Monday, September 19, 2016

Dream of the Red Chamber

Bao Yu and Dai Yu

Composer:  Bright Sheng
Conductor:  George Manahan
Production Designer: Tim Yip

Monk/Dreamer:  Randall Nakano *
Granny Jia (head of the clan):  Qiulin Zhang *  (contralto)
Stone/Bao Yu (Grandson of Granny):  Yijie Shi * (high tenor)
Flower/Dai Yu (Granddaughter of Granny, cousin of Bao Yu):  Pureum Jo * (lyric soprano)
Lady Wang (Daughter in law of Granny):  Hyona Kim * (mezzo)
Princess Jia (sister of Bao Yu):  Karen Chia-ling Ho *
Aunt Xue (sister of Lady Wang):  Yanyu Guo 
Bao Chai (daughter of Aunt Xue): Irene Roberts
Misc. eunuchs and ladies in waiting.

Dream of the Red Chamber is an eighteenth century novel from China, and it is huge.  Only the broad outlines of the story are selected for presentation here.  This is the world premier of this opera at the San Francisco Opera.

I am going to try to describe the plot in my usual way.  The story begins like the Wizard of Oz in a gloomy and drab environment populated by an older Monk who only speaks.   He introduces the stone and the flower who wish to escape the bounds of their limitations and express their passion in the world of humans.  The Monk tells us that he dreams every night of the red chamber, the place where women of the upper class live with their small children and servants.  Adult men are not allowed, but we are then introduced to Bao Yu who has passed the age when young men are allowed to stay in the red chamber.  He refuses to go.  We are to believe that he is the incarnation of the stone.

He meets his cousin Dai Yu, the incarnation of the flower, and they fall in love.  The wider world has other plans.  His sister has gone to live with the Emperor and has been made a Princess.  The Emperor wishes him to marry Bao Chai.  This is the basic complication of the story.

My only problem with the production to this point was in distinguishing the characters.  Dai Yu has always a red scarf.  Granny Jia and Lady Wang are also easy to distinguish.  But which one of these lovely young women is Bao Chai?

The point of the story is that we humans are not free.  A stone or Rusalka or Pinocchio might imagine that it would be better to be a human, but humans have restrictions they cannot understand.  Bao Yu is forced to marry Bao Chai.  The Emperor seizes the property of both families and casts them out.  The Monk meets Bao Yu on the road, shaves his head, and tells him he is himself as a young man.  Dai Yu drowns herself in the lake.  The Princess dies.

I think it was a good choice for a story for an opera, but I sense a certain reluctance to fully commit to a western opera.  The writing for voice was monotonous.  Every phrase cannot be a climax.  Perhaps other singers could shape the phrases to show more ebb and flow, but this seemed always high, always just a little too hard.  Only Dai Yu was able to vary her expression.  All sang this difficult music reasonably well.

The philosophical conclusion seemed to agree with my own.  The good of human life is found in art, poetry, music.


Bruce said...

You certainly described the opera Margaret & I saw a week before you. Great sets, we thought.
beautiful music, easy to like.
we felt Bao Yu was a brat.
and it was interesting that Lady Wang and her daughter were the only ones with plans or ambition--it was sad to watch Bao Chai try to put some fire under Bao Yu ("take the exam! you could be a great bureaucrat!" "nah, think I'll just keep wanking around, thanks, it's poetry for me"...and it was amusing too that he wasn't as good a poet as his cousin/beloved Dai Yu).
(Bao Chai was sung by last season's Carmen, no? an unrecognizable, stage-presence wise. maybe it was all the clothes.)
and it was sad, too, that all Lady Wang's scheming came to nothing because the Emperor (never seen in the opera) decided to crush 'em all....
Kosman had a good point that
the opera could use more male voices...

Dr.B said...

Apparently this opera has become popular in China.