Chinese opera, Scottish Opera, Chinese… this is most intriguing. Weir could have chosen a name like 'The Orphan Chao', or any number of others that do not include the word 'Chinese'. She immediately sets up a culturally-embedded expectation of strange-making, of things not being what they seem, and seeming to be what they are not.
Chao (one letter short of 'chaos') is the double hero of the conceit. In a three-act structure, the outside acts follow the fortunes of an engineer, Chao, who witnesses a performance of a Chinese Opera, in Act 2, that tells the story of another Chao. Inspired by the inner Chao, the outer Chao determines to follow the same course, and ends up being executed.
This is a highly textual work. The composer prepared her own libretto, and structured the work so that it proceeds rather like a series of characters in Chinese script. If you think of alphabetic script as being analogous to a tape recording that you play back by reading, you can think of Chinese script as being more analogous to a video recording. Each character is richly endowed with content, its visual and sonic narrative potential sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant.
Such concentration is a characteristic of Weir's music, and has led some to make a connection with minimalism. Early in this work there is a passage that has a passing resemblance to the dense, shimmering textures that Steve Reich creates, for instance, but it is arrived at by completely different means. Generally speaking there is barely any resemblance to the New York minimalists—or, for that matter,—to someone like Arvo Pärt. In a couple of respects, a parallel with Satie would be nearer the mark,. First, there's a sort of thrifty reductionism that constantly interrogates superfluous gestures, leaving only the necessary; second, there's the pervasive, pawky irony.
Actually, the harmonic world at the outset is nearer to Debussy, simultaneously looking back to the Javanese gamelan sonorities that so impressed him early in his career, and looking forward to Messiaen—specifically his technique of thickening melodic lines to colour their rhetorical flow. Here, Weir's textures are sometimes thicker than rough-cut marmalade. Textures shift. Moving as though from character to character, Weir explores widely differing, sometimes delicate, and often gorgeous sonorities, taking full advantage of the resources at her disposal. Apart from a few unintentionally shaky moments in the upper strings early on, James Grossmith, standing in for Sian Edwards, draws a fine realization from the orchestra.
As a work of theatre there is an obvious, and perhaps superficial, connection to make with Britten's late chamber operas. It is not so much that Britten's interest was in the Japanese Noh tradition, which has a highly formal and stylized language of its own. Rather, Weir's oriental content displaces attention from an interesting relationship with European innovations that seldom make it to the opera house—up here, anyway. There is a strain of Artaud's theatre of cruelty, which Weir places in dialogue with Brechtian epic theatre. A recurring trope pits the heroic narrative against cruelties both human and natural; the play-cruelty is to deny the audience empathy with the actors.
Referencing and interrogating epic theatre in the central play-within-the-play, Weir differentiates the prestige-form Chinese Opera by presenting it as a mummers' play. In Kublai Khan's empire, the theatre workers have been sent to the fields, and by this gesture they keep their culture alive. Rebecca de Pont Davies seizes the opportunity, as troupe leader, to deliver a hilarious orchestration of the inner story. Disconcertingly, at this point, the surtitle display emerges as a character in its own right. As the dialogue gets more rapid, it first abbreviates freely, and then flatly refuses to keep up—a very funny touch. This is textuality playing its part, as it does during Philip Salmon's star turn as Marco Polo, where he is obliged—literally—to share the follow-spot with a map (and the composer's brilliantly concentrated précis of Italian grand opera). Jean-Marc Puissant's design emerges as a character in its own right, while the cast has little opportunity to engage intersubjectively with the audience. A short, searing intervention by Fiona Kimm as the third act Crone is one of the few exceptions; Reno Troilus, the Military Governor, makes his impact by the sheer strangeness of a soldier singing countertenor.
Lee Blakeley's production is—perhaps surprisingly—the first to be mounted in Scotland, and a generous audience gave it the warm welcome it deserves. Yes, the layers of irony are hard to keep up with. The last thing that one is inclined to do with such a skilfully crafted, multi-faceted piece of work is to take it at its word, but that is the ultimate irony of A Night at the Chinese Opera; it is just what it says it is. A night well spent.
Picture credits: Richard Campbell and Scottish Opera