06 Oct 2008
On The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Decades ago a New Yorker cartoon showed a very little girl standing on tip-toe to return a book to a matronly librarian.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Decades ago a New Yorker cartoon showed a very little girl standing on tip-toe to return a book to a matronly librarian.
“The trouble with this book,” said the little girl, “is that it told me more about penguins than I really wanted to know.” The cartoon comes to mind as I assemble thoughts on The Bonesetter’s Daughter, the opera by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan that premiered at the San Francisco Opera in September.
I jest, of course, for I am grateful for the immense amount of information at my disposal about the new work that I saw at its third performance in the War Memorial Opera House on September 25. My “homework” began with Tan’s bestselling 2004 novel, from which the author extracted the libretto for Bonesetter’s Daughter. It’s a large book — and a good one, and I wish that everyone would read it before seeing the opera. This is not to say that the opera is a series of sins of omission, for Tan has ably done what must always be done in reducing a big book to a libretto. She has worked with Wallace to create a work that, while new, is faithful to the novel.
She has, above all, preserved the truth of the book, the truth that unites three generations of Chinese women so seamlessly that they function at times as a single individual.
These are the things
These are the things I know
These are the things I know are true.
With those lines daughter Ruth, ageing mother LuLing and Precious Auntie, a ghost from an earlier China, open the score. They return in the course of the work.
Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen) & Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young)
Reducing a novel to a libretto is an act of creative transformation, and the challenge differs with each work. I think, for example, of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath, premiered two seasons ago by Minnesota Opera. The Steinbeck classic, I thought, would defy such transformation. Wendell Korie, however, caught the epic sweep of the novel in his libretto. Korie, Wallace’s librettist for Harvey Milk, offered extensive advice to the creative team of Bonesetter’s Daughter.
Rather than generalizing about the process of transformation, a comparison of the task at hand says more about both operas. Korie had an easier job, for Grapes has essentially a group hero — the Joads — and Steinbeck follows them for a relatively brief time on their journey from Dust-Bowl Oklahoma to the — they hoped — greener pastures of California. The narrative line is simpler — and straighter.
James Maddalena (Art Kamen), Rose Frazier (Fia Kamen), Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen), Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young), Madelaine Matej (Dory Kamen), Valery Portnov (Marty Kamen), Catherine Cook (Arlene Kamen), Qian Yi (Precious Auntie)
Tan’s story extends over the better part of a century and moves from America to China, whence this family came in the years after World War Two. Much disappears from Tan’s novel on the way to the opera stage. Only those who know something of the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution will respond to mention of that age of repression in the libretto. And what American knows enough about calligraphy to appreciate what was involved in making ink for this ancient craft? This was the business of Precious Auntie’s family in China.
But back to reading. I am grateful that Ken Smith has documented the genesis of the new opera in Fate! Luck! Chance! Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, and the Making of ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ Opera (San Francisco, 2008. $24.95). Smith, long a respected music critic, has, with wife Joanna Lee, become the major mediator between American and Chinese music in this age of cultural cross-pollination. His book — rich in photos — records a creative process largely unique to opera, for Bonesetter’s Daughter is the product of a collective headed by Tan and Wallace that included director/choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng and the several musicians whom the two came to know on their several trips to China. Indeed, as I read about the many influences upon the work during the three years of its genesis I began to fear a collage of cultural fragments lacking specific identity. Happily, Bonesetter’s Daughter is anything but, and that is due largely to Wallace’s ability to assimilate what he experienced and express it in a voice that is totally his own.
Hao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffinmaker)
A Chinese-American opera; an American-Chinese opera? Just what is the work? It is decidedly American, and in Smith’s book Wallace defines his idiom in recalling his effort “to write music in my own language that felt Chinese without sounding ersatz Chinese.” He explains further: “You can hear this in the timbre and texture, but also in terms of the space between the notes that lets the music resonate with a sense of ritual.” That says it all and accounts for the newness — for the freshness and transparency of the score.
At 2 hours and 40 minutes, Bonesetter’s Daughter is nonetheless an engagingly intimate work exuberant in emotion. I felt at the end that it is a good work, not great perhaps, but good in its human authenticity.
Fate! Luck! Chance!, a documentary on the making of the opera, will be shown on public television in early 2009. Smith’s book includes the complete libretto of Bonesetter’s Daughter.