Review- Dream Of The Red Chamber- Hong Kong Arts Festival
By Peter Gordon
Opera critics are usually only actually called upon to review a performance; the works themselves are for the most part well-known, sometimes to the point of ennui. On this occasion, however, the opera itself is brand-new. Dream of the Red Chamber, performed this weekend at the Arts Festival, debuted only last September at the San Francisco Opera. This adaption of the celebrated classical eighteenth-century Chinese novel, by composer Bright Sheng with an English-language libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang and the composer, was brought over in the original co-production. Those fortunate enough to secure a ticket for one of only two, entirely sold-out performances were, therefore, witnessing a piece of musical history of the sort that rarely happens here. Bravo to all concerned.
The sprawling novel with hundreds of characters has been condensed to a libretto with fewer than a dozen and which focuses on the love triangle between the sensitive Bao Yu, the unworldly scion of an aristocratic family whose best days seem behind it, and his two cousins Dai Yu and Bao Chai. Both are beautiful, but Bao Yu finds his soulmate in the poetic and ethereal Dai Yu. Bao Chai, however, is the better political and financial match and Bao Yu’s mother manoeuvres to have them married. It ends badly, although not quite as a traditional tragedy. Bao Yu was sung by the accomplished Chinese tenor Yijie Shi, well-known for his elegant interpretations of bel canto roles in Europe. He sang with youthful energy infused with affection and apparently effortless musicality. The discovery of the night, however, was the young and relatively unknown Korean (by way of the Julliard and Houston Grand Opera Studio) soprano Pureum Jo singing Dai Yu. One suspects the “relatively unknown” part of this description may not remain valid for long. Performances and production, indeed, were just about all one could wish for. The production was visually arresting and cleverly designed to accommodate the multiple scene changes. The Hong Kong Philharmonic under conductor Muhai Tang was phenomenal. The cast was entirely Asian, but almost all seemed (the programme notes were a bit vague) either Asian-American or British or had significant time living in the United States. Only Shi sang the English libretto with any trace of an accent. A few local singers rounded out the smaller roles. Local mezzo-soprano Carol Lin nailed her cameos, and actor Pichead Amornsonboon was resonant in the speaking narrator role of the monk. New operas are not perhaps as rare as sometimes made out to be, but nevertheless, it is hard to underestimate the significance of the Dream of the Red Chamber appearing here so soon after its premiere.
The creative objectives the works has set for itself are similarly ambitious: setting a classic Chinese text in an accessible Western musical idiom. Did Dream of the Red Chamber rise to the occasion? Critics are paid (or in my case, not paid) to make evaluations, and noting all the times that critics have been wrong about new operas in the past, I would venture that the work has much to commend it, it is not entirely convincing. The choice of English, for example, seems practical rather than artistic: operas needn’t, of course, be in the language of the original work, but “Dream of the Red Chamber” is clearly meant to be “Chinese” in some essential way. Taken on its own, the opera’s music is melodic, lush and expressive. Deliberately “neo-romantic”, it is traditionally Western and accessible with a few Chinese flourishes. However, although the story seems almost Italian with its political intrigue, scheming parents and a tenor-soprano-mezzo love triangle (there is even a scene of veiled mistaken identity à la Don Carlo), the libretto emphasises situation rather than drama and character development.
Emotions were on the whole declaimed rather than felt. These may well be functions of the original novel but musical theatre has its exigencies.If faithfulness to the original was opera’s sine qua non, few of the world’s greatest operas could be performed. That said, there are passages in Dream of The Red Chamber in which music and words meld seamlessly. One is the love duet between Bao Yu and Dai Yu; it soared and contained lines whose poetic words matched the music and the emotion: "like two rivers bound for one ocean, like two stars in one constellation" and so on. Similarly, Dai Yu’s final aria was in plaintive harmony with the chorus while the final chorus ends on an unusual and moving pianissimo.
One should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Dream of the Red Chamber is an ambitious work that deserves to be seen, heard, thought about and discussed, especially when it can muster a cast as well-attuned to the work as this one.
This show has now closed. For more information, click here.
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