Thursday, 13 September 2012

British Youth Opera - A Night at the Chinese Opera

British Youth Opera 2012, A Night at the Chinese Opera - Louise Kemeny (Little Moon), Johnny Herford (Chao Lin),  Helen Bruce (Mrs Chin) and Thomas Elwin (Old P'eng) [Credit: Clive Barda / ArenaPAL]
Louise Kemeny (Little Moon),
Johnny Herford (Chao Lin),
Helen Bruce (Mrs Chin) and
Thomas Elwin (Old P'eng)
Over the last few years, British Youth Opera has expanded its repertoire to include contemporary operas, alongside the classics and 20th century masterworks. Jonathan Dove’s Flight and Stephen Oliver’s Euridice have already featured in its summer season at the Peacock Theatre and for its 25th anniversary season there was Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera. We saw the opening night on 12 September, in a production directed by Stuart Barker, designed by Simon Bejer and conducted by Lionel Friend.



A Night at the Chinese Opera was commissioned by the BBC for Kent Opera and first performed by them in July 1987. The libretto, by Weir herself, does incorporate a genuine early Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao, as the centrepiece of the opera. As with other Weir stage works, there are multiple layers and stories to the plot. Act 2 consists of three actors performing the play, The Orphan of Zhao, in the audience is Chao-Lin, an orphan. In Act 1, we learned of how Chao-Lin’s father was exiled, and in Act 3 Chao-Lin realises how the plot of The Orphan of Zhao is similar to his own life. Chao-Lin goes to discover what happened to his father and to try to implement the plot of The Orphan of Zhao in his own life, to tragic results. So we have three stories, which are played out, at times simultaneously, at times separately. The ending, whereby the actors play the happy ending to The Orphan of Zhao, whilst simultaneously Chao-Lin is executed for his failed plot, is masterly and rather moving.

Weir’s music is deceptively simple and her stage works can be rather elliptical. Though her vocal lines are melodic and her language generally tonal, the harmony and the orchestration never quite do what you expect. When combined with the elusive quality of her self-penned libretti, the result is difficult to apprehend. She certainly does not write comfortable, easily digested music and there is nary a hint of minimalism or post-modern CNN opera. Whilst much of A Night at the Chinese Opera has a spare elegance, there are also moments in the orchestra which approach Messiaen’s purple passages

It is worth bearing in mind that Weir’s first ‘opera’ was a 10 minute work for soprano and piano, King Harolds Saga, in which the soloist plays all the roles, including an army. It is an epic story, told in masterly compressed manner. Weir has never felt the need to expand her work unnecesarily, using economy where possible. For instance, in A Night at the Chinese Opera the invasion by the Mongols is depicted using just two singers, the new Mongol governor and a Mongol soldier.

British Youth Opera 2012, A Night at the Chinese opera, Helen Bruce (Old Crone) [Credit: Clive Barda / ArenaPAL]
Helen Bruce (Old Crone)

Barker’s production didn’t use sets as such, but against a black back-drop there were costumes, props, models and puppets. Claire Bannister had made two lovely models, one of the city and one of the mountains where Chao-Lin and his father worked. Chao-Lin as a child was represented by a stunning puppet, worked by Johnny Herford (who played Chao-Lin as an adult) and Louise Kemeny who played his mother, Little Moon. Then in Act 3, the two characters whom Chao-Lin meets when he travels into the mountains to find his father were also played by puppets. Helen Bruce sang and worked a huge puppet of the Old Crone, another stunning piece of work, and Thomas Elwin had a buddha like puppet as the Old Mountain Dweller.


The result was innovative, flexible and rather magical; which entirely suited Weir’s opera.

There are 15 roles in the opera, played by 10 singers, with three acts of around 30 minutes each. So no one role is exceptionally dominant though Chao-Lin (Johnny Herford) is the protagonist, perhaps the hero in some senses. But he doesn’t get that much stage time, the adult Chao-Lin only appears part-way through Act 1, is silently watching The Orphan of Zhao in Act 2 and dies before the end of the opera.



So it is important that the character engaged our sympathy and interest. This Herford did, creating an appealing and slightly diffident stage figure, who was expressive even when not singing. This is an opera where each moment counts, whether you are singing or not. There was no choreography as such, but movement director Caroline Lamb had ensured that everything the characters did was expressive.


Herford has a lovely lyric baritone voice which he uses intelligently, he was the focus of the opera without blustering or showing off. He already has Papageno under his belt, but baritone voices notoriously develop their full potential late so I look forward to seeing how his career develops.

James Hall was the Mongol military governor, a character who keeps cropping up in the opera but who never particularly develops. It gave Hall limited scope, but he projected a strong stage presence and has a high counter-tenor voice which was admirably free in the upper registers. The other Mongol military presence was Jean-Baptiste Mouret, another strong character with a bass-baritone voice it would have been nice to hear more of.

Samuel Smith played the Night Watchman who opened the opera and cropped up occasionally in subsequent scenes, he had an engaging stage presence and appeared in another guise as Marco Polo doing a hilarious lecture on Chinese Canals, in Italian, at the opening of Act 3.

British Youth Opera 2012, Jamie Rock (Chao Sun) [Credit: Clive Barda / ArenaPAL]
Jamie Rock (Chao Sun)

Jamie Rock had the misfortune to play Chao Sun, the explorer and map maker who was exiled half-way through Act 1. It says much for Rock’s stage confidence that he established a character in the short time available to him. Rock cropped up later, at the end of Act 2, as a fireman stopping the performance of The Orphan of Zhao because of an earthquake.



Helen Bruce played both old ladies with relish; Mrs Chin who was Chao Sun’s housekeeper and also the Old Crone whom Chao Lin meets on the mountain. As I have said, this latter character was played by a puppet which Bruce manipulated (partly wearing it) whilst singing, so she can add versatility to her talents. Thomas Elwin was endearing as Old P’eng, the scholar; it is Old P’eng and Mrs Chin who bring Chao Lin up after the death of his parents (Chao Sun and Little Moon). Elwin also played the Old Mountain Dweller who disabuses Chao Lin about what happened to his father and the other refugees on the mountain (they all died). Elwin wore a puppet buddha on his head for this role, quite a remarkable sight but very effective.

Louise Kemeny was a touching Little Moon (Chao Sun’s wife and Chao Lin’s mother), she also played one of the actors in The Orphan of Zhao.  The other two actors were Catherine Backhouse and Peter Kirk. All three entered with a will the rather zany production which chimed in with Weir’s score. The music for The Orphan of Zhao is inflected by Chinese opera and is very much in quotation marks. Backhouse, Kemeny and Kirk managed to tread the fine line between ironic amusement and complete send-up.

But ultimately this is an ensemble opera and the cast worked brilliantly as a very slick ensemble, a tribute to the hard work done during rehearsal period with BYO that has taken place this summer.

I was sitting in row E of the dress circle. Though the cast worked hard, I had found that the words did not always come over with the clarity which was desirable.

Conductor Lionel Friend made sympathetic accompanist, ensuring that everything flowed nicely and getting some lovely sounds from the South Bank Sinfonia. They were on sparkling form and there were some ravishing moments in Weir’s fascinating and, at times, exotic orchestration.

This was a superb way to celebrate BYO’s 25th birthday, and an engaging revival of one of Judith Weir’s best operas.

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