A Night at the Chinese Opera

A Night at the Chinese Opera

Royal Academy Opera:

Nightwatchman/Marco Polo – Viktor Rud
Military Governor – Christopher Field
Mongolian Soldier – Ronald Nairne
Chao Sun/Fireman – Joey Masemola
Little Moon – Caryl Hughes
Chao Lin – Ronan Collett
Mrs Chin/Old Crone – Anna Graca
Old P’eng/Old Mountain Dweller – Michael McBride
Soprano Actress – Kishani Jayasinghe
Mezzo Actress – Catherine Hopper
Tenor Actor – Allan Clayton

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Dominic Wheeler

Director – Jo Davies
Designer – Yannis Thavoris
Lighting – Chris Davey

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 24 March, 2006
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

Judith Weir’s 1987 opera was critically acclaimed when given its premiere at that year’s Cheltenham Festival by Kent Opera. After seeing this splendid new production, it becomes even more difficult to credit the twenty-year absence of performances of this dazzling piece.

The opera’s play-within-a-play structure draws on a 13th-century Chinese drama “The Chao Family Orphan”, a torrid tale of courtly intrigue and hidden identity, a version of which forms the second act. It is watched by Chao Lin, a contemporary engineer in a town occupied by Genghis Khan, who sees in it echoes of his own life, and it prompts him to seek the truth about his father’s exile into the mountain wilderness. While complex on paper, what impresses is the effortless poise with which such post-modern trickiness is carried off.

Weir’s music has much to do with this; it possesses a weightless quality, so a complex score sounds simple to the ear. In the central act, a reduced orchestration gently underpins the manic activity on stage; it is a shocking moment when ‘real life’ once more intrudes, as the military stride on stage to stop the performance.

The elegantly symbolic design is full of imaginative touches. Flashlights behind a gauze screen shift to represent different constellations in the night sky; the oppressed workers’ helmet lamps later echo this. The invasion of the military is shown by a procession of red toy-tanks across the stage, a sight at once comic and disturbing. A back-cloth showing a stylised tree suddenly splits to reveal the sky at the ecstatic moment in Weir’s score when Chao Lin arrives at the top of White Raven Mountain, his voice echoed by French horns.

The performances throughout are excellent, with Ronan Collett in fine voice as the troubled hero. However, the show is stolen by the trio of actors who give their all in the madcap rendition of “The Chao Family Orphan”; with echoes of “Noises Off” in its broad slapstick and knowing thespian comedy. The orchestra plays superbly under the decisive guidance of Dominic Wheeler.

One can only hope that this wonderful night at the opera will return Weir’s work to the attention of artistic directors at houses everywhere.

  • This is a double-cast production and the performance reviewed was the third of four: remaining performance on 27 March 2006 at 7 o’clock – 020 7873 7300
  • Royal Academy of Music

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