Tan Dun’s opera Marco Polo has had a chequered history. Originally commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival in the late 1980s, by the time it was completed, directors had moved on and it was not premiered until 1996 in Munich. It has had only a handful of performances since, so kudos to Mary Miller, Bergen National Opera’s director, for selecting such a challenging work to launch the city’s annual arts festival.
This stunning-looking new production benefits hugely from the input of the British director/designer and video artist Netia Jones. Combining the surtitles of Paul Griffiths’ enigmatic libretto into her striking images, all manipulated live, helped bring coherence to the opera’s many disparate elements. Perhaps this is also why Jones anchors her characters, tableau-style, on stage for the duration, like fusty museum relics.
As Marco and Polo, Fredrika Brillembourg and Thomas Young are outstanding, but this schizophrenic blurring of the main characters leaves a gaping hole in the already sparse narrative. Adding further confusion, Dante – Stephen Bryant showing off his amazing range – is portrayed as a commedia dell’arte figure while the equally agile Zhang Jun – his overtone singing is astounding – plays Rustichello like Shakespeare’s Puck.
Tan Dun demands incredible vocal dexterity from his singers, who whoop and yelp with alacrity. Nina Warren is superb as Scheherazade in an overly bustled dress, more Alice in Wonderland than Arabian Nights, while the rich bass of Dong-Jian Gong’s Kublai Khan emerges from a hot bundle of fur. The chorus, strung across the stage in monk-like hoodies, seemed to have the most fun with the vocalised effects.
Nancy Allen Lundy’s character, Water, is perhaps the key to Tan Dun’s soundworld – water’s fluidity and ephemeral nature pervades the entire opera, especially the music. He doesn’t so much cause an east/west collision as create a musical soup that contains fragments of every conceivable genre.
Conductor Baldur Bronnimann and the Bergen Philhamonic Orchestra brilliantly navigate their way through this musical melange with aplomb, from the tinny saucepan gongs of traditional Chinese opera to Indian sitar and tabla. The most bizarre segue has to be from faux Mahler to John Williams’ Jaws theme in the space of a few minutes. Ultimately, the magnificent musical performances and the visually seductive production could not disguise the opera’s multiple flaws. Not so much a journey as an aimless meander through musical and historical time.