 11, 2016
* Notes *
Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang's Dream of the Red Chamber had a world premiere at San Francisco Opera on Saturday night. The music was upstaged by the breathtaking stagecraft (pictured in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver), and marred by an ungainly libretto.
Based on the Qing Dynasty epic by Cao Xueqin, frame story concerns a stone and a flower asking to be reincarnated as humans, the stone becomes Bao Yu, male heir of the Jia family, and the flower becomes Dai Yu, his cousin. The opera must condense the 2,000 page novel into less than three hours, and thus the plot is stripped down to essentials, a love triangle between Bao Yu, delicate and artistic Dai Yu, and worldly beauty Bao Chai with the backdrop of court intrigue and aristocratic life.
This is a perfect scenario for opera, and the art direction from Tim Yip is spot on. His sets are light and dreamy, easily changing scenes with the use of platforms, screens, projections, and layers and layers of ornate fabric. Director Stan Lai uses all these elements to stunning effect and the theater of the piece comes out very clearly in the visual aspect, especially in Dai Yu's last scene, which includes the very simple use of blue cloth to represent water, but is both incredibly beautiful and moving.
Sheng's music isn't bad, there's some interesting chromaticism, bending of notes, and percussion, some soaring lyricism that eschews blatant sentimentality. The only additions to a pretty standard orchestra are in the percussion (if you are going to use a gong, this is the right place) and the qin, a seven stringed plucked instrument that is similar to a very quiet guitar. The qin, played by Zhao Yi, had to be amplified, which was done tastefully and well. The orchestra, conducted by George Manahan, sounded clear and together.
The weak link, as with many contemporary operas, is the libretto, co-written by the composer and famed playwright Hwang. Performed in English to make the story more immediate to the San Francisco audience, the words could be painfully awkward, as in Act I, Scene 4, after a gorgeous ballet dream sequence. There was too much telling rather than showing, we don't need to hear Bao Yu sing that "aroused" by his erotic dream, it should be apparent in the music. There were definitely moments when I tried to focus on the action and the singing rather than the words. On the other hand, the framing of the story with a narrator, in this case a monk played by actor Randall Nakano, was poignant.
On the other hand, the singing was fantastic. Soprano Pureum Jo has an ideal voice for Dai Yu, and sounded utterly ethereal. Tenor Yijie Shi was plaintive and bright as Bao Yu. Mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (Bao Chai) radiated sophistication and touching vulnerability, while mezzo Hyona Kim (Lady Wang) sang with rich power and clarity.
The cast has many high principal voices, so it was nice to hear the fine chorus, which is prominent in the piece.
* Tattling *
While there were only six people in the standing room line by 10am, there were quite a few more people when we lined up to get in at 6:20pm, as there were no tickets for seats left.
Many audience members wore Chinese-themed clothing to the performance, and red silk brocade seemed most popular.