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Tan Dun: Marco Polo
15 Aug 2010

Marco Polo at Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam

Does this Tan Dun opera prove or disprove that for East and West, the twain shall never meet?

Tan Dun: Marco Polo

Polo: Charles Workman; Marco: Sarah Castle; Kublai Khan: Stephen Richardson; Water: Nancy Allen Lundy; Shadow 1 / Rustichello / Li Po: Zhang Jun;

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Marco Polo provides evidence for both arguments. His score, to a libretto by Paul Griffiths, leaps (or lurches, depending on one’s aural perspective) from his updated take on classical Chinese music with authentic instruments to orchestral passages where Puccini lusciousness gets spiked with Prokofiev edginess. The singers have to use their trained voices for yelps and yips as well as for the occasional legato section. Popping up frequently — arguably all too frequently — a Chinese opera-trained performer, Zhang Jun, squeals and grunts in English in a variety of incarnations, and if he is meant to be a guide for the audience, he is a singularly incomprehensible, if not annoying, one.

Griffith’s libretto attempts no historical narrative. Instead we have a sort of avant-garde pageant of symbolic stages of the Polo journeys, from “Piazza” to “Sea” to “The Wall.” Each of the four seasons gets a section called “The Book of Timespace,” which should go a long way to answering the rhetorical question, “Just how pretentious is this opera?” Charles Workman takes the role of Polo, while Sarah Castle performs as Marco. Stephen Richardson gets the role of Kublai Khan to himself. Apparently only Western explorers cannot resolve their feminine/masculine ying/yang issues. All the singers perform their roles with a stoic professionalism.

A straightforward historical approach probably would have produced a dismal opera, and there will be viewers for whom Tan Dun and Paul Griffiths’ efforts will reverberate with newly realized insights into the long and complex history of Western interactions with China. For others such as your reviewer, the occasional patch of interesting music doesn’t compensate for the long stretches of impatience with the over-stylized, under-realized silliness on stage.

Director Pierre Audi keeps the stage picture continually interesting, if seldom understandable, but then he should, working with the brilliant stage design of Jean Kalman and the costumes of Angelo Figus. But an opera should be more than a visually compelling collection of the weirdest and most wonderful Project Runway designs.

Reiner E. Moritz’s booklet essay matches the opera in its rambling pretentiousness. One example: “When asked whether he composed the music or the music composed him, Tan Dun replied...” Elsewhere Moritz claims that Tan Dun’s 1996 opera “conquered the opera houses of the world,” an event which many an astute follower of opera may have somehow missed. This performance comes from a 2008 revival at the DeNederlandse Opera, with the composer conducting. Those who endured Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons back will know what to expect here.

Chris Mullins

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