Out There :: Opera of Epic Proportions

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Saturday December 26, 2015
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San Francisco Opera will offer the world premiere of "Dream of the Red Chamber," an adaptation of the epic 18th-century Chinese novel, by composer/co-librettist Bright Sheng and co-librettist David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), in September 2016.

Last week, SFO General Director David Gockley, Sheng, and other members of the opera's creative team discussed the exciting project in a press conference at the opera house.

Gockley remarked that when SFO staged "The Bonesetter's Daughter" (by Stewart Wallace, based on Amy Tan's novel) in 2008, "We got an outpouring of interest from the Chinese community in the Bay Area," and ever since, he'd kept his "eyes peeled" for something similar. Now the company is tackling this indispensable epic of Chinese literature.

Sheng pointed out that "Dream," by Qing Dynasty writer Cao Xueqin, is twice as long as Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece "War and Peace," with 10 times as many characters, so distilling it into a three-hour opera was daunting. Still, its core is a compelling story that's universal in its appeal, a love triangle set against political intrigues, and an opportunity to showcase 18th-century aristocratic Chinese culture.

Director Stan Lai called "Red Chamber" "the iconic piece of literature in the Chinese consciousness. It is an encyclopedia of everything Chinese." Production designer Tim Yip discussed several components of his design decisions. Then the press was treated to a musical excerpt from the opera. Adler Fellow tenor Chong Wang sang central character Bao Yu 's Act I aria "Goodbye, Goodbye" accompanied by Adler Fellow pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg. It was exquisite music that served to whet our appetite for the larger work to come next autumn.

Russian Around

This holiday season we've been listening to our kind of Christmas music, the great Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov's "La Nuit de Noel (Christmas Eve )." It's our favorite Yuletide opera because there's no baby Jesus in it, no Nativity scene, no Magi, no manger, no nuttin'. Also no Santa, no St. Nick, no elves, no mugging candy canes, nothing saccharine at all. Instead, Rimsky based the opera (in four acts and nine tableau) on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, itself based on Ukrainian folk tales involving devils and gods, witches and wizards. Merry Xmas!

In this cosmology, the night before Christmas is the last night in the calendar year when witches, goblins and the Devil himself are able to exercise their evil powers on human beings. So as the opera opens, the witch Solokha (in the recording we own, sung by mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba) and the Devil (tenor Viatcheslav Voinarovski) are planning some last-minute mischief. There are a lot of convoluted plot and narrative complications, mostly involving Solokha's son, the blacksmith Vakula. A Sunday painter, Vakula has painted a picture showing the Devil being thrashed, and the latter is not amused. He uses his diabolical powers to remove the moon from the night sky. There are also subplots involving Cossacks, the Tsarina, copious amounts of vodka, and a pair of pumps. Moral of the story: "He who has the devil on his back does not need to go far to find him." The epilogue is a tribute to Gogol.

What the story lacks in subtlety and nuance it makes up for in local color. But it's the music that captivates, the Slavic folk songs and Rimsky's elaborate orchestrations. We came to listen to it as one-half of a four-CD Rimsky-Korsakov package, "The Two Operas After Gogol" (Moscow Forum Theatre, Mikhail Yurovski conducting), paired with the composer's "La Nuit de Mai" (May Night ) (Bolshoi Theatre, Andrey Christiakov conducting) (Harmonia Mundi). Regarding the latter, check back with us in May.

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