When you hear the name of Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera, you immediately think of the Marx Brothers and Kitty Carlisle, the opera singer who married Moss Hart. You imagine Harpo sliding down the curtain. But no, the title is not ironic at all. She has written an opera based on a real 14th century Chinese play. She is even trying for authenticity with sung and spoken parts intermixed. It is still a true opera because the orchestra plays constantly.
The cast is made up of two sets of characters who appear together in every act: a set of three actors who appear sometimes as themselves and sometimes in the true Chinese opera--a play within a play--and the rest of the relatively modern-day players. Both stories have the same plot--a child loses his father and mother and grows up as the Orphan of Chao.
The play within a play is more fun. The evil general thinks he has killed the child when he skewers a piglet in a basket. There is a cute piece of business where the farmer mourns the death of his piglet. The orphan triumphs over the evil general and wins his revenge and great rewards. The real life orphan seems to be in communist China where he is persecuted and driven insane. It is modern opera, rather like Stravinsky. Ms Weir is especially fond of melodies with parallel seconds and does not aim for a particularly Chinese sound.
This was presented Monday evening by the students of the Royal Academy of Music which is located right next to Madame Tussaud's.
The three actors, Amanda Forbes, a soprano from Melbourne, Louise Deans and Nicholas Mulroy, were very vivid and energetic in their portrayals. All wore traditional Chinese clothing, except for the modern soldiers.
I particularly liked the mezzo Jurgita Adamonyte who had a marvelous opportunity to sing "Chin up" over and over to the baby Chao. She is from Lithuania and has a rich, interesting voice. Marco Polo, sung by Norwegian baritone Thorbjorn Gulbrandsay, sang in Italian.
There were no microphones. I was entertained.