OPERA NEWS - Dream of the Red Chamber
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In Review > North America

Dream of the Red Chamber

San Francisco Opera

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Stan Lai's production of Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang's Dream of the Red Chamber at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Yijie Shi as Bao Yu and Pureum Jo as Dai Yu
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Irene Roberts as Bao Chai
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

TRANSFORMING DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER into an opera seems at once impossible and necessary. The eighteenth-century novel is a true classic of Chinese literature, one of the most treasured stories ever written, and it is full of plot devices that have long beguiled composers and audiences alike. There's a love triangle equal to the one in Aida; a trick marriage as devious as anything in Falstaff. But the original book is also quite lengthy—2,400 pages when translated into English. Author Cao Xueqin indulged himself in a meaningful and exhaustive tale that starts when a stone and a flower are changed into human form and goes on, in great detail, to include forty major characters and four hundred minor ones. The novel itself acknowledges that the "narration may border on the limits of incoherency and triviality," though, it adds, that it "possesses considerable zest."

The novel’s principal narrative concerns young Bao Yu, who falls for his cousin, Dai Yu, but is pressured to marry his other cousin, Bao Chai, in order to secure his family’s fortune. The novel unfolds with an excess of words and complexity that resists translation into dialogue, but its literary power comes from the runs of beautiful, flowery poetry it uses to make connections. A libretto doesn’t come easy when the subtext of the main characters’ relationship is that they were once a stone and a flower, but composer Bright Sheng and librettist David Henry Hwang told the story in less than three hours, including one intermission, at the world premiere at San Francisco Opera (seen Sept. 10). Sheng and Hwang, who collaborated on the libretto, dispatched the mythical backstory as economically as possible and moved right to the zest of the drama, focusing on the greed, ambition, fear, deceit, vanity, violence, and above all, lust that drives the action. For the sake of brevity, they hand over the story’s set-up to a narrator in monk’s garb, whose spoken word prologue is stilted and over exaggerated, not a good start. But there are numerous heart-wrenching moments that follow, including a stunning aria for Dai Yu in Act II, which has the soprano comparing her own fate as an excluded lover to that of fallen petals— “When their beauty and fragrance fade/Who cares for the fallen petals?/Treasured in the flush of your bloom/Yet soon discarded to decay.”

There are, of course, actual petals are falling upon the set at that point, just one of many scenic delights from designer Tim Yip. He’s an Academy Award winner for the super-sized film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and he doesn’t hold back. Some of it is what you’d expect—elaborate mansions appear on stage with pagoda roofs and carved wooded columns, and large watercolor landscapes serve as props. But there are also eye-catching projections that set scenes on fire and an amazing system of backdrops that rise and fall on cue, weaving together bits of rolling Chinese landscape in ways that are both literal and abstract. It was a lot to keep in order but director Stan Lai organized smooth transitions. 

Sheng’s score for The Dream of the Red Chamber drips with musical immoderation and deploys about double the high notes of most contemporary operas. The composer fully employs every instrument in the orchestra, understanding the dramatic punch each possesses. For a work so steeped in Chinese custom, he has chosen a broad array, stretching from violin and bassoon to gong and guqin (the stringed instrument related to the zither). Red Chamber is rooted firmly in classical European romance, though enhanced with well-considered ventures into Asian musical motifs. Under George Manahan’s leadership, the orchestra was especially vigorous and loud, if not always in balance with the vocalists. The singing of all three leads—tenor Yijie Shi as Bao Yu, soprano Pureum Jo as Dai Yu and mezzo Irene Roberts as Bao Chai—had an exuberant, appealing freshness appropriate to characters whose moral sums are still in the process of adding up.  —Ray Mark Rinaldi 

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