"Bonesetter" cuts to the marrow of Chinese experience

By Lawrence A. Johnson

SAN FRANCISCO: The course of opera history is nearly biblical in its received wisdom and fixed chronological lineage: Monteverdi and Rameau begat Purcell who begat Handel who begat Mozart, etc.

But in China a different, very distinct operatic style was developing, one that predates Dido and Aeneas by centuries. Those two worlds are currently colliding on stage at the War Memorial Opera House where San Francisco Opera is presenting the world premiere performances of Stewart Wallace’s opera, The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

The opera, with a libretto by Amy Tan based on her 2001 novel, was commissioned by San Francisco Opera, and underwritten in part by John A. Gunn and Cynthia Fry Gunn. The generous couple earlier this month gave a whopping $40 million gift to the company, which will help commission more new works and expand the company’s nascent theater simulcasts.

Wallace has some experience with themes that resonate with the city by the bay’s cultural jambalaya. His previous opera for the company, Harvey Milk, was based on the pioneering gay San Francisco politician, and Bonesetter’s Daughter is clearly designed in part as homage to the city’s large Chinese populace.

The opera, set in late 1990s San Francisco and pre- and post-World War II China, tells of the conflicts and tangled history of three generations of Chinese women, based in part on Tan’s experiences with her mother. The author’s alter ego, Ruth Young Kamen, is celebrating a festive Chinese restaurant dinner in San Francisco in the late 1990s with Ruth’s gauche American in-laws. The evening is interrupted when her strict yet now, declining, mother LuLing Liu bizarrely claims to have been present during the murders of O. J. Simpson’s wife and her friend.

Precious Auntie (Qian Yi) , the ghost of her dead grandmother, escorts Ruth on a mystical journey into her mother’s past: she takes her to Immortal Heart, a village outside of Beijing in the 1930s, and to wartime Hong Kong, where the young LuLing (also sung by Cao) survived by writing letters home for the illiterate fishermen’s wives. Through the retrospective episodes, the hardships of LuLing’s life become apparent to Ruth, not least being menaced by the raffish villain Chang the Coffin Maker (the strong-voiced bass, Hao Jiang Tian), a kind of Szechuan Sportin’ Life.

Ultimately, Ruth’s spiritual pilgrimage bridges the generations and the opera’s coda returns to the present. The dying LuLing asks her daughter for forgiveness for her harsh treatment of Ruth as a child, and at the moment of her passing, the grandmother’s apparition returns to gently lead LuLing through the mist into the afterlife.

In pre-performance remarks Thursday night, the composer related the discussions and extensive field research in China he undertook over four years with Li Zhonghau, principal percussionist of the Chinese National Peking Opera Company.

For the most part, Wallace succeeds in his stated goal of creating a Western opera with prominent elements of traditional Chinese opera. Wallace has skillfully integrated Chinese instruments into his score, with a battery of exotic percussion and the opening fanfare-like balcony summons of two suonas, a double-reed instrument with a whiny trumpet-like timbre.

The most prominent Eastern element is embodied in the performer Qian Yi, as the mystical spirit, Precious Auntie. Yi’s seamless, fleet-footed movements and unearthly scalic wails reflect the strange (to Western ears) febrile Sprechstimme of the ancient kunju opera tradition.

Yet for all the deft interweaving of Eastern and Western musical traditions, the visual trappings —as with the Sino-Cirque du Soleil of the Dragon Dance opening sequence, and the large ensemble scene opening Act 2 in Hong Kong Harbor—overwhelm the opera’s intimate family drama. Eye-popping and musically fascinating as they are, the colorful costumes, fine choral singing and spectacle of the set pieces seem like stand-alone tableaux that interrupt the narrative. There is an attempt to insert so much ethnographic lore and local musical color —like the baffling dragon bone symbolism—that the opera ends up feeling a bit like a Chinese banquet where everything is exotic and tasty but one ends up feeling overfed.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter is an uneasy mix, a kind of Rough Guide to Chinese opera set alongside a traditional family narrative, with naturalistic and mystical elements that never quite cohere. The music is most successful in the direct comfrontations between Ruth and LuLing when Wallace leads with his tonal straightforward style, as with the sensitive string writing in the final scene.

It must be enormously gratifying for the Chinese and Chinese-American cast to finally be able to portray genuine Chinese characters on a major opera stage. The vocalism and acting of mezzo-sopranos Zheng Cao as Ruth and, especially, Ning Liang as the mature LuLing (above) were sensitively rendered, with Liang bringing great pathos to the affecting finale. Though rather youthful to be credible as Precious Auntie, Qian Yi’s fluid grace and traditional vocalism were striking—and you have to love that hair. The singers were discreetly amplified, a necessity for the artists attuned to the intimate scale of Chinese opera, which. however, led to some indiscreet electronic feedback at the end of Act 1.

Steven Sloane conducted with focus and authority, ensuing that the brash and piquant timbres of the Chinese instruments made vivid impact. Ian Robertson elicited impassioned ensemble work from the SFO Chorus, Chen Shi-Zheng provided fluent stage direction and Leigh Haas’s production, with sets by Walt Spangler and colorful costumes by Han Feng, was a feast for the eyes.

[Photos by Terrence McCarthy]

The Bonesetter’s Daughter runs through Oct. 3. Tickets are $15-$290. 415-864-3330; http://www.sfopera.com.

Posted in opera review, Performances

Leave a Comment

Sun Sep 28, 2008
at 9:32 pm
No Comments