The Bonesetter’s Daughter
War Memorial Opera House
Based on the 2001 best-selling novel by Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter is a unique and “canny melding of Chinese and American artistic traditions,” said Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle. Tan’s overstuffed novel was a sprawling tale of three generations of women, which moved from prewar China to contemporary San Francisco. Here the novelist, taking her first crack at a libretto, masterfully reduces it “to the sleekly efficient scale required in opera.” Composer Stewart Wallace’s score is a “sure-handed fusion” of Chinese and Western operatic elements, and director Chen Shi-Zheng balances the pageantry and elaborate visuals of Chinese opera with moving scenes that are “intimate and more familiar.” This is a rare contemporary work in which “musical characterization, dramatic clarity, and theatrical rigor combine to form an arresting and vividly memorable experience.”
“The recurring theme of intergenerational misunderstanding and heartbreak is a Tan trademark,” said Philip Campbell in the Bay Area Reporter. In this case, Tan’s American-born heroine, Ruth, travels to the past of her immigrant mother, LuLing, and LuLing’s mother, a spectral presence known as Precious Auntie. Secrets and revelations abound, and there were moments when I feared Tan’s “familiar mother-and-daughter bickering might devolve into whininess.” But a trio of stellar performers ensures that never happens. Chinese opera star Qian Yi makes a breathtaking Western opera debut as Precious Auntie. Ning Liang holds her own with a “wonderfully nuanced performance as LuLing, and mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao “simply rules the stage” as Ruth.
“The singing is strong, at times shockingly so,” said Richard Scheinin in the San Jose Mercury News. And the simple decision to build an opera around three Asian women provides “something new in American opera.” But there are problems. Wallace’s score has “compelling moments” but can meander, and it lacks memorable melodies. Tan’s libretto can feel “too quickly compressed,” even though there is plenty of “poetry in her words.” See The Bonesetter’s Daughter for that poetry, for the singing, and for Wallace’s beautiful “climactic scene, which stretches out longer than Verdi, but undergirds everything Tan has to say about the love between a mother and a daughter.”