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Opera in Two Acts and Six Scenes
Libretto: Jeffrey Ching
for Soloists, Choir and Big Orchestra
Product No.: eg1814LM ISMN M-2057-1613-4
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year of composition: 2006-2007 playing time: 105'
Language: English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Ancient Chinese
"Murder and Punishment
Dark and brilliant: “The Orphan” by Jeffrey Ching was premiered in Erfurt
The series of premières at Theater Erfurt does not always produce brilliant results. However, this time, the result is brilliant. It is true, “The Orphan,” by Jeffrey Ching is an artificial, contrived, and trying piece. But at the same time, this opera is a stroke of genius. Music theatre, which is steeped in tradition and shaped by rituals such as hardly any other art form is, can still amaze and create something completely new out of tradition.
Singing in seven languages, protagonists and music from four epochs and five countries, instruments which rather belong to a Chinese folk troupe than to the orchestra pit: people concerned with the structural principle and instrumentation of opera will have doubts. The whole is completely overloaded, it is too artificial, much too hair-splitting—in theory. In practice, on the stage and in the orchestra pit of Theater Erfurt an amazing scenic and tonal canvas is created under the direction of Jakob Peters-Messer, in which Chinese calligraphy combines with Baroque painting and modern construction design in perfect harmony. In order to conceive this, one needs a composer who is at home in many cultures, such as Jeffrey Ching, who has chosen to live in Berlin, is of Chinese descent, was born in Manila, and was trained in Harvard and Cambridge.
The story on which his libretto is based is as polyglot as himself and was taken up in many countries in the course of time, from the China of the 6th century B.C. to the era of Goethe. Following this story’s journey through time and space, Ching constructed his opera in accordance with a strictly logical principle: an epoch and a language was assigned to every character, a musical style was assigned to every scene. One can read the details in the programme, but one doesn’t have to. The beauty of the music, this incredible, thick and transparent web made of Far Eastern and European elements, is revealed without footnotes. It is incredible, because no European composer would ever dare to cite the musical languages of Vivaldi and Rameau and to translate them into Chinese as unabashedly as Ching did. Inside Theater Erfurt, six percussionists with gongs and tam-tams create a tonal backdrop evocative of the Peking opera, and accompany the appearances of the cruel court official Dag-Ngans-Kagh with a pulsating crescendo, while in the orchestra pit, the glass armonica accompanies Baroque orchestra music. Conductor Samuel Bächli holds together the whole range of instruments, from ocarina to electric guitar, with aplomb and mastery.
Opulence, symbolic power, clarity: music, as well as staging, are marked by the same elements. With stylised figures who act on Markus Meyer’s austere stage, which reminds one of a burial vault, director Jakob Peters-Messer produces a ritualised play, a play of death. In this opera, which deals with the extinction of a family, with infanticide and revenge, hundreds of people die; however, dying remains a rigid and aesthetic ritual, the act of killing is represented without stage blood. The protagonists die in lavish costumes—in Chinese costume, such as general Etan (Máté Sólyom-Nagy), or in Baroque hooped petticoat. And when the Orphan’s parents commit suicide, this is, in spite of all stylisation, a touching scene, thanks to the beauty of the funeral music, which reminds one of Purcell, and the singing of Marisca Mulder and Denis Lakey.
The role of the sinister Dag-Ngans-Kagh, the most archaic figure of the piece, is sung in ancient Chinese by the bass Sebastian Pilgrim—an enormous achievement. With her beautiful and clear soprano, Andión Fernández plays the role of the Orphan; Marwan Shamiyeh shines as court official Alsingo with an Italian aria di bravura. The most interesting figure is that of the physician Cheng Ying, who is played at the same time by the excellent dancer Julien Fueillet-Dolet, who brings movement and even a comic element into the ritualised play, and by the narrator Peter Umstadt, whose onomatopoeic voice adds another melody to the opera—a melody without which it is impossible to imagine the opera. Ultimately it is difficult to conceive of “The Orphan” with another staging, and not just because this opera was created in close coordination with the composer.
You can interpret “The Orphan” as a play which is marked by a deep cultural pessimism: although history progresses, the desire to kill and the lust for revenge will not change. The retaliation which the Orphan demands, as sole survivor of the massacre of his family, will result in the execution of Dag-Ngans-Kagh in the barbarous, ancient Chinese way—dismemberment while he is alive—although the avenger comes from the time of Goethe. Or you can simply interpret this opera as resounding proof of the cultural links between East and West. Anyway, “The Orphan” is great music theatre—and one of the best operas premiered by Theater Erfurt.
It was only some members of the audience who availed of the interval to escape from the murderous scenes and the unaccustomed music. All the rest applauded enthusiastically and for a long time and cheered the première with bravos."
