It’s a rare treat to go to an opera house with absolutely no idea what to expect from the evening. The bulk of what you’ll see on the modern opera stage, certainly in the UK, was written a century or more ago and earned its place in the repertoire through regular performance. So, if you’re a seasoned opera-goer, even if the opera itself isn’t familiar, chances are you’ll know the composer, or, at the very least, one or two of the singers.
So it was a thrill to take my seat at the Coliseum for Shanghai Opera’s performance of Thunderstorm not even knowing what language the opera was going to be sung in. My ears were ready for something entirely new.
I was, therefore, surprised after the first fifteen minutes to find myself thinking ‘Great, this is quite tuneful, very easy on the ear. Not unlike Puccini in fact.’ Which isn’t entirely an unfair comparison, except, and this is key to the rest of what follows, Puccini has a far greater range and depth. That’s not to say there aren’t some fine moments in Thunderstorm, we’ll get to that in a minute, but I found myself waiting for a big moment, something to lift the work up onto its tiptoes and sweep us away.
Part of the reason it never came may be to do with the nature of the drama itself. Thunderstorm is an opera that adheres to the old marketing axiom of ‘Tell ’em what you’re going to tell’ em, tell it to ’em, then tell ’em what you just told them’. Or, for the writers amongst you, too much telling, not enough showing. Oddly, one of the most effective elements of the opera – the role played by the chorus – is the biggest culprit. Yet it works. They perform the role of Greek chorus; explaining, commenting, witnessing.
Elsewhere, a lack of real character development, or relationship development, means there isn’t so much a plot as a series of scenes in which the characters tell us what’s happening. The result is very little tension. Given the twistiness of the plot – which would happily have been at home in the most ludicrous Grand Opera or even farce – you end up with a huge emotional hole. So, when the key plot twist was finally delivered, rather than gasps of shock, the audience, feeling a reaction of some sort was required, ended up laughing.
Whether the opera’s dramatic weakness is the fault of the libretto, the translation, the play itself (or all of them), their combined effect doesn’t transport you to anywhere you hadn’t already been before, which is the whole point of sitting in a dark room for a few hours being told a story as far as I’m concerned.
That’s not to say there isn’t some great singing or playing, or some effective moments, especially some of the orchestral passages and the two sparsely accompanied sextets in each act. Maybe that’s the issue – Thunderstorm is very much an ensemble pice, like Gianni Schicchi or Il Tabarro, but without the humour of the former, the dark tension of the latter or the tunes of either.
As a result, Thunderstorm rumbles and rolls along nicely but never quite manages to thunder, which is a shame. You can’t generally accuse Puccini of that.
For more information about the ENO and what’s on at the Coliseum, visit www.eno.org.