A journey through space and time?

Tan Dun’s Marco Polo is hugely ambitious. He uses Marco Polo’s legendary journey as a metaphor for Space and Time.  He fuses a range of Western musical styles with Chinese, Tibetan and Indian instruments and vocal styles.  Although most of the work is sung in English there are sections in Italian and Chinese and other bits in a sort of random polyglot.  The cast includes a range of real, allegorical and psychological figures.  Marco and Polo are in fact two characters; one representing action and the external and the other the psychological and internal.  Kublai Khan, Dante, Shakespeare, Sheherazada and Mahler put in appearances and much of the narrative is carried by a Chinese opera singer playing the part of Rustichello; “the questioner”.  To be honest, despite having read the booklet, watched Reiner Moritz’s “Making of” documentary and studied the chart below, most of the time I had no idea what was actually happening.  It’s really all too abstract and involved to really work as music drama.

That said, Pierre Audi’s 2008 production for the Nederlandse Opera with sets and costumes by Jean Kalman and Angelo Figus is spectacular in the extreme and once one gets used to it Dun’s sound world with its heady mix of traditional Chinese opera and other Eastern elements with Western styles ranging from the most stringent modernism to extremely lush and chromatic, is actually quite compelling.  The performances are superb.  Dun places really cruel demands on his singers and they respond extremely well.  Zhang Jun is quite spell binding as the traditional Chinese opera based Harlequin figure Rustichello and Sarah Castle and the always excellent Charles Workman are a compelling Marco and Polo.  There’s also some really fine and difficult singing from Stephen Richardson as Kublai Khan.  It’s a miracle they found anyone with the range required in the part.  I also liked the Water of Nancy Allen Lundy.  The composer conducts the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, a variety of soloists on Chinese and Indian instruments and the Cappella Amsterdam.  Somehow what emerges seems mostly of a piece which is really rather remarkable.

The production for video is pretty good.  Misjel Vermerien directs and he isn’t too fussy and he does give us plenty of scene setting shots.  It’s a very busy stage though and we miss a lot when he goes close up.  It’s the same sort of challenge as filming a work by Philip Glass and I’ve not seen that done entirely satisfactorily either.  On Blu-ray the picture is gorgeous HD 1080i backed up by uncompressed PCM 5.0 audio which sounds great.  There are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch subtitles and the documentation and extras alluded to in the first paragraph.

So, I’m not wholly convinced that this piece makes sense at all but it’s an exciting and spectacular ride and it’s hard to imagine it getting a more sympathetic production or performances.

2 thoughts on “A journey through space and time?

  1. Thanks for the detailed review! your comments remind me of something that i keep coming back to: that opera on DVD (or CD) is not the same as opera experienced live in a theatre. I suspect an opera that’s already difficult to follow isn’t going to unfold easily via DVD, unless perhaps one watches it over and over (ha… speaking of a journey through space & time). But your write up makes me curious!

    • It reminded me of trying to watch Satyagraha on DVD, although this DVD is much more watchable than the Glass one. I’m not sure if one is supposed to be able to make “sense” of Satyagraha but the DVD limitations made any attempt even more difficult.

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