Fly me high through the starry skies
Maybe to an astral plane
Cross the highways of fantasy
Help me to forget today’s pain
—Gary Wright, “Dream Weaver”
Bright Sheng, Dream of the Red Chamber (2016)
Based on: an eighteenth-century novel by Cao Xueqin
Setting: Dynastic China
Sung in: English
Plot in 101 words or less: A heavenly stone and flower use a magic mirror to become kissing cousins on Earth. Okaaay. Spoiled brat of the Jia clan, Baoyu (aka stoner boy) tries to impress poor relation Daiyu (aka flower girl) with mad poetry skillz, but mama bear Lady Wang, whose other cub is raising the red lantern at court, is not playing. She schemes to pay off family debt by marrying a reluctant Boayu to Baochai, of the wealthy Xue clan. A strategically placed veil does the trick. But the emperor uses the red wedding to swoop in and confiscate everything from both clans. Oh, snap!
New operas are always hit or miss and one never knows quite what to expect, especially when said opera is an adaptation of a classic novel that runs more than one thousand pages. I’m happy to report that San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber falls more on the hit side, mostly due to extremely high production values and great singing. The sets, designed by Tim Yip, were absolutely stunning. No surprise there I suppose, as Yip won an Oscar for his art direction on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I thought that Stan Lai’s direction mostly complemented Yip’s work, though there were times I wished that the blocking of the singers matched the energy and activity of the sets.
As for the actual opera, composed by Bright Sheng with a libretto by Sheng and David Henry Hwang, author of M Butterfly, there are certainly interesting musical and orchestral moments (especially Dai Yu’s arias and anything that involved percussion), but overall it seemed hampered by the lackluster libretto. The work is also hampered by the gender imbalance in the cast. As much as I hate to say it, there were just too many women. Given the context of the story, this was perhaps unavoidable, but it made the singing seem a bit repetitive as the night wore on. [Side note: Are we seeing a flip side of last year? Will our fall season be a string of stunning sets and ho-hum operas? Tune in next time when I review Don Pasquale.]
Still, the biggest problem for me in the libretto was the almost completely superfluous narrator. If his action had been strictly relegated to the prologue, it might have been fine, but he would periodically arrive to pompously proclaim (not sing) the most useless information. The best example of this came during an otherwise delightful bit of stagecraft: As women literally swept changing colored leaves across the stage, the narrator explained about changing seasons. There’s a Clinton-Trump debate joke to be made here I’m sure.
Luckily, the singing itself was superb. Yihie Shi as Bao Yu certainly held his own as the lone male voice and Pureum Jo as the delicate Dai Yu was very convincing. Hyona Kim stood out to me as Lady Wang, but arguably had a juicy part to work with, while Irene Roberts (last seen as Carmen this past summer) as Bao Chai was very good but didn’t have much meat to her role. I was much less enthusiastic about contralto Qiulin Zhang as Granny Jia. When I commented at intermission about how much I disliked her singing style, La Maratonista replied that she thought Zhang sounded like the Cowardly Lion—I almost lost it laughing during the second act when I realized how right she was. Sorry, but it’s true.
All in all, this opera looked gorgeous and was sung well, but I mostly hope to “see it again” by having the sets and costumes repurposed for the next run of Turandot. (Remember how horrific those costumes were? Good times.)
There is just one more performance of Dream of the Red Chamber at the War Memorial Opera House on September 29.