The attempt to adapt a 2,400-page-plus classic novel of Chinese literature into an English-language opera might seem destined to please neither Asian literary scholars nor Western opera purists. But the creative team behind the “Dream of the Red Chamber” has dispelled that notion, distilling core elements of the epic tale into San Francisco Opera’s satisfying world premiere of the work.
Composer Bright Sheng and co-librettist David Henry Hwang wisely focused on the most engaging aspects of the sprawling classic by Cao Xueqin — a love triangle and dynastic intrigue — in their two-act work unveiled Saturday evening at the Opera House. Production designer Tim Yip’s metaphorically lush moving sets and color-coded, intricately beautiful costumes provided brilliant visual elements in director Stan Lai’s tasteful production.
“Dream of the Red Chamber” is short on memorable arias, but not on dramatic and vocal talent, led by tenor Yijie Shi as Bao Yu, the pampered scion of the prominent Jia family. Shi also depicts “Stone,” the fabled figure from the novel that drips nurturing water upon “Flower,” who becomes Bao Yu’s love interest Dai Yu, sung by soprano Pureum Jo.
Shi has an agreeably ardent voice that effectively pleads his case for true love instead of arranged marriages, particularly in his recurring call, “Let’s have a world built on music.” He also makes for a sympathetic suitor of Dai Yu with his smooth timbre that nicely expresses his devotion to her in a bamboo grove by the bank of a lake in Act 2. The touching interplay between the lovers helps make up for Bao Yu’s less-than-convincing dream scene in Act 1.
Jo’s Dai Yu is indeed a lovely and delicate flower and vulnerable cousin of Bao Yu who faces long odds against marrying him. Dai Yu is not in the best of health, as she must deal with coughing bouts as well as relatives and the Chinese emperor who are arrayed against her love for Bao Yu — evoking a Chinese version of Mimi from “La Boheme.” Jo’s clear, sweet voice comes across most touchingly in her question, “Who cares for the fallen petals,” a lament that achingly accompanies her farewell.
A phalanx of talented female performers complements the principals.
Rich-voiced contralto Quilin Zhang plays Granny Jia, the family’s symbol of stability; mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim asserts steely intensity as Lady Wang, who schemes to steer her son away from Dai Yu, and mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts offers a pleasant voice and beauty as Bao Yu’s intended bride Bao Chai.
Mezzo-soprano Yanyu Guo as Bao Chai’s mother Aunt Xue amplifies Lady Wang’s resolve in a less in-your-face manner; and soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho offers a plangent account of Bao Yu’s powerful yet ill-fated sister Princess Jia, concubine of the Emperor.
Ian Robertson’s chorus ably stocked the voluminous cast, and conductor George Manahan smartly presided over the orchestra’s musical East meets West.
Dream of the Red Chamber
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13, Sept. 23, Sept. 27 and Sept. 29; 2 p.m. Sept. 18
Tickets: $26 to $417
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com