Monday, October 17, 2011

REVIEW: Dr. Sun Yat Sen - the Opera

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Sunday October 15

Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the opera, showed good potential; but for the moment, that’s all it is.

Comissioned by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Opera Hong Kong, Dr. Sun Yat Sen made its world premiere on Thursday the 13th with a different cast from what I saw on Sunday. Having said that, the cast (from what I heard and saw) could be the opera’s best asset.

The opera, with libretto by Candace Chong, was into something interesting when the character of Lu Muzhen (Dr. Sun’s first wife) was introduced. The juxtaposition of the two women (of course there were others) in Dr. Sun’s life, Lu Muzhen representing the old China and Soong Chingling representing the new China set against all his struggles would have been far more interesting. Instead, the opera chose to have all sorts of totally unnecessary subplots and characters. One of these was the introduction of two assassins who sang and acted like Moe and Curly looking for Larry.

With music by Huang Ruo, some of his best are found in the prologue and interludes, as long as no one was singing. As for vocal music, Dr. Sun, deservedly had the better deal and was amply performed by Ding Yi. Soong Chingling also had some good musical moments too but Nancy Yuen’s shrill higher register was very uncharacteristic of the role. Lu Muzhen’s role was one of the most rounded despite appearing twice only. Her emotions and intents, especially when she was telling Dr. Sun’s why she signed the divorce papers and switched from Putonghua to Cantonese was the most touching and dramatically potent moment in the opera and superbly performed by Joyce Wong. If there is one thing I believe was a bit overdone though was how a person with bound feet was portrayed (Lu Muzhen kept losing her balance). Funny how this kind of thing resonates quite deeply in me as my grandmother used to have bound feet. As a child, I used to accompany her to Chinese operas. For her, it was a way to show-off one of her 28 grandchildren; while for me, it was a chance to earn some pocket money as she used to tip me like I was an attentive waiter. Anyway, the point that I was making is that I never saw my grandma lose her balance.

Outside those moments mentioned above, most of the vocal music was set as if the composer was a foreigner who doesn’t understand Chinese and doesn’t know how the Chinese language works. The chorus had the worst music to deal with. The musical language vacillated from abrupt bursts to monastic chants with a few “modern music dissonances” thrown in with no relation or empathy to the words. Separately, when Charlie Soong (wonderfully performed by Peng Kangliang) was livid while confronting Dr. Sun and Soong Chingling’s marriage, he sang in Chinese, “If you decide to stay with him, then forget that I am your fa ……… (he went on doing some Chinese opera-“inspired” ornamentation) ………. (then with a deep breath concluded) ther”… very uncharacteristic and totally gratuitous. Another obsession of the composer was to use counterpoints in times when there were two characters on stage. This was barely effective in scenes that tried to communicate “chaos”, but was hysterical in scenes that tried to communicate some kind of “civility”.

The highlight of the opera however was the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra led by Yan Huichang. The ensemble was cohesive and committed. I, for one, buy into the concept of a “western” opera with a Chinese orchestra.

Overall, Dr. Sun Yat Sen was a good try and this kind of exploration should be supported and encouraged. The vision is right and attainable, just not this time.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen
In Commemoration of the Centenary of the 1911 Revolution
A new opera in 3 acts
World Premiere

Performed in Putonghua with Chinese and English Surtitles

Commissioned by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Opera Hong Kong

13-15 October 2011 (Thu to Sat) 7:45pm
Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
$880, 620, 420, 280, 150

16 October 2011 (Sun) 3pm
Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
$780, 500, 360, 240, 130

Creative Team:
Music: Huang Ruo
Libretto: Candace Chong
Producer: Warren Mok
Director: Chen Xinyi
Set Design: Gao Guanjian
Costume Design:「源 Blanc de Chine」
Lighting Design: Gabriel Fung

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra
Conductor: Yan Huichang

Opera Hong Kong Chorus
Chorus Director: Jimmy Chan

Cast Includes:
Sun Yat-sen: Warren Mok*+ / Ding Yi^#
Soong Chingling: Yao Hong*+ / Nancy Yuen^#
Lu Muzhen: Yuki Ip*+ / Joyce Wong^#
Charlie Soong: Gong Dongjian*+ / Peng Kangliang^#
Charlie Soong's Wife: Yang Guang*+ / Liu Shan^#
Umeya Shōkichi: Yuan Chenye*^+ / Albert Lim#
Shōkichi's Wife: Liang Ning*^+ / Carol Lin#
Ms Ariyoshi: Lisa Lu

*13/10 7:45pm
^14/10 7:45pm
+15/10 7:45pm
#16/10 3pm

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