Classical: Exotic travels through the magic of music

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The Independent Culture
OUR OPERA companies pay dutiful service to new British Opera, but as for what's going on elsewhere, "parochial" is the word that comes to mind.

We get bits of John Adams if we're lucky, perhaps something small from Europe, and that's about it. With new opera so expensive and the audience so small, no doubt the thinking goes: "If we're going to do it, let's at least back Britain." Yet while British opera flounders, other composers in other lands fashion new operatic idioms. Mightn't it be worth seeing what they're up to?

Tan Dun's Marco Polo has travelled the world, but has yet to be staged in this country, despite being commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival. It finally reached Britain this week, first Huddersfield, then London, both concert performances; but with the composer conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra the opera cast its spell, staged or not.

Paul Griffiths' condensed libretto allows only the briefest shafts of narrative to illuminate a nearly abstract frieze depicting Polo's travels and travails. The title character requires two performers, Marco, a mezzo- soprano (Laura Tucker) representing something like the historical figure, and Polo, a tenor (Thomas Young, quite wonderful) representing memory. And so it goes on. On paper it can sound confusing, and it didn't help that the synopsis and dramatic personae in the Barbican's programme came from an early, unfinished draft of the opera. Yet with Tan's beguiling music and subtitles to lead us through the labyrinth, the ear intuitively grasped meanings more poetic than literal.

Tan, born in China but resident in New York since 1986, finds no contradiction in honouring traditions both Eastern and Western. Marco Polo quotes from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (itself a synthesis of Asian and European elements), and opens with a flourish of Peking Opera percussion that rivets the attention as surely as the fanfare that opens Monteverdi's Orfeo, 400 years away at the other end of operatic history. And like Orfeo, Marco Polo journeys through time and across strange landscapes, each generating a musical representation, from the sitar and tabla of the Desert to the ritual horns and singing bowls of the Himalayas and the overtone chants of Mongolia.

This is not tourism by music, but a re-invention of the orchestra - and Tan's players responded, none more so than Ya Dong, whose pipa took us inside Beijing's Forbidden City. But like all operas, Marco Polo relies on its singers, and these sang as if their lives depended on it, acting just enough to fracture the decorousness of concert performance. The comic confrontation between Susan Botti's Water and Emily Golden's Sheherazada was a delightful cameo, and Lin Qiang Zu's Li Po, though wielding his fan nonchalantly, had an almost frightening intensity.

Marco Polo manages to be what few contemporary operas are; complex, and elusive, but utterly absorbing. Will any British company stage it the way it deserves?

Nick Kimberley