‘Silver River’ Finally Makes Its Debut At Northwest Festival

Pipa player Wu Man (second from left) and flutist Ransom Wilson (far right) joined composer Bright Sheng to stage
‘The Silver River.’  Chamber Music Northwest co-commissioned the 1997 opera. (Opera photos: Jonathan Lange.)
By James Bash

PORTLAND, Ore. – During the fourth week of its summer festival, Chamber Music Northwest presented several concerts that explored contemporary Chinese music. Among the diverse offerings was an evocative production of The Silver River by Shanghai-born composer Bright Sheng with libretto by David Henry Hwang.

Goddess-Weaver (dancer Katherine Disenhof) loves a Cowherd (baritone Theo Hoffman).

Using oriental and occidental styles, the one-act opera retold retells an ancient Chinese story about a lovely, celestial Goddess-Weaver, who can spin stars and play music on her loom, and an impoverished, mortal cowherd, who creates beautiful music with his lute.

Although The Silver River received its premiere at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1997 and has been produced elsewhere, it was co-commissioned by CMNW, but the festival was unable to do it until this year. The performance on July 22 in Lincoln Performance Hall was the second of two given at the festival.

“I don’t do Earth!” gripes the Emperor’s Buffalo envoy (Dana Green).

According to the legend, the Silver River (the Milky Way) connects the earth to the heavens, where the Jade Emperor rules. After he sends the Buffalo as an emissary to Earth to report on its inhabitants, the Buffalo becomes attracted to a poor Cowherd and forgets to return.

The Emperor admonishes the Buffalo to return or else. The Buffalo obeys but tells the Cowherd about one of the Emperor’s daughters, the Goddess-Weaver, who bathes in the Silver River. The Goddess-Weaver and the Cowherd fall in love. The Buffalo is ordered by the Emperor to retrieve the Goddess-Weaver. Sadness fills the world until the Emperor relents and allows the lovers to reunite one day each year when magpies form a bridge across the Silver River.

The Emperor allows the lovers to reunite once a year as magpies form a celestial bridge.

Set in seven vignettes that flowed seamlessly, The Silver River offered a unique combination of spoken and sung text with dance. Actor Dana Green spoke the role of the Buffalo. Tenor YuCheng Ren, a veteran of the Chinese Traditional Opera Academy, sang the text of the Emperor in Mandarin. Baritone Theo Hoffman, as the Cowherd, sang in English. Katherine Disenhof danced the role of the Goddess-Weaver.

Decked out in high heels and a gold cape and crowned with a pair of black horns, Green created a charismatic Buffalo, who narrated the story with witty asides and a cavalier attitude. For example, after being commanded by the Emperor to travel and mix with mortals, her character replied, “But your majesty, I don’t do Earth!”

Tenor YuCheng Ren sang the Emperor’s lines in Mandarin.

Wearing a riot of face-paint and robes, Ren portrayed the Emperor with an assured style that emphasized the power of his character. When the Emperor’s demands peaked, he would point the fingers of his right hand and make them quaver in sync with his voice.

Hoffman’s voice had a supple and warm tone that was always soothing. His suede-garbed Cowherd was strikingly polite and heartfelt, as when he asked of the Buffalo, “May I look upon you?” While a couple of his arias had a bit of patter-song style, most were lyrical, such as the one that began with the words “Once I had a dream.”

Disenhof as the Goddess-Weaver eloquently shaped her movement with athletic grace, often leaping over an expanse of blue fabric that represented the river. In a touching scene, she wrapped the fabric around herself and the Cowherd.

Sheng conducted a remarkable sextet of musicians with two onstage and four in the pit. Wu Man, wearing the colorful robes of the gods, delivered a kaleidoscope of twangy passages from her pipa. Ransom Wilson, outfitted in suede to match the Cowherd, provided a continuous stream of notes from his flute. In the pit were cellist Sophie Shao, clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois, violinist Theodore Arm, and percussionist Pius Cheung. Arm also doubled on percussion, accenting the Emperor’s comings and goings with crisp and forceful whams and slams.

Shanghai-born Sheng conducted his own work. (brightsheng.com)

Directed by Robert Longbottom, the performance was easy to follow despite the lack of supertitles for the Mandarin text. One of the most intriguing moments of the piece came when the Cowherd closely observed Wu Man’s playing, and the Goddess-Weaver looked over the shoulder of flutist Wilson while he played. Neither seemed to make sense of the other culture’s music. That was in keeping with the storyline, but with the added layer of East meets West, the outcome took on more weight.

The production benefited from Ian Anderson-Priddy’s projections, which enhanced the music. From a starry firmament, the Silver River appeared like a ribbon that flowed from the top to the floor of the stage, where it became a large section of blue fabric. Also visually arresting was the outline of a large red door that marked each entrance of the Emperor.

The blend of Eastern and Western music at the end of the opera was at once satisfying and oddly disorienting. It is encouraging to hear the music of Sheng and other composers who have an understanding of vastly different cultures. Their music will continue to stretch listeners in new directions.