Since its inception in 1980, Opera Boston has cast a wide net stylistically, staging 35 area premieres and many contemporary works. Now it has to its credit Boston’s first operatic world premiere in two decades, Zhou Long’s attractively scored Madame White Snake, a co-production with the Beijing Music Festival that will be seen with the same staging and cast in China in the Fall.
This represented a huge undertaking, not least in diplomacy and marketing, and if the work finally proved interesting rather than deeply memorable, it was a worthwhile effort, well led by Music Director Gil Rose. A cynic would note that Chinese-American operas are fast becoming an economically-driven sub-genre; but audience building is essential to the operatic enterprise today, plus which the richness of Chinese visual, musical culture and its wealth of historical and folkloric narrative make it an attractive, legitimate source for composers and librettists. (The finest such opera I have seen thus far was Guo Wenjing’s Poet Li-Bai, premiered at the Central City Festival in 2007 and well deserving of further stagings.) As with Tan Dun’s Tea: Mirror of the Soul, presented last month by Opera Company of Philadelphia, the problem here was the disjunction between an awkward, prolix English libretto and capably imagined music successfully utilizing combined Western and Chinese orchestral coloration (here two Chinese flutes and the two-stringed erhu, plus harp and percussion effects).
Though she deserves credit for conceiving the project, Cerise Lim Jacobs’ often repetitive libretto is problematic. From the elements of the Mme. White Snake folk material many Chinese narratives have been created over the centuries; the story itself, with an immortal attempting love with a mortal, shares elements with many operas, including Armide and Rusalka. The element of failed marital trust (questions of identity and origin) evokes Lohengrin, with the gender roles reversed. So the possibility for a cogent theatrical experience is there. But as written there is too much exposition of material that onstage could ideally be shown rather than explained, and many lines risked a Hallmark-esque banality made explicit by the excellent English diction of the three higher-voiced members of the cast. Maybe it would play better in Chinese, or retranslated?
The work’s second performance (February 28th) at the Cutler Majestic Theater witnessed very strong work by an emotionally eloquent cast comfortable with “extended” vocal techniques, chiefly in the upward direction. Pure lyric soprano Ying Huang (who also starred in Poet Li-Bai) initially gained fame in the Anna Moffo mode: as a youthful star of a Madama Butterfly film. She survived the resultant media blitz to become a fine Mozart singer (Susanna at City Opera, Pamina the Met), though her fame in the Far East will guarantee interest in Madame White Snake. A beautiful, petite figure she certainly knows how to work a stage, with a fluid arm plastique that works for her and suited the serpentine deity she was playing, by turns seductive and fiercely destructive.
The man the transfigured snake goddess seeks and (for a time) wins for a lover is scholar Xu Xian; the utterly fearless, clean-lined high tenor Peter Tantsits, one of his generation’s most consistently satisfying contemporary vocal music specialists, had no problems with the demanding tessitura and colored his music expressively through dynamic shading. Together he and Ying Huang made a handsome, credible couple.
Though Ying Huang got (and took) the real diva turns, the most interesting character in the work is Xiao Qing, an historically androgynous snake figure once a man in love with White Snake, whom he now serves in the high maintenance manner of Die Frau Ohne Schatten’s Amme. Male soprano Michael Maniaci filled the theatre with his unique, arresting tone, most skillfully managed. Maniaci made the character’s sorrow and frustration palpable vocally and physically. Earthy bass Dong-Jian Gong fared slightly less well with English consonants but was generally both comprehensible and expressive as the Priest who sees through Mme. White Snake’s magical disguise and engages her in war for Xu Xian’s soul.
Robert Woodruff’s sage direction masked some of the libretto’s problems, with effective blocking and effective use of Peter Nigrini’s haunting ocean videos and Mark Barton’s variegated lighting. David Zinn provided memorable costumes, perhaps especially for Maniaci’s tragicomic servant, who looked like Liza Minelli playing Mother Goddam. Woodruff also deployed the fine choruses (adult and children) brilliantly. The members of Anthony Trecek-King’s Boston Children’s Chorus deserve special commendation both as to spirited delivery and sonorous results.
David Shengold, a Philadelphia-based art critic, writes for Opera News, Opera (UK), Opéra Magazine (France), Musical America Online, Playbill, and Time Out New York, among many other venues.
Ed: Mr. Shengold was prevented by jury duty at his home in Philadelphia from reviewing the opening performance and so attended the performance on Feb. 28; a malfunction of his computer further delayed the review. As the house was sold out for all three performances, according to Executive Director Carole Charnow and a glance around the house the night we attended (Tuesday), an earlier publication of the review might have dispirited potential attendees.
We are delighted to get Mr. Shengold’s reviews, whenever they arrive. (His review of the Glimmerglass productions in 2009 was the first one published by BMInt.)