The Chinese Orphan, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre

Talk about no hard feelings. Last weekend, the opera that became a last-minute replacement when Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts rather unceremoniously dropped the world premiere of Opera Hong Kong’s Dr Sun Yat-Sen last October became the first NCPA-commissioned work to leave the mainland. The presenter? Opera Hong Kong.

Stranger alliances have happened, not least in the opera itself. The Chinese Orphan, an unfortunately sparse title based on the Yuan Dynasty play The Orphan of Zhao, recounts the story of a loyal minister who is unjustly killed, along with his clan, by the king. The sole surviving infant is later adopted by a member of the court, paving the way for the obvious filial revenge.

Even without its familiarity in the west – Voltaire’s 1755 version being one of the earliest and Chen Kaige’s 2010 film The Sacrifice being the most recent – any story that opens with 300 deaths deserves a place alongside Verdi on the opera stage. How it gets there is another story. Lei Lei and Zou Jingzhi, the composer-librettist team whose previous collaboration Xi Shi was the NCPA’s first newly commissioned opera, appear here again, though in reverse order – librettist Zou first – with Lei’s political credentials tellingly listed in the programme before her musical ones.

Orphan, to be fair, is an improvement on Xi Shi, not least in the composer’s ability to delineate character and to place each singer in an appropriate frame. Her previous sound world, which started in late Puccini and made its way to modern song-and-dance troupes by way of classic Broadway and film scores, now employs judicious bits of Shostakovich, Bartok and Britten. And she is better at driving a narrative musically, though her dramatic high points never fully soar, the music seemingly caught between traditional self-effacement and the unrestrained emotions that her western musical sources demand.

On the plus side, this was a first-rate production, headed by director Chen Xinyi and set designer Gao Guangjian (interestingly, the pair chiefly responsiblefor the Hong Kong production of Dr Sun Yat-sen). Conductor Lu Jia led the NCPA Orchestra and Chorus with fine assurance. Mezzo-soprano Ning Liang as Mai Shu and tenor Warren Mok as the impetuous 18-year-old orphan were particularly memorable, but it was baritone Chenye Yuan, as the doctor who saves the infant, whose commanding performance hinted at how great this opera could have been.

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