Arts & Events

World Premiere of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday September 23, 2016 - 12:37:00 PM

Among former General Director David Gockley’s many accomplishments, he will probably be best remembered, not without reason, for the many new operas he commissioned. Though their quality varied, as one might expect, Gockley’s commissions exemplified his bold commitment to opera as a living, vibrant art form that had an important place in our contemporary musical world. Dream of the Red Chamber, by Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng, which just received its world premiere at SF Opera, was only the last of Gockley’s commissions as SF Opera’s General Director. But it no doubt will gain a place in the 21st century operatic world.  

Not that Dream of the Red Chamber is without its faults. Indeed, its faults are many and obvious. The plot, pared down from an enormous, sprawling 18th century Chinese novel that is a classic in China, wanders hither and yon, often in desultory fashion, especially in Act I, which runs for an hour and a half, without much happening. Layers of allegorical philosophy, questions of illusion and reality, and Qing dynasty social and political intrigues are all run together in Dream of the Red Chamber by co-librettists David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng. Moreover, Bright Sheng’s orchestral score is often bombastic, full of overstated brass and pervasive percussion. Yet there are moments of musical expression that stand out as quite beautiful. Foremost among these, to my mind, is a simple song sung here by soprano Pureum Jo as Dai Yu, a song about plum blossoms accompanied only by the ancient Chinese qin, a plucked zither with seven silk strings, which was played here by Shanghai-born Zhao Yi. This lovely song was for me the highlight of the opera. 

As the beautiful but sickly Dai Yu, Pureum Jo, a native of South Korea, was this opera’s most engaging singer. Her pure, crystalline soprano shone brightly throughout the opera. Her character, Dai Yu, is an embodiment of the crimson pearl flower that has received nurturing dew for 3,000 years from a stone left behind from the construction of Heaven. The stone, sung here by tenor Yijie Shi, is embodied in the character Bao Yu, who finds his soul-mate in Dai Yu. The character of Bao Yu is that of a sentimental idealist who is more interested in poetry and beauty than in getting ahead in the world. This puts him at odds with his mother and his aunt, who desperately seek to save the clan’s status in society and rescue the family from an oppressive financial debt that hovers over them like a curse. In the role of Bao Yu, Yijie Shi sang beautifully, though his tenor lacked heroic heft.  

The third point in the love triangle is the female character Bao Chai, beautifully sung here by mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, who starred as last season’s Carmen. The character Bao Chai is in every way the opposite of Dai Yu. Where Dai Yu is poetic and dreamy, Bao Chai is down-to-earth and practical. But both women are beautiful, and for a while the idealistic Bao Yu is undecided which women he loves. He has an erotic dream that confuses him even more on this issue. This erotic dream, elegantly danced by female dancers in choreography by Fang-Yi Sheu, also contains some of the opera’s finest orchestral music. Incidentally, on the theme of love and lust, it is no doubt significant that on first meeting the ethereal Dai Yu, Bao Yu confesses his feelings for her by imploring “Let me sprinkle my morning dew on your soft petals,” a phrase that Freudians would die for.  

Intervening frequently throughout this opera is a Buddhist monk, who, in a speaking role, tries to tie together the often wayward plot-threads. However, instead of tying things together, he merely breaks any musical and dramatic flow there might have been. Moreover, the speaking voice of Randall Nakano, who plays the Monk, is abrasive in its American accent. He sounds more like a Fuller brush salesman than a Chinese Buddhist monk!  

In the role of Granny Jia, contralto Qiulin Zhang was exquisite. Her character is sympathetic to Bao Yu and she favors his marriage to the poetic Dai Yu. Opposing this marriage is Bao Yu’s mother, Lady Wang, sung forcefully here by mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim. Also opposing Bao Yu’s marriage to Dai Yu is his Aunt Xue, exquisitely sung here by mezzo-soprano Yanyu Guo. These two strong women favor instead a marriage between Bao Yu and Bao Chai, a marriage which will unite two powerful clans and save the Jia family from their crushing financial debt. Even Bao Yu’s sister, Princess Jia, the Emperor’s favorite concubine, sung here by soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho, favors her brother’s marriage to Bao Chai as the only way to save the family’s status in society. But Bao Yu is adamant that he will not marry Bao Chai and intends to marry Dai Yu. The aria sung by Dai Yu that begins Act II, about fallen flower petals, is set to a poem included in the novel of Dream of the Red Chamber and is considered one of the most poignant poems in all of Chinese literature. This aria, which echoes in the opera’s ending, is another of the most beautiful musical moments in this opera.  

Conductor George Manahan did his best with a score that is often bombastic, and director Stan Lai achieved a fluid staging. Production Designer Tim Yip created sets that were colorful and imaginative, mixing dreamlike elements and realistic touches. Gary Marder was in charge of lighting this opera. The Opera Chorus sang well, although their opening number, a patter song, got Dream of the Red Chamber off to a somewhat shaky start, almost belittling the drama we were about to witness. Dream of the Red Chamber is sung in English and supplied with both English supertitles and Chinese side-titles. This opera continues through September 29.