Tan Dun: Marco Polo - An Opera Within an Opera [Blu-ray] (Sous-titres français) [Import]
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Tan Dun conducts the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in this Grammy-nominated performance of his own opera, based on legendary explorer Marco Polo's travels to Asia. The performance was recorded at the Het Musiektheater, Amsterdam in November 2008.
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The opera separates Marco Polo into two characters -- Marco is the external figure of the explorer sung by a mezzo-soprano, and Polo is his inner being including his memory sung by a tenor. They are united at the end of the Opera into one being. Other characters making appearances include Kublai Kahn, Dante, Shakespeare, Mahler and more. It makes for a symbolic/philosophical plot with many layers without strongly defined beginnings and ends.
Tan Dun, the composer, is more broadly known for the score of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, for which he won Academy and Grammy honors. His most recent opera “The First Emperor” debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.
The music of Marco Polo is a symbiosis of Chinese and Western Classical music. It is highly symbolic and requires focus while listening. For western audiences, not familiar with Chinese music and opera, it requires some effort, but once the essence of each scene is understood the music makes sense and it becomes part of the whole. When you watch this opera for the second time, as I did, it becomes immensely more familiar, interesting, and easy to enjoy.
The staging is somewhat overdone; the customs distract from the music and the meaning of each scene, themselves becoming the center of attention, which I don’t think is the purpose of the opera.
This opera is for explorers - those willing to learn and experience something different. I certainly enjoyed the experience.
All of which means that it presents a real challenge. It seems to be linear but it is not. It does away with our notions of time and space, moving as if it were an extended dream sequence.. In fact, it requires immersion. I must say that Dun moved away from this first period to simpler stories (Tea) and stronger music (The Last Emperor). IN this prodction two singers shine: Nancy Allen Lundy and the truly phenomenal Zhan Jun in a role which requires him to sing, dance and do acrobatics, and keeps him onstage the whole time. Magnificent production by Dun veteran, Pierre Audi. I love it.
The person of Marco Polo is divided into two roles: Marco, the man as he was during the journey, and Polo, the man's memory as he might recount his journey later in life. These two singers move about the stage a lot, but they get relatively few lines unti late in the opera. Perhaps the real protagonist is Rustichello, a sort of narrator and Puck-like character, played by a Chinese singer trained in Peking Opera. Griffiths' libretto is rather too clever by half. Bringing Dante in for a major role (as well as Shakespeare and Mahler in cameos) when the opera already has the zany Rustichello is really overegging the pudding.
The plot of the opera is essentially Polo's journey to the East, and each scene finds him in a different place. The music changes styles to match the landscape and people around him. Scenes associated with Venice offer Late Romantic era music; I had never expected this composer interested in the avant-garde and East-West crossover to write so convincingly in this style. On the road to China, two Hindustani musicians appear to play sitar and tabla and the music takes on the form of raga. Then, we hear prayer bowls, bells and Tibetan trumpets. (Yes, curiously Griffith has Polo going through Hindustan and crossing the Himalayas, well to the south of his actual route.) With the climax of the work, the arrival at the Forbidden City, the music settles into highly melodic symphonic writing representative of Tan Dun's film scores.
As I write this, the reviews of the old CD release on Sony Classical are negative, but those for this video release are highly positive. That's understandable, because it is really the visuals that carry the opera. The music is rather too episodic, too constantly changing to hold the listener's attention until the second half of the opera. The dancers are outstanding: deft pirouettes and somersaults of Rustichello played by Zhang Jun, the swaying erotic movements of Mu Na in an Arabian scene. Costumes by Angelo Figus are very similar to his work on previous Netherlands Opera productions, namely Tan Dun's later opera Tea and Claude Vivier's Reves d'un Marco Polo. Namely, mant people on the stage are enveloped in voluminous folds of thick, decorated fabric. The set design too is rich and carries some surprises. One gets the impression that no expense was spared.
I watched the Blu-ray release and was quite satisfied the HD visuals and the 5.1 surround sound. The DVD/Blu-Ray extras are a 7-minute synopsis and a half-hour-long making-of featurette. The booklet also offer some insightful notes on the piece. All in all, this is a rich and elaborate production that might be worth a chance for opera lovers, though I myself (and I would call myself a Tan Dun fan) was disappointed by the libretto.
Occasionally the music would veer back into something I could assimilate (quasi-Britten, for instance) only to begin pointless screeching. Particularly from the Jerry Lewis character from the Peking Opera.
I confess that my best watchings of this opera were with the sound turned off, especially in 3x rewind. The strange but intriguing juxtaposition of piazza, desert, Himalayas and Great Wall, illuminated by the costumes, lighting and actors' movements, were a fascinating experience.
I suppose there's no accounting for tastes in music: but as someone who's been excited by recent operas by composers like Ades and Birtwhistle, I have to confess that too much of Tan Dun's score just irritated me.
(BTW, substantially the same impression of The First Emperor: amazing settings and movements, wonderful characterizations by the singers, but too much of the music left me flat (though much of it caught me better than Marco Polo).
Hence a three-star judgment for me; but if you like Tan Dun's music, then this is an experience not to be missed
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