Review: A Pleasing Revival of “Dream of the Red Chamber” at San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2022

In my world premiere review [World Premiere Review: “The Dream of the Red Chamber” Transforms into a Fascinating Opera – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2016], I expressed my assessment of this opera and the extrordinary accomplishement of composer Bright Sheng and his co-librettist David Henry Hwang in extracting an opera out of the first 80 chapters of the 18th century multi-authored epic “The Dream of the Red Chamber”

As I suggested might happen in my world premiere remarks, the subsequent tour of San Francisco Opera’s production to China provided the composer with many ideas of how to revise the work, and cuts and augmentations since the 2016 premiere have occurred, including several suggested by revival director Stan Lai.

A monk relates the story’s supernatural antecedents. A stone collects dew to sustain a flower and stone and flower begin a love affair that lasts 3,000 years. They choose a magical pathway to becoming humans. The stone becomes Dao Yu and the flower becomes Bai Yu. Both are born into the Jia clan as first cousins.

Meigui Zhang’s Bai Yu

Assuming one the priincipal roles in “Dream of the Red Chamber” for her San Francisco Opera debut, Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang bought a luxurious tone to the music of Bai Yu. Zhang, during her summer in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, drew high praise for her role as Anne Trulove in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”. The role of Bai Yu is a major step in an impressive career.

[Below: Meigui Zhang as Bai Yu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photogr, aph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

 

Several passages of Bai Yu’s music are flower-themed, and the character’s attraction to music and to the poetry of her reborn lover, Bao Yu, are consistent with what Stone and Flower might have expected when they chose to become human.

Unfortunately, the Jia clan into which Bai Yu was born is deeply in debt to the Chinese Emperor. The priority of the women who are now in control of the clan is pleasing the Emperor. For most of the women, how best to use their sole male heir, Bao Yu, in their schemes, is a more important consideration than accommodating the love affair between him and Dai Yu.

[Below: Dai Yu accompanies her song about pear blossoms on a qin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Zhang’s Dai Yu, is a strong presence in duets and ensembles with the ladies of power in the Jia court, although once the Emperor signals he wants a marriage between Bao Chai and Bao Yu, Bai Yu feels growing despair. As Dai Yu’s situation and health weaken, Zhang’s powerful, beautifully expressive voice is heard in one of the evening’s highlights. Dai Yu has found a stone-encircled pool of water, in which she sees “a flower, watered by the tears of a lonely stone”. Ultimately, a disheartened Bai Yu walks into a lake, never to return.

[Below: Dai Yu (Meigui Zhang) tosses flower petals into a stone encircled pool; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver phtograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Konu Kim’s Dao Yu

South Korean tenor Konu Kim displayed a lyric voice with an expressive legato and evidence of spinto power in reserve. A graduate of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden’s Jette Parker Young Artists’ program, and a 2016 first prize Operalia winner, Kim has a solid beginning of an international career.

[Below: Konu Kim as Bao Yu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

THe character of Bao Yu, although supernaturally destined for a love relationship with Bai Yu, finds himself enmeshed in Chinese dynastic strategies where he, as the only Jia male heir, is expected by the women of the clan to follow whatever marriage path the Emperor, to whom they owe a crushing debt, prefers. When that preference is determined to be Bao Chai, whom he finds not unattractive, he is in a disquieting situation.

In an erotic dream, Kim’s Bao Yu finds himself courted by both images of Dai Yu and Bao Chai, and in the dream he determines his heart is with Bai Yu.

[Below: In a dream sequence Bao Yu (Konu Kim, center) makes his choice between the dancers representing Bao Chai and Dai Yu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Kim skillfully brings to his character the sense of willfulness and arrogance to continue to pursue Bai Chi and to resist the schemes of the Jia and Xue women who favor the Emperor’s marriage plans for Dao Yu.

[Below: An ardent conversation takes place between Bao Yu (Konu Kim, left) and Dai Yu (Meigui Zhang, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Hyona Kim’s Lady Wang

South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim repeats the role of Lady Wang from the 2016 world premiere. The only one of the opera’s characters to be born into the Xue clan and married into the Jia clan, it is Lady Wang, who (after the death of Granny Jia) becomes the leader of the Jia clan. She fatefully gives her approval of the deceitful plot to trick Bao Yu to marrying the wrong bride, thereby creating just the situation that the Emperor hopes will occur. The Emperor declares the Jia debts are paid by means of the Xue wealth, thereby impoverishing both clans.

[Below: Hyona Kim as Lady Wang; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy oof the San Francisco Opera.]

Hyona Kim’s powerful voice, which had impressed me in the world premiere performance, has led to Kim taking on such important roles at the Theater Dortmund (Germany) Oper as the title role of Guirard’s and Saint-Saens’ “Frédégonde” and Ortrud in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”. Also, San Francisco Opera has secured her services as Suzuki in its June 2023 performances of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.

Hongni Wu’s Bao Chai

Chinese mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu is a graduate of New York City’s Manhattan School of Music, a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a member of the Jette Parker Royal Opera House Young Artists’ Program.

