“These are the things I know,” begins Amy Tan’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” These are the things I know after San Francisco Opera’s Saturday world premiere of the opera by Stewart Wallace, with Tan’s libretto:
There are amazing light shows, fabulous projections, acrobats flying through the air — not quite with the greatest of ease, their wires showing. There is a murderous villain stepping out Elvis-like, from a glass casket, only to be carved up later by an airborne ghost, body part by body part.
Is this “Cirque du Bonesetter” in Las Vegas? No, it’s the War Memorial Opera House, a venue not entirely alien to razzmatazz, although perhaps not this concentrated. “Bonesetter” is a fascinating, spectacular show. But as an opera, rarely does it come through as something greater than the sum of its parts.
Not quite whistling the sets, one leaves “Bonesetter” impressed by Chen Shi-Zheng’s cinematic stage direction, Walt Spangler’s sets, Han Feng’s costumes and Scott Zielinski’s lighting design.
And, while Zheng Cao’s sterling performance in two of the three leading roles is moving, it is difficult to invest oneself in the music, conducted with passion and expertise by Steven Sloane.
With the exception of the prologue and chorus numbers, Wallace’s score is mostly a soundtrack; “arias” are really recitatives with accompaniment, and portions representing Chinese opera come off as full of effort.
Wallace’s best work is heard during the interminable death scene, ending the pained, depressing second act.
It’s up to the text to carry most of the intended emotional impact, and, there too, is a problem. “Bonesetter,” the novel, is a gripping story about three generations of women, their lives spanning untold collective suffering in early-20th-century China and one family’s neurosis in affluent, present-day San Francisco.
Tan’s libretto conveys the basic plot, but the vivid details, which make the second half of the novel work so well, are absent.
The novel is a Shakespearean tale of evil and a limited amount of good, a series of harrowing Dickensian adventures that culminate in a “Tales of the City” kind of narcissism.
In a vocal and dramatic coup, Cao almost overcomes all the hurdles by herself, as both present-day Ruth (the semi-autobiographic representation of Tan) and her mother, Luling, as a young woman in China. (Present-day Luling is sung by Ning Liang in a thrilling performance.)
Cao’s steely-velvety mezzo is a joy, and she brings both characters to life within the constraints of the heavy-handed libretto.
Precious Auntie, the first of the three generations of women at the heart of “Bonesetter,” appears as a ghost, her music written in the manner of chinoiserie (notwithstanding the composer’s emphatic denial), and she is portrayed by Chinese opera star Qian Yi, usually suspended high above the stage.
Yi is even more amplified than the rest of the cast, the electronic assist actually audible.
As Chang the Coffin Maker, the murderer-rapist/would-be-child-abuser, subject to a graphic revenge, Hao Jiang Tian — veteran of Chinese companies and the Metropolitan Opera — has a robust vocal presence.
Wu Tong, James Maddalena, Catherine Cook and Valery Portnov round out the top-notch cast. Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus, acrobats and young supernumeraries perform heroically.
Aerial choreography, intriguingly, is by Ruthy Inchaustegui, credited in the program as Halle Berry’s stunt double in the movie “Catwoman.”
The Bonesetter's Daughter
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Oct.3; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sept. 28; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25 and Sept. 30
Tickets: $15 to $290
Contact: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com