l-r: Zheng Cao as Ruth Young Kamen, Ning Liang as LuLing Liu Young, and Qian Yi as Precious Auntie
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008
There is something to be said for lowered expectations. I was actually fairly entertained by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter
now receiving it’s world premiere performances in San Francisco. However, given that my most recent new opera experience was Howard Shore’s The Fly
in Los Angeles, anything would have been a significant improvement. And so it was. Amy Tan’s melodramatic popular novel has received a full-fledged stage and musical treatment. Despite the Oprah-esque qualities of the piece, it’s not a bad little story with three generations of women uncovering their histories through a ghost story of sorts. Everybody learns meaningful lessons about their ancestry and how they got to be who they are.
But, despite this, it’s unclear that Bonesetter
has much staying power. Although it is proving to be quite popular in its run in San Francisco, the opera reminds me more of another recent premiere in Los Angeles, Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel
. Like its predecessor, Bonesetter
is overly reliant on a highly attractive and imaginative staging, in this instance from Chen Shi-Zheng. Floating ghosts and gowns, gorgeous bright colors, and animated video imagery drive the show despite a sometimes predictable score. Strings swell ominously in conjunction with a variety of non-Western percussion instruments. but for all the pretty angst, there's little variety to mark shifts in mood in the piece. Of course, there aren't many of those to begin with so that may be part of the problem.
Wallace has crafted an opera with a wide variety of Chinese influences after years of study and preparation. But, despite this, the music never really seems to evoke something deeper than what’s apparent on the surface. His vocal lines are reasonable, though, and they are performed quite admirably by a very good cast which includes Zheng Cao as Ruth, Ning Liang as her mother LuLing, and Qian Yi as the grandmother Precious Auntie. The vocal writing relies both on Western and Chinese operatic conditions and these disparate elements are well-integrated throughout. There are clearly rocky spots. About half way through the first Act, the rather interesting action grinds to a halt. Things pick up again later for what was an enjoyable afternoon; although honestly not one that I necessarily feel the need to repeat.
Labels: SF Opera 08/09