Slice and dice Rossini, early Verdi, Minkus, Mantovani, Borodin, and
Andrew Lloyd Weber. Add just a pinch of Chinese folksongs. Bake well
and serve in the War Memorial Opera House - and there you have the U.S.
premiere tonight of Xiao Bai's "Farewell My Concubine," just three months
after its world premiere in Beijing. Pleasant, if rather pointless as
it satisfies neither Western nor Peking Opera fans fully, the work
nevertheless demonstrates huge progress since the days of the half-baked
Yellow Piano Concerto (http://tinyurl.com/3xwgc4).
The big, colorful production - on its way to a half dozen other U.S.
opera houses - is presented by some 150 traveling artists of the China
National Opera House: a full orchestra, conducted by Yu Feng, an excellent
chorus (overcoming a tentative first scene), and impressive soloists,
well schooled in Italian opera, albeit still showing the long-range
impact of Soviet voice coaches more than a generation ago.
Taking its text from the ancient story about devastating wars between
the Chu, Qin, and Han, Xiao Bai's opera (libretto by Wang Jian) abbreviates,
simplifies, and - to some extent - dumbs down this great tale of love
and war. Although most of the English supertitles pass muster, peculiar
lines do pop up here and there, on the order of "Spring water flows into
my knotted heart." (To be fair, no faithful fan of most Italian libretti
has a good case to make here.)
The tour serves as further exposure for the China National Opera House,
which - says the program - has produced Western opera in Beijing (and,
surely, in Shanghai). Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, Mozart, etc. have long
been presented by the company, which was formed in 1952. There is no
word on what happened during the murderous decade of the Cultural
Revolution, but surely no decadent Western art was cultivated during
As for now, company president Liu Xijin calls opera "a global art, often
thought of as the pinnacle of all civilization... a reflection of our
national strengths, as well as the foundation of our individual cultures.
China is fast becoming a country with top-ranking opera productions..."
With several outstanding Korean and Japanes opera singers long active
in Europe and the U.S., Chinese artists are sure to be added soon to the
rosters of major houses in the West. All four principals in "Concubine"
are fully qualified to do so now: Sun Li (Xiang Yu, the Chu Emperor),
Li Shuang (Han Xin, Xiang Yu's brother, later the head of the opposing
Han army) Ruan Yuqun (Yu Ji, the "favorite concubine"), Niu Shasha (Yu
Shu, Yu Ji's sister) each could easily join the cast of an Italian opera
- and, in fact, they have.
Ruan Yuqun was the most impressive among the singers, although her
biography in the program has caused an involuntary raising of the reader's
eyebrows (both). She won first place in the 3rd Maldini International
Opera Vocal Competition in Italy, the note says, "and was nicknamed the
`Chinese Callas' by nine of the judges." How did the nine arrive at the
identical nickname, how many judges were there altogether, and why did
the other judges - if any - demur? At any rate, what I heard tonight was
not Callas, Chinese or otherwise, but somebody who could sing well just
about any dramatic soprano role in the Italian repertoire.
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