Friday, October 28, 2016

Dream of the Red Chamber (an opera review post)

Dream of the Red Chamber is a new opera. As in brand new. In fact, this was the world premiere. Not that we saw the first showing of it during its run. It's more like seeing a movie on opening night but seeing the 3:00am showing because the earlier showings were sold out. It's still opening night.

The opera is based on the book of the same name, or usually the same name, depending on the translation. The book is considered the book of Chinese literature and even has its own branch of scholarship, redology.

It is, however, a very long book (evidently, Martin has nothing on this guy), so the opera is based on this very particular plot arc of the book, one which involves a love triangle.

In a general sense, this is not a problem; however, the opera spends the first half (until the intermission) setting up the triangle, and it does a poor job of it. Let me explain:

The lead male, Bao Yu (all of the names are symbolic, but I'm not going to go into all of that), has grown up in the women's house, the red chamber, something not normally allowed. During his time there, he has fallen in love with Dai Yu and she with him. They have a lot in common, though she is a "plain" girl and an orphan, making her a "poor match" for Bao Yu, at least according to Bao Yu's mother.

They spend a good portion of the first half of the opera setting up the love between Bao Yu and Dai Yu, then Bao Chai is introduced. She is supposed to be exotic and beautiful, and we are supposed to believe that the presence of Bao Chai creates a romantic conflict for Bao Yu, but, other than an erotic dream he has about both women, there is nothing to support Bao Yu's supposed passion for Bao Chai. It's never quite believable.

Especially since, in the opera, it is almost immediate that Bao Yu's mother begins to push Bao Yu and Bao Chai together (as does Bao Chai's mother). Bao Yu is never torn between the two women. He wants to marry Dai Yu. But it's Bao Chai who is the "good match" and, thus, the conflict. This conflict, which is heightened by a visit from Bao Yu's sister, is not introduced until the very end of act one, leaving most of act one to be various songs about people's intentions with singers standing in place telling of their love or whatever.

Basically, there was little action, leaving act one to be fairly dull.

Act two was a complete turn around, though, as all the court intrigue around the marriage kicked in. The family is trying to force Bao Yu to marry Bao Chai, but he is taking a stand against that. Unfortunately for him, the Emperor himself wants the marriage to happen... because he has a plot underway against the two families. Needless to say, act two is quite a bit more exciting. Enough so that it makes the opera worth watching.

Actually, it's all pretty interesting. Enough so that I'm exploring the idea of reading the book. It's twice as long as War and Peace, which I haven't read yet, so that's saying a lot. I've said for a while that the quality of an adaptation can be told by whether it makes the "viewer" want to explore the source material. Based on that, I would have to say that this is a successful opera. It's certainly not bad, just a bit slow and boring through the first half.


  1. It's unlikely that I'll ever see or hear the opera much less read the book. It could happen, but I doubt it. There is a slightly more probability that I'll be going to a Chinese restaurant anytime soon much to my dismay since my wife won't eat Chinese food. I can settle for Thai food though since she will go to a Thai restaurant. Or maybe Panda Express if I'm doing some take-out--she doesn't mind their rice bowls.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  2. I devised a free on-line course to explore the opera and the novel--you might find something of interest there.

  3. Replies
    1. TAS: It was good. And the singing was great. There's just a lot of standing while doing it. There is some movement, but that's mostly in the second half.