Review- Madame White Snake- Hong Kong Arts Festival


By Peter Gordon




Madame White Snake, composed by Zhou Long to an English-language libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs and one of the few western operas directly informed by China and with direct Chinese creative input, has just been given its Hong Kong premiere at the 2019 Hong Kong Arts Festival.


The work has a distinguished pedigree: it was the first opera ever commissioned by Opera Boston and debuted there in 2010. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The opera is based on a folk tale that is a staple of traditional Chinese opera and which has also been adapted for dance, drama, musical theatre, literature and film.

The eponymous protagonist, an immortal demon, wakes to find herself transformed into a very human woman. She marries Xu Xian, whom she recognizes as her lover from a previous life, despite the jealousy of her servant Xiao Qing. Her true nature, however, is discovered by an abbot. Fearful of the consequences of half-demon, the half-human child she carries, the abbot intervenes, with fatal and tragic consequences.


The opera’s four acts followed the seasons, bookended by an apocalyptic prologue and epilogue. Composer Zhou Long’s score has much to commend it. Zhou has integrated Chinese instruments into a score which maintains links with operatic tradition. The orchestral passages range from lyrical to tempestuous and the writing for the offstage chorus—which is huge, taking up half the orchestra pit and two wings of audience seating—is particularly arresting and evocative.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic, slimmed down to something approximating chamber orchestra size, played well under the direction of Lan Shui. Three of the principles, tenor Peter Tantsits as the herbalist Xu Xian, countertenor Michael Maniaci (sometimes described as a male soprano) as the gender-bending servant Xiao Qing, and bass Gong Dong-Jian as the abbot, were reprising their parts from the debut production; their familiarity with the work was evident. Soprano Susannah Biller did the role of Madame White Snake full justice.


But the star of the production may be the production itself, which makes clever use of animated projection to provide both depth and movement (impressively synched with the music) and to show the snake that is the protagonist's true identity.  Madame White Snake is probably not the breakout work that the world “Chinese opera” has been waiting for. Its weaknesses lie mostly in the libretto. English seems an infelicitous choice for what is otherwise a Chinese work, and the words themselves have little in the way of elegance or poetry, nor do they seem particularly well-suited to being sung.


Some of the dramatic possibilities of the story and the characters are left unexplored, while the prologue consists of Xiao Qing declaiming the story to come. The set pieces allowed little room for dramatic interpretation or even interaction. While the Hong Kong Arts Festival is to be applauded for championing works like Madame White Snake and last year’s Dream of the Red Chamber, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, both feel like missed opportunities.

Perhaps, like Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos, these works will one day be translated into the composers’ own language. 


This production has now closed.


Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 4.0


No comment at the moment.

Post New Comment