mon 24/06/2024

The Golden Dragon, Music Theatre Wales, Buxton Festival | reviews, news & interviews

The Golden Dragon, Music Theatre Wales, Buxton Festival

The Golden Dragon, Music Theatre Wales, Buxton Festival

Peter Eötvös's new opera finds a world in a grain of egg fried rice

Not just Cricket: Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (centre) in The Golden DragonClive Barda

It’s the kitchen of a Thai-Chinese-Vietnamese fast food restaurant. The onstage orchestra wear sweatbands and T-shirts, and a red work surface stretches across the stage. As the four chefs take the stage, the clatter of pans and knives is first noise, then a rhythm, then an overture of sizzling, clanging, chopping and hissing sounds that spreads throughout the whole orchestra.

Vegetables are sliced, pans brandished and, sitting out front, as an escaped slice of courgette rolls wonkily downstage, is a young Chinese cook, wailing with toothache. No question, Peter Eötvös knows how to create an arresting opening – and the first scene of his new opera The Golden Dragon pulls you headfirst into its claustrophobic, compelling and slightly crazy world.

The Golden Dragon is the name of said restaurant, and the opera – adapted from a play by Roland Schimmelpfennig and performed in an English translation by Gregory Vajda – tells the story of one evening in its kitchen. Stories and lives collide, immigrants long for home, and that case of toothache takes a macabre and tragic turn. Counterpointed against it all is a retelling of Aesop’s fable of the Cricket and the Ant, given a particularly nasty anti-capitalist twist.

Llio Evans's story holds everything together This is an opera with a point to make, so it’s regrettable that the characters are described simply as “Asians” and that Eötvös’s score makes such ready use of the clichés of musical orientalism: gongs and gamelan effects. True, the recurring gong strokes are artfully distorted, and doubtless the intention was to critique oriental clichés in western music. The problem, of course, being that music that’s intended satirically has a habit of sounding indistinguishable from the real thing.

That aside, this UK premiere production by Music Theatre Wales is a compelling, entertaining and ultimately affecting 90 minutes of music drama. There’s a wit to Eötvös’s effects: the characters regularly drop out of character, offering spoken commentary on the action, and suddenly changing nationality and sex. The sight of the two alpha males of the kitchen, Johnny Herford and the imposingly tattooed Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, as handbag-toting air stewardesses, drew giggles from the Buxton crowd; as did the orchestra’s deadpan practice of announcing “Long Pause” or “Short Pause” in the gaps in the music.

More importantly, the whole company was on top not only of Eötvös’s gnarlier vocal writing, but the numerous stretches where the music took real lyrical flight. Lucy Schaufer was clear and compassionate as the Woman Over Sixty, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks camped it up cheerfully as the Waitress, and everyone on stage was equally convincing when called upon to transform themselves instantaneously and repeatedly into insects, grandparents, or teenage girls. It’s a tribute to the clarity of the libretto – and Michael McCarthy’s direction – that the many strands of the story unfolded so comprehensibly.

Llio EvansAnd it’s a particular tribute to Eötvös’s playful, endlessly subtle score. Throughout, the orchestra under Geoffrey Paterson underlined and commented upon the action, shimmering, chiming, dissolving into gnat squeaks or lurching quietly, queasily downwards as something nasty turns up in the soup. Above all, though, it’s a tribute to Llio Evans’s (pictured right) performance as the one character who doesn’t shift identity, and whose story holds everything together: that toothache-suffering Chinese immigrant, described throughout as The Little One. Scruffily dressed, Evans made a touching figure: trusting, pleading, grappling all the time with a pain that – it only gradually became apparent – went far beyond an infected tooth.

In telling the story of individuals to whom society gives no voice, it was inspired touch from Eötvös to make so much of The Little One’s music wordless (at one point she squeaked through a gag). Only after The Little One’s lifeless body is floating away downriver does she finally get to sing out, sweetly and radiantly, in the great poignant aria of homecoming and loss towards which the whole work, it’s finally clear, has been building. Eötvös stops joking, stops twitching, and provides an orchestral accompaniment whose dark, juddering iridescence sounds like nothing so much as the Lake of Tears from Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Intentional? Ironic? What matters is that it feels like he means it – and that we feel it too.

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