Friday, October 07, 2016

Dream of the Red Chamber at SF Opera

Back in the first week of the San Francisco Opera season, I attended the 2nd performance of Dream of the Red Chamber, the opera by Bright Sheng & David Henry Hwang receiving its world premiere here. I enjoyed the visual spectacle of the production. The opening chorus of beggars, emerging from a burning village, looks like a painting come to life. Dai Yu's boat trip at the beginning of the story & her climactic disappearance at the end are depicted simply but effectively using rippling blue fabrics. I liked the visual poetry of an interlude that illustrates the passing of the seasons with falling leaves of different colors.

Scene transitions had beautiful choreography. The grand hall of the Jia family is appropriately ostentatious, & as its multi-plane backdrop rose into place, I felt like I was floating above the landscape. The transformation of Granny Jia's deathbed into a funeral bier was efficient & clever. The costumes were opulent.

The cast was uniformly strong & ardent. Tenor Yijie Shi as Bao Yu sounded open & clarion & acted befittingly like a feckless teenager in act 1. Soprano Pureum Jo as his love interest Dai Yu sang with a consistent, solid sound & had nice soft notes. I liked mezzo Hyona Kim as the imperious Lady Wang. Her singing was expressive & emphatic. Soprano Irene Roberts was a pragmatic Bao Chai. Her sound was full, & she was impressively resolute in her act 2 monologue. Soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho was a rueful Princess Jia & sang confidently. The soloists are almost all high voices, so it was nice hearing the male voices of the chorus.

Mr. Sheng's music is atmospheric, with strong, irregular rhythms, chromatic harmonies, & shimmering orchestral colors. Chinese accents are provided by gongs at moments of urgency, & there is a prominent solo for the qin. The vocal lines often feel stretched, with long-held notes at the ends of phrases. The orchestra played alertly for conductor George Manahan, & the clarinet solos were especially lovely.

The choppy storyline includes elements of romance, domestic drama, politics & Buddhist philosophy. Mr. Hwang's English language libretto is prosaic & even bald, particularly in the erotic dream scene. Supertitles & program notes were accommodatingly provided in both English & Chinese, & there were definitely more Asian faces in the audience than I am used to seeing at the opera.

There was an open curtain during intermission, with director Stan Lai talking about the production & taking questions via Twitter. The audience seemed attentive. Mr. Sheng was present to take a curtain call at the end of the performance.

§ Dream of the Red Chamber
Music by Bright Sheng
Libretto by David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng

San Francisco Opera
Conductor, George Manahan 
Director, Stan Lai
Production Designer, Tim Yip
Lighting Designer, Gary Marder
Choreographer, Fang-Yi Sheu
Chorus Director, Ian Robertson
Fight Director, Dave Maier

Flower/Dai Yu, Pureum Jo
Stone/Bao Yu, Yijie Shi
Lady Wang, Hyona Kim
Bao Chai, Irene Roberts
Granny Jia, Qiulin Zhang
Princess Jia, Karen Chia-ling Ho
Aunt Xue, Yanyu Guo
The Monk/Dreamer, Randall Nakano
Lady-in-Waiting/Flower, Toni Marie Palmertree, Amina Edris, Zanda Švēde
Eunuch/Stone, Pene Pati, Alex Boyer, Edward Nelson

Tuesday 09/13/16 7:30PM
War Memorial Opera House

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