On September 13th and 14th, 2016, we attended two very different operas in San Francisco, one a word premiere, Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber, and the other Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, first performed at La Scala in 1896, once a common repertory piece, but now staged less often. Here are my comments:
Dream of the Red Chamber. Dream of the Red Chamber is an operatic adaption of a classic, 2500 page Chinese novel, written in 1754, but not published until 1791. (I read parts of it in college in a History of China class). The task of boiling this novel, with 400 characters, down to a libretto for a two-and-one-half hour opera fell to librettist David Henry Hwang, assisted by the composer, best known for his play, M. Butterfly. He did so by concentrating on the central story of a love triangle involving Bao Yu, the scion of a distinguished, but heavily indebted family, his soul mate (literally, they were once a stone and flower in love in heaven), Dai Yu, and Bao Chai, a cultured and wealthy young woman, whom Bao Yu is tricked into marrying. Other characters of importance include a grandmother, an aunt, and a sister, whose relationship as concubine to the Emperor has kept the family from falling into disfavor. An actor portrays a monk, who in the prologue in heaven, futilely warns the stone and flower not to seek earthly love and serves as narrator, an awkward, if perhaps necessary device,
The good news about this opera is that it was beautifully staged and sung. The production, by designer Tim Yip was exquisite, everything you would want in an opera set in 18th Century China. The singing was superb. I was especially impressed by Chinese tenor Yijie Shi, who possesses a beautiful, plangent, high tenor voice. I hope I to see more of him. Additionally, Korean soprano Pureum Jo sang beautifully and sensitively as Dai Yu, and mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts was an excellent Bao Chai.
On the other hand, I was not impressed by the opera as whole, one, because the story was slow moving, especially in the First Act, and two, because the music, although orchestrally interesting as conducted by George Manahan, did not move me. Yes, as noted in the pre-opera lecture, Sheng provided a lot of high notes, but the music lacked passion and sounded like good background music to a film rather than an opera score. The San Francisco Symphony will be presenting Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber Overture on September 28, 2016, and perhaps the music will work better in that format.
Andrea Chenier. Umberto Giordano’s fictionalized tale of the unfortunate French poet, André Chenier, who was guillotined only three days before his nemesis Robespierre met the same fate, is a mixed bag of some relatively uninspired stretches, followed by really knock-out moments, particularly arias for the main characters. To be effective, it needs top notch singers, and especially a tenor who can pull off heavy dramatic, Italianate singing without strain This probably explains why it has come close to dropping out of the standard repertory. In fact, it was last staged in San Diego in September 1981 with the not-so-great Carlo Bini in the title role.
I would say the San Francisco production, directed by David McVicar, was a partial success. The sets and costumes were beautiful and traditional, which is fine with me. However given that it is a recent co-production with Royal Opera Covent Garden, one would think that with modern stage equipment they could have figured out a way to avoid two long curtain-down set changes between the First and Second Act and the Third and Fourth Act.
The other drawback was the conducting of Maestro Nicolà Luisotti, which tended to overwhelm the singers despite their large voices. I am informed that this may partially be result of where we sat, Orchestra, Row M, 109-111, slightly to the left of center, but I heard another person at intermission also complain about the seemingly overly loud conducting, although I do not know where he sat.
Korean tenor, Yonghoon Lee, who impressed in the Met HD broadcast of Il trovatore, possesses a huge voice, and even with its baritonal character, the voice had no trouble with ringing high notes. His “Improviso” and especially “Come un bel dì di maggio,” were excellent. Occasionally, in fact, he seemed to have some problems with producing low notes, although that may partially be the result of the overly loud orchestra. One review I read severely criticized his acting on opening night, but he clearly had improved for this performance, although still a bit wooden. Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi sang well enough even though the start of the opera was delayed due to her falling ill that day. She did seem to be holding back prior to intermission, but got through “La mamma morta” in the Third Act without problems, but also without Callas-like emotion. (We all remember Tom Hank’s reaction to the Callas recording in Philadelphia, and it is hard to put it out of one’s mind.). Georgian baritone George Gagnidze sang an excellent Carlo Gerard, and his performance of “Nemico della patria” was one of the highlights of the evening. It brought back memories to me of a baritone singing this aria on Johnny Carson with Carson remarking that Andrea Chenier was his favorite opera.
Whatever the problems with this production, it was on the whole, satisfying and I was grateful to be able to attend. The program notes, by the way, were excellent, discussing the performance history of the opera, its highlights and its flaws, a good summary of the French Revolution, a short biography of André Chenier and defintions of the many revolutionary terms found in the opera.