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'Marco Polo' opera impresses, enlightens
Last Updated: 2018-06-15 13:28 |
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As the first medieval European to record his time in China in detail, Italian explorer Marco Polo is a well-remembered figure even in the modern age.

Polo put his experiences to paper in the world-famousTravels of Marco Polo, a log which now serves as, if nothing else, a reflection of his contemporaries' attitudes toward the eastern world. While the popular perception of China in Europe was, at the time, of a backward and barbaric society, Polo turned those notions on their head with his work. He described an advanced, thriving civilization under the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and the court of Kublai Khan, introducing a new image of China to the world.

His journey, set to music in an opera which bears his name, opened to rapturous reception at the Tianqiao Center for the Performing Arts last month. ThoughMarco Polois not a strict adaptation of his journals, adding plot elements not found in the original inarguably enhances the drama. Curious audience members would do well to research the real story afterward - but then, an opera house isn't exactly the place one goes for strict history lessons.

A true melding of cultures,Marco Polofeatures a bombastic score by German composer Enjott Schneider and lyrics by Chinese playwright Wei Jin. Though there are occasional moments where this relationship is strained - bellowed notes in a previously low-key prison sequence spring to mind - overall, the gamble is effective. The incorporation of traditional Chinese instruments lends an additional layer of authenticity to the proceedings.

One remarked-upon aspect from this production is the use of foreign singers, like Danish tenor Peter Lodahl. Though performing in a non-native tongue is par for the course when it comes to opera, few have had to tackle this particular language. The prominence of the Western canon means singers get used to German and Italian - even if they don't speak it - but Wei's Chinese libretto represents something entirely new.

Lodahl as Polo, along with Jonathan Gunthorpe and Damian Thantrey, handled this challenge well. In interviews, the performers discussed the difficulty of singing unfamiliar vowels, but showed no such trepidation onstage. Their Chinese counterparts were equally impressive - singing with full, clear voice and deep emotional resonance. Ming Zhao as Kublai and Zhou Xiaolin as Chuan Yun were particular favorites.

Production design is exceptional - central to the staging is the enormous rotating set, which serves as staircase, backdrop and prison cell for Polo at the beginning and end of the opera. Multiple projection screens provide color and detail, displaying scenery and text from Polo's original work.

Although the opera is a bit on the long side,Marco Polois a fascinating cultural concoction, and on balance an enjoyable evening at the theater. We in the present, who may at times feel we live on a planet more divided than ever, would do well to take Polo's lessons to heart.

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