“Dream of the Red Chamber,” written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century is generally considered to be China’s greatest classical work of fiction. No Chinese education would be complete without making its acquaintance. Set in dynastic China the richly tapestried narrative tells the love story of Bao Yu and Dai Yu while following the declining fortunes of their respective families. It is rich in spectacle and intrigue, alliances and betrayals, with a dazzling array of characters (at least 30 major characters, and hundreds of minor ones). Aside from its literary merit in both prose and poetry, the novel presents an incredibly detailed portrait of 18th century Chinese culture.
Given the scope of this monumental work, it is no surprise to learn from the program notes that David Hwang initially refused to take on the project, pointing out that it was impossibly large—actually twice as long as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Hwang was eventually persuaded to go forward by stage director Stan Lai and composer Bright Sheng.
The result is a mixed bag. Certainly, the production is beautiful and thrilling to look at, inspired by Chinese art and sensibilities, in the settings, the lights, the costumes and even the movement of the performers. And there is no question the singers are top notch vocal actors, hitting the high notes with thrilling effect and occasionally achieving other worldly sounds, particularly in some very lovely duets and trios. The orchestra handles Sheng’s music well, creating a lush and soaring soundscape. In fact, the orchestrations are the most musically satisfying element of the opera.
The rich orchestration is not matched by a similar richness in the vocal score. The austere singing pretty much pares away what opera audiences are likely to seek as they try to find an emotional handle to connect to the music. Rhythms are plodding, tempi slow, melodies minimalistic, notes sustained (beautifully, it must be said) beyond the point of expectation. This is a very demanding score for the audience. The challenges are not made less daunting by Wang’s libretto, which is often difficult to understand, and choppy—typical problems with English language opera.
Likely to be most frustrating for fans of the classic novel is that the story is pretty much skeletal, with many rich details left out. Perhaps this seemed necessary, but the result serves to flatten and simplify one of the most complex stories in all of world literature.
So, to summarize: there are many high points, including the lush orchestrations, some very beautiful duets and trios, an enchanting visual aspect, and some finely acted and sung performances, particularly that of Chinese contralto Qiulin Zhang making her American debut as Granny Jia. Ms. Zhang, thoroughly trained in the Western tradition, grew up in a family of performers in traditional Chinese Opera for which her father was a professional singer. She is altogether splendid.
But, for all its fine elements, many will find this cultural outreach between East and West to be a bridge too far, and might jump ship at intermission. Others may feel that the opera’s theme of renouncing the illusory pleasures of this world seems all too personal as they cringe in their seats for two and half hours, perhaps wishing they had instead booked an economy class flight to Bejing.
So, do the ups balance the downs in this puzzling “Dream?” I can only recommend that if you remain curious, you should see and listen for yourself.
“Dream of the Red Chamber” has two remaining performances on 9/27 and 9/29. For further information, click here.
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“Dream of the Red Chamber” a word premiere by Bright Sheng with libretto by David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng. Based on the book by Cao Xuequin. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: George Manahan. Director: Stan Lei. Production Designer: Tim Yip. Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. Choreographer: Fang-Yi Sheu. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Dance Master: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier.
Monk/Dreamer: Randall Nakano. Stone/Bao Yu: Yijie Shi. Flower/Dai Yu: Pureum Jo. Steon (Voices)/Eunochs: Pene Pati, Alex Boyer, Edward Nelson. Flower (voices/Ladies-in-Waiting: Amina Edris, Toni Marie Palmertree, Zanda Švēde. Solo Maid: Zanda Švēde. Granny Jia: Qiulin Zhang. Lady Wang: Hyona Kim. Bao Chai: Irene Roberts. Aunt Xue: Yanyu Gho. Princess Jia: Karen Chia-ling Ho.