Wu’s character Bao Chai intones one of the key motivating themes of the opera: “a woman’s only chance at happiness is to marry well.” A triangle forms between herself, Bao Yu, the man she (and the Xue family) believe she must marry, and Dai Yu (the woman whom Bao Yu wishes to marry) whom she has to displace. Despite Bao Yu’s humiliating treatment of her, Bao Chai agrees to the plot to trick Bao Yu into marriage.

[Below: Hongni Wu as Bao Chai; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Hongni Wu made a strong impression in the role. Her next scheduled assignment is the Santa Fe Opera’s late July world premiere of “M. Butterfly” based on a play by David Henry Hwang (“Dream of the Red Chamber”‘s co-librettist), with music composed by Huang Ruo to Hwang’s libretto.

Karen Chia-Ling Ho’s Princess Jia

Taiwanese soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho, like Hyona Kim, repeats her beautifully sung role from the world premiere. A graduate of the Summer 2014 Merola Young Artists Program, she performed the role of the Emperor’s courtesan. She also has the distinction of performing in the most ambitious costume in San Francisco Opera history, requiring 70 yards of cloth.

It is Ho’s character, Princess Jia, that gives us some hint into the growing impatience of the Emperor, who needs repayment of the Jia family’s debt to him. It is a chilling reminder that misreading the intentions of a despot can have dire consequences. In her final letter to Granny Jia, Princess Jia reveals she has been defeated by her enemies at court and that she expects this to be her last communication.

[Below: Karen Chia-Ling Ho as Princess Jia; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Guang Yang as Aunty Xue

Among those who totally misread the Emperor’s intentions was Lady Wang’s sister, Auntie Xue, performed by Chinese mezzo-soprano Guang Yang, a 1997 Cardiff Singers of the World Competition Winner and 2001 Operalia winner.

Auntie Xua encouraged the deceitful marriage of her daughter Bao Chai to Bao Yu. Rather than lending the Jia’s money to pay off the debt to the Emperor, she unwittingly creates a situation in which the Emperor claims the Xue-Jia marital alliance requires him to seize the assets of both clans.

This was my first time to review a Guang Yang performance since I gave her high praise 13 years ago for her Santuzza in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” [Review: Guang Yang a Stellar Santuzza in Lyric Opera’s “Cavalleria” – Chicago, February 25, 2009]. This is her second San Francisco Opera role, she having appeared as Amneris in 2010 for five of the late season performances of “Aida”. She brought authority to the brief role of Auntie Xue.

[Below: Guang Yang as Auntie Xue; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Sabina Kim’s Granny Jia

The role of Granny Jia, the matriach of the Jia clan (until her mid-opera death), was performed with distinction by South Korean mezzo-soprano Sabina Kim.

Francis Jue’s Old Monk and Other Cast Members

New York actor Francis Jue performed the role of the Old Monk, whom we come to learn was actually the aged Bao Yu, reflecting on his origins and his experiences as part of the Jia family. Bao Yu decided to become a monk after Dai Yu’s death and the Jia family’s impoverishment.

[Below: Bao Yu (Konu Kim, seated) is being prepared to become a monk by the Old Monk (Francis Jue, standing.]

The voices of the Stone and Eunuchs were Pennsylvania tenor Victor Cardomone, Wisconsin baritone Timothy Murray and (replacing the indisposed Maryland tenor Edward Graves) San Francisco Opera Chorister Michael Jankowsky. 

The voices of the Flower and Ladies in Waiting were California soprano Elisa Sunshine, Georgia soprano Esther Tonea, and Georgia mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag (the latter also performing the role of the Maid.

Maestro Darrell Ang and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus Master John Keene and the San Francisco Opera Chorus

Singaporean Maestro Darrell Ang led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a brilliant performance, augmented by Asian musical instruments among those expected of a Western orchestra.

New Chorus Director John Keene led the San Francisco Opera Chorus in a demanding performance, which the chorus performed creditably.

[Below: impoverished members of the Xue and Jia clans (the San Francisco Opera Chorus) rummage through the wreckage of their desstroyed homes.]

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Revival Director Stan Lai and Production Designer Tim Yip

American-born Taiwanese playwright (Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land) and theater director Stan Lai brought fresh insights into the revival.

Hong Kong Designer Tim Yip’s breathtakingly beautiful sets, scrims, hangings, and elegant costumes were as enchanting as in the world premiere performances, and can make claim to creating the most lavish sets and costumes in the San Francisco Opera’s 100 year history.

The lighting was created by California designer Gary Harder. Irish dance master Colm Seery waa revival choreographer. California director Dave Meier staged the fight sequences.

One of the most interesting reports of this production’s tour of China, where the opera was sung in English. Participants in the tour reported a positive response from Chinese audiences to seeing a work based on a Chinese classic in English, performed exactly how American audiences saw this production. 

Recommendation

I recommend this production of cast of “The Dream of the Red Chamber” to the veteran opera goer and newcomers to opera, especially those interested in a successful operatic treatment of the legendary Chinese classic.