I was completely swept away by the drama of the SCO's Savage Land. Its the rare opportunity to hear an opera in a language that I speak in, a stage-work that is already a certified classic but one that I'm experiencing for the first time, with a cast of internationally-established singers giving their all live in person.
Jin Xiang's opera Savage Land has been a mainland Chinese classic since its premiere in 1987, having been staged by the Washington Opera in 1992 and won compositional awards in Munich for its mix of avant garde, bel canto and traditional Chinese influences. Based on playwright Cao Yu's work, the plot revolves around themes of feudal oppression by the rich and powerful against the poor. Chou Hu (played by Zhang Feng) has escaped from jail and has arrived at the family home of the evil landlord Jiao Yan-Wang (literally translated as Jiao-Devil). He has come to seek revenge on the landlord for killing his entire family and having him imprisoned for 8 years on false charges, all to make his fiance Jin Zi (Li Jing-Jing) marry his son Jiao Da-Xing (Zhang Ya-Lin). Meanwhile, Jin Zi has to live through the indignity of an arranged marriage and putting up with the daily verbal abuse of her mother-in-law (Zhu Hui-Ling).
This through-composed opera, as heard in Phoon Yew-Tien's specially commissioned arrangement for Chinese orchestra, uses many atonal effects to conjure up a bleak, hopeless sound world, that at different moments seague into lush romantic harmonies at the drama's few optimistic moments, the vocal line at times taking on Chinese operatic styles particularly when the lead female character Jing Zi describes her roots in the rural grasslands. A choir forms an extended section of the orchestra (instead of playing extras onstage), chanting keywords and 'ah'-ing the score's dissonant harmonies. Act 1 particularly takes some getting used to; Soft, eerie dissonant passages that go on and on, getting progressively harmonic with each act as emotional tensions rise, culminating in sweeping orchestral tuttis in act 4 in what can only be described as a mad scene for the lead baritone. While the musical language takes some getting used to, it fits the drama to a tee, every effect invested in storytelling and not just for empty displays of compositional flair.
This SCO semi-staged production by Goh Boon-Teck has much of the action taking place in the choral stand, dressed up and re-jigged to look like an actual multi-level stage. Only in the last act did the action move downstage in front of the orchestra. it made for a highly effective staging, I did not feel that the visual storytelling has been compromised but rather told in a more straightforward and therefore more effective manner. If anything, the choral stand, with its layered benches reaching up one storey high and linked to the main stage with steps, made for a more interesting set than the usual plywood-and-paint platforms and backdrops used in fully-staged theatre productions.
Every performer in this cast is a professional in his or her own right, but one senses a lack of chemistry between members of the ensemble; My guess is that there wasn't much rehearsal time for a group chemistry to set in. Certain musical effects that could have been played up for dramatic effect went unnoticed. Given more rehearsal time and a run of performances things will probably be more settled in, nonetheless the of singers and musicians milked the drama for what it was worth. The pain and anguish of each character is deeply felt and conveyed by every singer. The cast and musicians pulled out all the stops particularly in acts 3 and 4, when the back story has been told and the characters try to outsmart each other with their respective homocidal intentions.
Typically for SCO, singers are heavily miked. While I'm sure these world-class singers have the ability to project their voices, it did give the orchestra more room to maneuver with dynamics, especially since the cast mostly performed on the choral stand behind the orchestra.
As explain by Maestro Yeh in an exclusive interview for The Mad Scene, the role of Jing Zi is traditionally cast with a dramatic soprano, one can certainly see why in the dramatically-charged final act that calls for explosive vocal power (an extended scene for the two protagonist that reminds me of the last act of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, but with the man playing the half-crazed refugee instead). However the orchestration in the first 2 acts are decidedly on the quieter side, and Li Jing-Jing's clear lyric soprano gave the role a vulnerable touch. She handled the music's difficulties with aplomb, whether it be maintaining her pitch while the orchestra is playing atonal passages, imitating the style of Chinese opera singing or coping with dramatic vocal outbursts over loud orchestral accompaniment. The voice maintains a clear shimmer even in the most vocally taxing moments.
I have enjoyed Zhang Feng's booming dramatic baritone when he was based here before moving on to become the lead baritone of the Shanghai Opera House. He gave a balls out, unreserved performance that I would expect from the part, even if he briefly resorted to his repertoire of stock gestures in the final act. Zhang Ya-Lin rich spinto tenor displayed ringing high notes even if his enunciation could be clearer.
Mezzo Zhu Hui-Ling as the blind, abusive mother-in-law of Jing Zi was harrowing in her calculated ruthlessness yet sympathetic in grieving. While Melvin Tan's Chinese pronunciation can use some polishing, his camp portrayal of the 'village idiot' Bai Sha-Zi provided the evening's only comic relief in an otherwise sombre piece. While William Lim as the informant Chang Wu did not have much to do, he held his own in this highly-skilled cast.
Despite some reservations, this performance is one the best live opera performances I've seen in in some time. It is in every sense fully-staged as far as story-telling goes, even without the frills of big elaborate sets. The practice of doing semi-staged productions for lesser-known operas is already common practice in many places, its high time that our orchestras adopt this practice more regularly to provide opera lovers here with more variety. The entire team of musicians have to be commended for mastering this complex score, as are the theatre folks involved for bringing this theatrical classic to life in musical form.