Dream of the Red Chamber, based on Cao Xueqin’s classic 18th century novel, premiered as a commissioned work at the San Francisco opera in 2016. Music by Bright Sheng (wonderful name, yes?) and libretto by David Henry Wang. The novel is apparently widely popular and revered among the literary set in its native land.The reviews of that first production were somewhat mixed. Strong on music, less complimentary on the text. One writer described the effort of distilling such a complex work with more than 40 major characters to trying to do Hamlet with only the characters of Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes to work with. Rough stuff. I missed the show the first time around, so I was glad to get a second chance at it when the company rescheduled it for 2022. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m not sure what to think.
For one thing, it’s a hell of a spectacle. Grand opera in every sense of the word. Sets, costumes, music, superb performances by a sterling cast. I was looking for some hint of Chinese opera in the performance having had a passing acquaintance with the genre with its surprise juicy soprano scoops and dives during live excerpts we saw in China way back when. Another taste of the same sort of thing was in the SFOpera’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter a few years back. I loved the book (I should make clear that I’m not an Amy Tan devotee.) and I loved the opera. As so often happens, though, most of the rest of the world did not agree with me.
At any rate, none of the elements I anticipated emerged in Red Chamber. Despite the lavish production features, the opera itself is a rather spare work in many ways. Still, I found it entrancing and impressive. A real tour de force in many ways. It’s a simple story of a stone and a flower representing the two lovers who are central to the plot. Surrounding the love story is an intense family drama engineered by the male lover’s mother, who is desperately trying to save her family and its fortunes from the whims of a cruel and devious emperor. Pretty bare-bones stuff. Which is fine. Grapes of Wrath, for example, has a plethora of characters, but the through line is simple: The virtuous poor versus the greedy rich. I don’t know why that book leapt to mind in this context, but the example serves, so I’m going with it. The Red Chamber music is, to my tin ear, quite simple and utterly wonderful in many places. There is one fantastic dance sequence that reminded me of the one in Saint Saens’ Samson and Delilah. Every bit as sensual and exciting. That said, the music is not Verdi-lush and melodic. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but just so you know if you run across a production at some time or another.
The whole show is narrated by a monk, whose dream the story purports to be. At one point he suggests that now that he’s told the story of the dream he will be free. and so will we. All of the story’s events take place inside this chamber, but I’m still not sure what the chamber is supposed to represent. Spirit? Reality? Fantasy? A reference to the Buddhist notion that once we complete our allotted reincarnations we can join nirvana? Lots of possibilities. Maybe they are all true on one level or another. Or maybe I’m hallucinating and have entered another reality myself. I don’t think so. I’m drinking lemonade as I write, for crying out loud.
Whatever you see or don’t see or hear in this production, thought, I can guarantee an emotional and powerful experience. Even with this rudimentary plot, complications ensue and the end is rich in emotion and irony. Buy a ticket. Go.