Monday, 26 September 2016

A discourse on good government (Chosun/Seonbi)



Hyun Ju Baek and Kwang Te Su, Seonbi (Yoon Sang Timothy Cho cond. Union City Philharmonic Orchestra, Carnegie Hall)
On Sunday 25th September a major event in the Korean cultural calendar in New York occurred. Seonbi was performed at the Carnegie Hall. Apparently “sold-out” there were in fact a great deal of seats empty, especially the cheaper ones. This is surprising given that the top whack was $350. The first ten minutes were a “VIP introduction” – the ambassador was there. With a mind addled by jet-lag, truthfully I could have done with finishing earlier and getting sleep, but it was part of the thing.
Curtain call: own photograph.
So how different was the opera itself? Other than being in Korean, not very is the answer. Musically, this was akin to light Dvorak (New World Symphony) and Puccini (Act II Boheme, perhaps). Some arias were stunning. ‘The Scent of October’, Ui Jun’s aria was given some lovely colouring by Hyan Ju Kim. The Children’s chorus ‘Oh Sobaek Mountain’ has a cracking tune.
What was the problem with this?
1.       Odd translation of libretto didn’t help. All the ‘dog poo’ business, as a cure for illness, may make sense in Korean culture, but this juvenile-sounding translation made this harder to fathom. At other times the translation was simply weak and the meaning was made slightly unclear.
2.       The plot was a thinned-out Measure for Measure: it was hard work when it was outright didactic diagloue about good government - it didn’t make for good plot (it is bearable as background for Simon Boccanegra).
3.       Indeed the libretto (albeit in translation) felt like a parodyof Western Opera. Much like a derivate-sounding score, this felt like a chance to do something radical and different was lost.
4.       Weaknesses in the score, which was pleasant enough, failed to create a backdrop to the drama. I would guess the orchestra were unused to playing for singers, given how unhelpful thye were to them. Neither volume nor tempi seemed to take in to account of what might help the singers.

In the second half, the plot became even stranger – including odd singing from a ghost. The third act offered a sort of budget Isolde – love vs. death etc. Had it ended there, it would have been stronger; however the inclusion of a second scene with all the cast singing away on stage made it seem something like a musical, or that bit and the end of Don Giovanni with the warning that all sinners will thus get their comeuppance.
All appeared in sumptuous costumes and acted out much of the drama on the generous stage of the Carnegie Hall. Backdrops provided quite close approximations of the original set. Not withstanding the powerpoint slide of VIP presentation and during curtain call, this was all pretty effectively done.
I don’t wish to appear snide: this was a lovely evening of music and singing. I had no real expectations, but I think means I hoped for something more different.

Overall: this felt more like a lost opportunity than anything else. The froth might actually take quite well commercially. Yet I was glad of the rare opportunity to catch this piece.

Performers
Chosun Opera Company
Conductor: Yoon Sang Timothy Cho
Sopranos: Jee Hyun Kim, Hyun Ju Kim, Ji Eun Jang, Hyo Won Lim, and Hye Rin Yoon
Mezzo-Sopranos: Hak Nam Kim, Eui Soon Sung, and Ran Lee
Tenors: Robin Yujoong Kim, Paul Han, Chung Gu Kim, and Woo Jin Lee
Baritones: Seong Kyu Lim, Hyong Sik Jo, and Gee Seop Kim
Bass: Do Jin Jung

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