Call it a recurring dream of epic proportions: “Dream of the Red Chamber” returned to San Francisco Opera Tuesday night, almost six years after the company gave its world premiere.
Composed by Bright Sheng with a libretto by Sheng and Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, the opera first produced by the company in September 2016 is back as part of its summer season, boasting a new, all-Asian cast and a few dramaturgical revisions that breathe fresh spirit into this mythical tale of love, obligation, desire, and impermanence.
Based on Cao Xueqin’s classic 18th century novel, the opera — performed in English with English and Chinese supertitles — depicts two dynasties and a timeless love triangle.
Bao Yu, the son of the powerful Jia family, loves the beautiful Dai Yu, and there’s a supernatural aspect to what is quickly revealed as their mutual attraction.
We first see Dai Yu standing on a small boat, floating down a river of blue silk. An old monk explains why: She’s just undergone a transformation. For the previous 3,000 years, she was the Crimson Pearl Flower, nurtured by dew from her ethereal soulmate, the Divine Stone.
Now Crimson Pearl Flower is Dai Yu, the Divine Stone has assumed human shape as Bao Yu — and the two want to live together as mortals. The woman in the boat was Dai Yu in her newly acquired human form.
In the opera’s early scenes, Bao Yu is still a rambunctious boy, but he’s certain about one thing: He wants to spend eternity with the delicate, graceful Dai Yu.
His mother, Lady Wang, has other plans. She wants to marry him to Bao Chai, from the rich and powerful Xue clan.
As the power struggle plays out, the elements that made the opera a hit in 2016 — stage direction by Stan Lai, lavish sets and flowing costumes by Academy Award-winning production designer Tim Yip, and lighting by Gary Marder — are still intact.
In scene after scene of the nearly three-hour production, the gilded halls, bamboo groves and opulent interiors roll by in glittering tableaux. The opera moves from poised episodes — a lovely Act I aria for Dai Yu, accompanying herself on the qin (Chinese zither) — to larger ensemble scenes such as the roiling Act I finale: the shocking announcement of the marriage plot.
At Tuesday’s opening, some of the issues that troubled the 2016 world premiere still lingered — bland orchestrations; vocal episodes that plodded rather than soared; excess verbiage that seemed woven in to the labyrinthine plot.
But the international cast was stronger this time out, especially in the central roles: The hearty, energetic Korean tenor Konu Kim as Stone/Bao Yu; the pristine, otherworldly Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang as Flower/Dai Yu; and the glamour of Chinese mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu, in her company debut as Bao Chai, added up to a compelling trio.
Mezzo Hyona Kim (Lady Wang), soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho (Princess Jia); mezzo Sabina Kim (Granny Jia) and mezzo Guang Yang (Aunt Xue) also sang with distinction. Actor Francis Jue, a beloved longtime mainstay on the San Francisco theater scene, lent verisimilitude to the non-singing role of the wise old Monk/Dreamer.
One of the winning aspects of “Dream of the Red Chamber” is the way composer Sheng has conjoined Western and Chinese musical traditions, and conductor Darrell Ang made a fine company debut, leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, steering the large ensemble cast through the score’s brisk tempos and characterful accents, and supporting the singers up to the opera’s final moments. And, under chorus director John Keene, the always-impressive San Francisco Opera Chorus made essential, indelible contributions.
San Francisco Opera will perform “Dream of the Red Chamber” six more times: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. June 23, 25 and July 1; and 2 p.m. July 3. All performances are at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Masks and proof of booster vaccination are required. For tickets, $26-$408, and more information, call (415) 864-3330 or visit https://www.sfopera.com/.