The Chinese Orphan
National Centre for the Performing Arts in China
Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
Opera Hong Kong maintained a dignified response last September when, for reasons unspecified, its newly commissioned work, Dr Sun Yat-sen, was pole-axed by the authorities on the verge of its premiere at Beijing's National Centre for Performing Arts; the dead men's shoes were niftily filled by the NCPA's home-grown production, The Chinese Orphan. Dignity turned to magnanimity at the weekend when Opera Hong Kong hosted performances of that very same piece on its home turf at the Cultural Centre.
The three-act work has a libretto by Zou Jingzhi and a story that culminates in the orphan, Zhao Wu (Warren Mok), killing his adoptive father, Tu Angu (Jin Zhengjian), a court minister so vicious that many years previously he had the entire clan of his enemy, Zhao Dun (Yang Yi), eliminated. It wasn't a clean enough sweep: Princess Zhuang Ji (Yao Hong) survives to produce a son (Wu). Learning that the infant has been removed from the palace, Tu orders a massacre of all babies in the state. Self-sacrifices on the part of a loyal doctor, Cheng Ying (Yuan Chenye), and an elder statesman, Gongsun Chujiu (Tian Haojiang), ensure the boy's survival. Tu makes the fatal error of unwittingly adopting the child; 18 years on, Cheng spills the beans to Wu about his true identity; Wu in turn spills Tu's blood.
The action unfolds in stand-and-deliver tableaux, turning between scenes neatly enough until the third act, which could stand some trimming. Melodrama is always at hand, while the moments of humour are completely out of place. The down-to-earth sets and costumes reflect the period of the action, around 500 BC.
The NCPA chorus and orchestra were directed by the excellent Lu Jia, the soloists turning in impressive performances across the board. Lei Lei wrote the conservatively tonal score, which panned from twee orchestrations to barrages of brass and gongs; many trite passages could be heard coming round the corner, evidence of her experience in writing television soundtracks (this is her first opera); to the audience's delight, vocal climaxes were queuing up in the wings by the end. Advance publicity declared the work a notable step in the development of opera in China, and it may well be. Whether or not it has a shelf life west of Hainan is debatable.