China hasn’t yet gotten much of an outing in western opera. It’s not for lack of material, but the most famous “China opera” nevertheless remains Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot whose relation with the country is tenuous at best. It has only been in this century that operas directly informed by China—and with direct Chinese creative input—have begun to appear on stage with any regularity.
One of these, Madame White Snake, composed by Zhou Long to an English-language libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs, has just been given its Hong Kong premiere. The work has a distinguished pedigree: it was the first opera ever commissioned by Opera Boston and debuted there in 2010. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The folk tale of Madame White Snake is a staple of traditional Chinese opera and has also been adapted for dance, drama, musical theatre, literature and film. The eponymous protagonist has slept for 1000 years and wakes to find herself transformed from an immortal demon to a very human woman. She recognises Xu Xian, a herbalist, as her lover from a previous life. They marry, despite the jealousy of her servant Xiao Qing, and Madame White finds herself with child. Her true nature, however, is discovered by an abbot, who, fearful of the consequences of half-demon, half-human child, intervenes, with fatal and tragic consequences. The opera’s four acts run through the seasons, bookended by an apocalyptic prologue and epilogue.
Madame White Snake, whatever its merits, is probably not the breakout work that the world of “China opera” is as yet still waiting for.
Composer Zhou Long’s score has much to commend it. Zhou has integrated Chinese instruments into a score which maintains links with operatic tradition. The orchestral passages range from lyrical to tempestuous and there are touches of what might just be Puccini in some of the duets. The passages in falsetto, evoking—one supposes—Beijing opera, were less successful, but relatively few. The writing for the offstage chorus—which is huge, taking up half the orchestra pit and two wings of audience seating—is particularly arresting and evocative.
Three of the principles, tenor Peter Tantsits as the herbalist Xu Xian, countertenor Michael Maniaci (sometimes described as a male soprano) as the gender-bending servant Xiao Qing, and bass Gong Dong-jian as the abbott, were reprising their parts from the debut production; their familiarity with the work was evident. Soprano Susannah Biller did the role of Madame White Snake full justice. The music was also well-performed, with Lan Shui conducting a Hong Kong Philharmonic slimmed to something like chamber orchestra proportions.
But the star of the production may be the production itself, which makes clever use of animated projection to provide both depth and movement (impressively synched with the music) and to show the snake that is the protagonist’s true identity. The only incongruous element was was Xiao Qing’s 3-meter-long reptilian tale (he/she had meditated for only 500 years and so was only half-transformed to human); one would have thought than Xu Xian might have noticed this very evident appendage and guessed something was up.
Madame White Snake’s weaknesses lie mostly in the libretto. English seems a less-than-obvious choice for what is otherwise a Chinese work; it is, when sung, hardly more understandable than Chinese would have been. But more fundamentally, perhaps, the words lack elegance or poetry, and do not always sing particularly well. Some of the dramatic possibilities of the story and the characters are left unexplored, while the prologue consists of Xiao Qing declaiming the story to come.
Madame White Snake follows last year’s Dream of the Red Chamber, likewise a rendition of a classic Chinese tale by a Chinese composer to an English-language libretto, commissioned by an American opera company. While the Hong Kong Arts Festival is to be applauded for championing these works, both feel like missed opportunities. Perhaps, like Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos, these works will one day be translated into the composers’ own language. And then we’ll see.