|Louise Kemeny (Little Moon),|
Johnny Herford (Chao Lin),
Helen Bruce (Mrs Chin) and
Thomas Elwin (Old P'eng)
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.
|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.