By Jason Victor Serinus
SAN FRANCISCO — A major new opera, whose deeply moving music illumines its heart-rending story, was unveiled at the San Francisco Opera on Sept. 10. In its world premiere, composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber, with a libretto by Sheng and Tony Award-winning American-born playwright David Henry Hwang, distinguished itself with the universality of its music and profundity of its tale.
The work draws its inspiration from one of China’s most cherished novels, which dates from the 18th century. That the opera’s creators even attempted to distill into two-and-a-half hours the essence of Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber was a daring act. The book is twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. With over 400 characters, it has spawned an entire cadre of “Redologists,” who, like Wagner “Ringophiles,” engage in endless discussion over its terrestrial and metaphysical meanings.
According to my Hong Kong-raised friend Bea Lam, who has read the 2,000-plus page novel twice, whole chapters of the book are devoted to the stories of maids and power struggles in the patrician family hierarchy. But at its center — the center that Sheng and Hwang open like a flower via a cast of nine major characters — lies a love triangle between the stone that becomes Bao Yu (tenor Yijie Shi), the flower that becomes Dai Yu (soprano Pureum Jo), and the family-endorsed rival for Bao Yu’s hand in marriage, Bao Chai (mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts). As the stone and flower incarnate, the book invokes elements of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism to explore the dialectic between the transcendent realm of love and the divisive materialism of earth-bound money, power, and greed.
Hwang (M. Butterfly and librettos for Golijov’s Ainadamar, Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland, and Howard Shore’s The Fly) had not even read the book when Shanghai-born Sheng contacted him about collaborating on the libretto. But together with Oscar-winning, Hong Kong-born production designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and American-born Taiwanese director Stan Lai, they created a production that stuns with its beauty, elegance, and human resonances.
The production, which continues through Sept. 29, was realized in an impressively unified manner. The premiere cast was so strong, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under George Manahan so finely balanced with the singing, Yip’s gorgeous sets and costumes and Gary Marder’s lighting so satisfying, and Lai’s direction so natural that it was hard to ascertain after only one performance if Sheng’s score is really as good as it sounded on opening night.
Sheng is certainly a master at contrasting the luminous harmony of youthful, unsoiled love with the terrible dissonances that arise when family ties, political alliances, and financial concerns rip the purest of hearts in two. This he achieved with the aid of a 64-member orchestra that included a qin (pronounced “ch’in”), an ancient Chinese instrument whose seven silk strings are plucked, and a huge battery of clattering percussion. His harmonies, an accessible yet unique amalgam of East meets West, presented no challenges to Silk Road-conditioned ears. The music’s transitions from light to darkness are quite literal, and its frequent, sometimes terrible outbursts not that different from each other. But when presented with such excellence, they heighten the story on multiple levels.
It is with intention that this review only hints at the plot. In a recent interview, Aidan Lang, general director of Seattle Opera, recalled an instant when a woman new to opera approached him after her first performance of Tosca to complain, “I wish you hadn’t told us what happens in the end.” Rather than deprive you of developments in Dream of the Red Chamber that you can experience fresh only if you don’t know what’s coming, I’ll simply say that one place in the opera where Sheng stumbles is when the unexpectedly dark drama of his music reveals, in hackneyed film-score fashion, the truth behind a life-changing proclamation by Lady Wang (mezzo Hyona Kim). Also questionable is a dream sequence that, perhaps due to Fang-Yi Sheu’s choreography, seems a cross between Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” and Tannhäuser’s visit to Venusberg.
The libretto was written and presented in English, with essential English supertitles projected above the stage and Chinese text projected to either side. Post-performance, Lam explained that the Chinese, which was an amalgam of the translated libretto and the book’s original text, conveyed far more nuance than the English.
“It is written in classical Chinese style, which by definition is subtle and refined, suggestive but never direct,” she elaborated by email. “Hwang mentioned in an interview conducted by Ken Smith [for the SFO program notes] that ‘No one just comes out and says they love someone. Conveying this refinement of speech, while also making the story clear to a contemporary American audience, took some work.’”
The predominantly Asian or Asian-American cast was outstanding. Tenor Yijie Shi, whose credits include Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville and Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor in major European houses and festivals, has a high, pure, medium-sized ringing voice ideal for expressing passion and sincerity. His instrument, which soars without apparent effort and easily pares down to a perfect diminuendo, is allied to a countenance so honest, and at times so pitiable, as to arouse immediate sympathy. His second act, coming-of-age aria, “Now I am a man,” included a flawless high C.
In soprano Pureum Jo, the opera’s creators and former San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley found the tenor’s ideal match on every level. A Houston Grand Opera Studio Artist and Juilliard graduate, the beautiful and slender soprano possesses a finely focused voice of dream-like purity. Intentionally touching her initial highs softly, only to expand them like the sun gradually rising above the horizon to full light, she at one point soared in unison with Yijie to a full-voiced, passionate high B. When earthly realities wrenched the destined couple apart, the heart, too, was torn by the sullying of innocence. If Jo sings as well as she did at the premiere when she joins New York City’s Voices of Ascension in forthcoming performances of Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, expect critical acclamation.
Contralto Qiulin Zhang was well-cast as Granny Jia, the family matriarch who eventually champions love over the material. Ditto for mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim as Lady Wang, the overly ambitious mother of Bao Yu, and mezzo-soprano Yanyu Guo as Aunt Xue. All three possess strong voices with that slightly hoody, deep lower range that is so often called upon to signify age. Mezzo-soprano Roberts, whose top soars, was very fine as Lady Wang’s visually stunning and equally ambitious niece from the Xue clan, Bao Chai.
Soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho was equally accomplished in the smaller role of Bao Yu’s sister, concubine Princess Jia. Randall Nakano’s speaking voice nicely conveyed the earth-weary wisdom of the narrator Monk/Dreamer who introduces and caps the story. The multi-purpose trios of Pene Pati/Alex Boyer/Edward Nelson and Amina Edris/Toni Marie Palmertree/Zanda Švēde acquitted themselves with perfection, and the San Francisco Opera Chorus (directed by Ian Robertson) was as excellent as usual.
Of the three major Chinese-themed opera commissions I’ve seen in the last decade — Tan Dun and Ha Jin’s The First Emperor, Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and this one — Dream of the Red Chamber has the most chance of joining the repertoire. With this cast and production, it is one of the most beautiful and spiritually enriching operas I’ve experienced. It deserves many more runs after its next airing at the 45th annual Hong Kong Arts Festival in March 2017.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, CVNA, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.