Review

Chinese opera 'Dream of the Red Chamber' opens in San Francisco with much ambition, too little nerve

The world needs more Chinese opera. China needs it too.

China has some 29 opera houses. Only Italy, Germany, the U.S. and Russia have more. China has more architecturally notable new ones, such as the late architect Zaha Hadid’s spectacular Guangzhou Opera House, than any other country. But China does not yet have enough of its own notable opera to fill them.

America can help. In the 1980s, a number of promising young Chinese composers immigrated to the U.S. in the wake of China’s Cultural Revolution. Now prominent, they swim in a musical ocean that, to paraphrase Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, has no East or West. A new operatic genre that merges cultural traditions is slowly being created. The latest, and one of the most ambitious, is Bright Sheng’s “Dream of the Red Chamber,” which was given its world premiere Saturday night by San Francisco Opera.

This is a project with all the hallmarks of a landmark Chinese opera. For American audiences, it offers the opportunity to discover one of the great epic novels of world literature, first published in 1791 and sometimes called the Chinese “War and Peace.” For the Chinese, the Cao Xueqin novel is widely known thanks in good part to a much-repeated 36-part Chinese television serial from 1987, along with a more recent remake.

Cao’s “Red Chamber” is colossal. It has 40 major characters and 10 times as many secondary ones chronicling the downfall of a great family during the Qing Dynasty against the background of political upheaval. In the process Cao (who wrote the first 80 chapters) and Gao E (who added 40 more) offer an artfully nuanced look at domestic life in 18th century China placed within a philosophical and spiritual context of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

And yet despite instances of compelling music, Sheng’s opera proves a curious failure of nerve. Rather than aspire to genuinely grand opera on the epic scale of Wagner or Stockhausen or Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” Sheng has reduced the novel to a modest love triangle, framed by a monk offering explanatory spoken narration. At almost every point, the explicatory 80-minute first act and more dramatic hour-long second bend over backward to elucidate its themes.

The impression is that of too much opera by committee, its so-called “Dream” team. The playwright David Henry Hwang has written libretto that relies on prosaic English rather than attempt a modern poetic representation of Cao’s text. Taiwanese playwright and director Stan Lai lets opera singers pretty much do their standard operatic thing against exquisitely drawn period backdrops by Tim Yip (who won an Oscar for his art direction of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).

Consequently, in its controversial advocacy for neo-Puccini new opera with soaring melodies suited for operatic voices of yore and accessible entertainment, San Francisco Opera might seem as though it merely wanted another “Turandot,” Puccini’s Chinese opera. But every moment that is striking in “Red Chamber” is every moment that doesn’t resemble Puccini, and most of that is in the orchestra.

Sheng has a terrific feel for orchestration. He uses brass (particularly trombones), winds and percussion (Western and Chinese) in original and highly imaginative ways. Pitches bend in ways that sound almost acrobatically impossible. Chinese folk tunes get transformed into rapturously expressive new music, gorgeously colored. The atmosphere of “Red Chamber” is all in the orchestra, and it is marvelous scented.

But Sheng also needs a poetic text to inspire a vocal style. He had that in his first opera, “The Song of Majnun” in 1992, with a libretto by the critic Andrew Porter. But his subsequent operas, and particularly his bland “Madame Mao,” proved too dramatically inert.

“Red Chamber” revolves around Bao Yu, a rebellious adolescent with hormones kicking in. The male heir of the Jia clan, he is the mortal embodiment of a stone in heaven, which provided the dew to water a grateful flower. Bao Yu falls in love with his delicate, poetic cousin Dai Yu (the embodiment of the flower), but he is tricked by his mother into a marriage with the glamorous and wealthy Bao Chai, whose fortune is needed for the Jias’ failing resources.

Both Bao Yu’s mother and his older sister, Princess Jia, the Emperor’s favorite consort, attempt to teach the boy the distinction between reality and illusion, and that turns into the problem between romantic love and responsibility. This is a complex equation. Marrying Bao Chai instead of Dai Yu accomplishes nothing, since it was all a ruse by the Emperor to get his hands on two fortunes instead of one.

Most of the cast is Asian, but the singers nonetheless boast traditionally accomplished Western opera voices. The charismatic tenor, Yijie Shi, is a bounding Bao Yu seemingly in his 20s. But at this age, his first “erotic dream” becomes ludicrous, especially when it is represented by commonplace prim operatic ballet. Pureum Jo brings a solemn beauty to Dai Yu when she is allowed, but her big aria opening the second act is that of a Puccini heroine, fragile of health who belts out her anguish. Irene Roberts’ rejected Bao Chai lays on the melodrama. The other major roles — Qiulin Zhang as Bao Yu’s grandmother who sides with his love, Hyona Kim as his mother, Karen Chia-ling Ho as the Emperor’s ultimately jilted concubine and Yanyu Guo as Bao Chai’s mother — would not be out of place in an early 20th-century Italian verismo opera.

The actor Randall Nakano, the Monk, has far too much to do, prosaically stepping in to make sure we follow the story rather than encouraging the audience to trust the music. The effortful chorus adds more of the same.

Auspiciously, though, conductor George Manahan makes the orchestra the real star of the work. That bodes well for Sheng’s next work, an independent “Dream of the Red Chamber Overture” that the San Francisco Symphony will premiere Sept. 28. Meanwhile “Dream of the Red Chamber” runs through Sept. 29 at War Memorial Opera House, and then it travels to the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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