Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Scottish Opera Wednesday 25th June - A Night at The Chinese Opera

To the Edinburgh Playhouse for a night at the Judith Weir opera (well, one of them). I'd seen what I think is her only other full opera (Blond Eckbert) on television many years ago: you have to admire an opera whose plot hinges on the name of a dog*.

ANATCO, like Eckbert, has humorous moments, rather more of them in fact. The story is a Hamlet-ish one of a boy, Chao Lin, brought up ignorant of his parentage by the killer of his real father. In this case it's his own memory which is jogged by a "play within a play", leading him to attempt the killing of the usurper, but he fails and is executed. The play within a play (actually the Chinese opera of the title) ends with the son successfully avenging his father's death, though its performance is interrupted in such a way that the ending isn't delivered until after the real protagonist has been killed. It reminded me of the Harold Pinter film adaptation of John Fowles's "The French Lieutenant's Woman", whose twin endings are rendered on screen by a similar dramatic device.

Despite being sung in English the production (by Lee Blakely) made use of surtitles. Quite apart from improving comprehension wherever the diction was poor (not often) these provided some tremendous comic moments in the play-within-a-play. There is a time when an old man is telling the "Chinese opera's" hero (The Orphan Of Chao) about his father, and is doing so in a very fast and difficult-to-grasp way. The boy keeps looking up at the surtitles which at first are keeping up, then begin to degenerate to "something about a chase", "something about a horse", before hitting on "I'm not paid enough for this". Finally the old man comes to an end and looks expectantly at the boy, who whirls round desperately to look at the surtitles which promptly change to "You are SO on your own! You should have been listening."

Judith Weir's music is very singable (no excessive demands or wildly leaping intervals) but not, I suspect, easy to learn, as her melodies while satisfying at the time don't stay with one for long (cue Chinese food analogy here). One could say the same of Britten, whose music is wonderful but difficult to remember in any detail (at least, I challenge anyone not a professional-level singer to commit more than a dozen bars or so of Peter Grimes's big aria "Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades" to memory). Damian Thantrey as the adult Chao Lin probably had the most demanding task that way, and I thought he brought it off very well, as did the troupe of actors. I have heard criticism of the opera itself in that it lacked real emotion: specifically that Chao Lin's execution was rather matter-of-fact. That's fair comment, but I suspect it was deliberate. Perhaps Judith Weir wanted to make a point about Chinese fatalism, or the cheapness of individual life in China both in Genghis Khan's time and more recently; perhaps she simply wanted to focus on the conclusion of the inner "Chinese opera" to make some kind of Man-Who-Shot-Liberty-Valance point about the relative longevity of true stories and legends. Although her music is not for the most part overtly emotional stuff, here we are talking about the downplaying of a major event in the text, so I'm pretty sure it will have been intentional. Anyhow, Hilary and I both enjoyed it.

*Strohmian, if you were wondering. Is that not a cool name for a dog?


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