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.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
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.