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March 24, 2006

A Night at the Chinese Opera - Judith Weir's opera arrives in London at last

Posted by David Conway

Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera
Royal Academy Opera/Royal Academy Sinfonia
conducted by Dominic Wheeler, directed by Jo Davies
at the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre
Royal Academy of Music, London
20th, 22nd, 24th, 27th March 2006

David Conway enjoys a post-modern take on classic Chinese theatre.

In a thoughtful essay in the programme accompanying the new production of her opera A Night at the Chinese Opera, Judith Weir discusses the function typically assumed by the play-within-a play in the theatre, of which perhaps the performance of the Murder of Gonzago sponsored by Hamlet is the most famous. Judith Weir writes:

It is almost inevitable that the actors in the play-within appear less credible than the "real" actors of the play-without; and that is usually achieved by presenting the play-within as deliberately inferior material, musical or literary.
Weir herself faces this challenge in a way which I shall discuss presently; but in fact it is interesting that this analysis is virtually a metaphor of opera itself. Opera that famously "exotic and irrational entertainment" actually trades on its extra distance from "reality" beyond that of spoken drama. It is a musical play within the framework of a constantly suggested (and often more "consistent" or "rational") theatre play. The task of the composer in some ways is to "repair" that distance with emotional feeds that can hold the whole thing in balance. At supreme moments in opera, a superficially ludicrous situation actually gains its power from such ambivalence. When, for example, in Figaro, the Count and Countess are arguing about the putative presence of someone in the Countess's wardrobe, their warnings to each other of Giudizia! (Be careful!), and the intensity of the music accompanying them, makes the audience only too aware of the terrible emotional abyss on the brink of which the characters stand. I find myself often weeping at such moments why? I know with my conscious mind the people on stage are impersonators but it is the artificiality of the situation that enables the situation to connect directly with my unconscious.

Weir has constructed a most engagingly artificial structure for her "Chinese opera". At its heart is a rendition of the 14th-century drama, The Chao Family Orphan, a lurid tale of intrigue and revenge which undoubtedly contains some satirical sideswipes at the contemporary domination of China by Khubilai Khan. The performance of this play is embedded within a story line which is ostensibly set in the same period but whose modern costumes and other anachronisms simultaneously place it within the China of Chairman Mao onwards. The engineer Chao Lin, brought up by the regime to become its leading constructor of canals, is given a team of slave labour to carry out his task, including three former actors. Attending their secret performance of The Chao Family Orphan, Chao Lin is motivated to seek revenge against his protector, the Military Governor, an initiative doomed to failure.

Weir does not choose a facile orientalism. She has created a sound-world which is completely sui generis, based in a starkly-reduced orchestra (woodwinds, violas, basses, percussion) producing sounds which she describes as:

imaginative reconstructions of Chinese originals.
This does not prevent frequent nods to Western music; notably in the mountain duet between Chao Lin (Ronald Collett, tenor) and the hermit (Michael McBride, baritone), with its evocations of Wagner, and the Pucciniesque interlude in which Marco Polo (the baritone Viktor Rud, who also doubles as the dozy Nightwatchman, in a brilliantly comic cameo) attempts to tell us about Chinese technology.

The outer acts are characterised by the traumas of invasion and destructions of families and landscapes. The main differentiation of the play-within is its high-speed presentation as broad farce, with the three actors (Kishani Jayasinghe, Catherine Hopper and Allan Clayton), virtually tripping up over each other as they double and treble the numerous parts. But the context of the first act already gives the saga of the Chao Orphan genuinely tragic resonances. When the occupying Mongolian soldier (Ronald Naime, bass) winds up the performance before the end and berates us (the audience) for defying the curfew, Chao Lin has already become consumed by his identification with the orphan analogous, perhaps, to the way that we as audiences tap into the emotions of opera characters. When he attempts to bring this identification in line with (stage) "reality", however, he is captured and condemned to death by the Military Governor (Christopher Field, counter-tenor: creating a suitably sinister atmosphere, especially in conjunction with Naime). This being opera however, Chao is allowed a surrogate victory the actors, now freed, perform the last act of their play in which the Orphan triumphs over the wicked General who has sought to exterminate his family, and is rewarded by the Emperor. As an audience then we are treated to comedy, tragedy, and resolution I for one can not ask more of operatic entertainment.

The Royal Academy Opera Company, unlike London's major public-funded operatic institutions, can consistently be relied upon to offer intelligent productions with singers of great promise, and this was no exception. Jo Davies as director weighed precisely the effects of the many elements of the mosaic offered by Weir (who also contributed at rehearsals). All the singers I have named and those I so far haven't (Anna Graca as a Chinese Mrs Mopp, Joey Masimola as Chao's father Chao Sun) not only sung excellently but provided a fine example of ensemble acting. I will, on the basis of this performance, particularly look out for Collett's two Lieder recitals this year at the Wigmore Hall. Dominic Wheeler's conducting was lively and sympathetic.

A Night at the Chinese Opera was premiered by Kent Opera in 1988. Amazingly, these are the first performances in London. The Royal Academy has done a real service to British music in staging this revival. There are further performances on Friday 24th March and Monday 27th March, the former with an alternate cast which I am confident will be in no way inferior to the one I saw.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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