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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.