(By Frauke Adrians; source: Thüringer Allgemeine, 30 November 2009)
Far East meets Europe – in music, literature, and history: Jeffrey Ching’s opera “The Orphan”, premiered in Erfurt, could so be simply described. The starting point is a true story from ancient China. To gain power, a court official orders the killing of his family’s rival. Only one child survives and is saved by the selfless doctor Cheng Ying. In the end the orphan seizes the murderer and hands him over to a tribunal, which sentences him to a painful death. The Chinese composer, born in 1965, raised in the Philippines, wove a complex garment out of this plot. His work is not only based on the original myth, but also refers to later adaptations of the subject by such well-known poets as Goethe, Voltaire, and Metastasio. However Ching is not just interested in a pure retelling of the story. Another important theme is the journey of the Chinese original to Europe and its diffusion there in the 18th century. The result is, accordingly, complex. Based on his own extensive background knowledge, Ching, who also graduated in philosophy and sinology, has written his libretto in seven languages and assimilated different cultural influences. The strikingly colorful, always transparent composition with numerous exotic instruments, builds bridges between ancient Chinese melodies, Far Eastern music traditions, and the glory of European Baroque opera. What may sound ambitious and contrived, turns out to be a tremendously exciting, well-thought-out union of song, speech, and dance. A major part of the success comes from the production team. In combination with the suggestive staging by Markus Meyer and the spectacular costumes by Sven Bindseil, Jakob Peters-Messer succeeds in creating a striking production, which translates the story into highly aesthetic images, subtle and effective at the same time. A speaker (Peter Umstadt), positioned in front, simultaneously translates the sometimes highly artificial text, while the central figure of the doctor is played by a dancer, the charismatic Frenchman Julien Feuillet-Dolet. Andion Fernandez, with her mezzo-soprano resonant in all registers, is perfectly cast in the title role, written for her, which she fills with passion. But the Erfurt ensemble—Marisca Mulder, Denis Lakey, Mate Solyom-Nagy, and especially the distinctive, agile coloratura tenor Marwan Shamiyeh—had no need to hide behind the guest [singer] from Berlin. The conductor Samuel Bächli transmits his enthusiasm perceptibly to the musicians. He masterfully holds all the threads of the performance together, and coordinates the orchestra in the pit with the impressive percussion section, which is placed above the stage as in a shop window. With his first piece of music theater Ching has succeeded in composing an unusually compelling work of art; the performance at the Erfurt Opera helped it to its well-deserved triumph.
(By Karin Coper; source: Orpheus Journal 1+2, 2010)
A great success: Jeffrey Ching's opera The Orphan at Theater Erfurt
The composer Jeffrey Ching, born in 1965, is multi-cultural encounter in person. Descended from a Chinese family residing in the Philippines, he attended a Jesuit school in Manila, and was exposed from an early age to his grandfather’s unique collection of ancient Chinese scrolls. Through piano lessons but above all through the record collection of his mother, he became familiar with European music and began teaching himself to compose. After high school he left the Philippines to study Music and Sinology at Harvard University. He obtained a degree in philosophy from Cambridge University, and a degree in composition from the University of London. He taught at the University of London for several years until he relocated to Berlin, where he is now married to the Spanish-Philippine singer Andión Fernández.
In Ching's artistic work the tension between very different cultures has played an increasingly important role. For example in his Third Symphony there are to be found elements of Balinese gamelan music, medieval Chinese music, and the music of the Spanish Renaissance.
In The Orphan, the opera now being premiered at Theater Erfurt, the plot is based on bloody and dramatic events that took place in the China of the 6th century BC: a villainous court official kills his potential rival, and also his extended family, but a new-born son survives thanks to the self-sacrifice of those loyal to him. Fifteen years later the boy, ignorant of his origins but now adopted and chosen as heir by the childless despot, finds out the truth about the massacre of his parents and kinsmen. He hands the cruel warlord over to the Duke’s higher authority, which sentences him to a painful death.
For the libretto Ching uses mainly an early Chinese text by the Yuan dynasty dramatist Ji Junxiang, but also 18th-century European adaptations by Pietro Metastasio, Arthur Murphy, Voltaire, and Goethe, which make of the libretto "a highly artificial linguistic composition of two Chinese and five European languages" (Gerhard Rohde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), enabling the subject to reach out beyond the boundaries of period and region. Musically Ching works in the same way, sometimes by skillfully contrasting musical vocabularies of very different cultures and period styles, sometimes by artfully weaving them together or even opposing them. Thus he created – with the aid of orchestration of unprecedented variety– a remarkably imaginative, yet never oppressive world of sound, clearly controlled intellectually but always fascinating sensually. "The Orphan is artificially constructed, a tough piece, but at the same time ... a stroke of genius" (Frauke Adrian, Thüringer Allgemeine).
But Jeffrey Ching also had luck: The courageous Erfurt artistic director Guy Montavon recognized the potential of this work, and seized the opportunity to entrust its realization to the equally creative and capable team of his house, headed by Samuel Bächli (conductor), Jakob Peters-Messer (director), Markus Meyer (stage design) and Arne Langer (dramaturgy), who all deserve a share in the success of this production. Outstanding among the singers and actors are to be mentioned Andión Fernández (guest) in the title role, and Julien Feuillet-Dolet as the dancer-double of the narrator and orphan’s saviour.
Theater Erfurt has made outstanding contributions to the promotion of avant-garde opera, but it is greatly to be wished that Jeffrey Ching's Orphan be re-staged after these six performances in the architecturally magnificent, splendid new opera house which opened a few years ago—or indeed elsewhere—in spite of the considerable demands of the orchestration.
(By Michael Jenne; source: Musikforum, January-March 2010)
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