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Marc Rochester
Gramophone, April 2016

To a libretto by Paul Griffiths about the legendary explorer, Tan Dun’s music draws on a wide variety of resources to recreate the journeys between East and West. © 2016 Gramophone

Stephen Habington
La Scena Musicale, January 2010

At the zenith of the colonial age, Rudyard Kipling versified that, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” It has been the life’s work of Tan Dun to refute that sentiment by creating music to blend (and bend) the disparate cultures of Europe and the Orient. Marco Polo is perhaps the supreme exemplar of Tan Dun’s striving for unified and universal musical expression.With the composer directing the orchestra and a lavish production from Pierre Audi, this is likely to be the definitive performance for all time.

Marco Polo is an opera of daring conception. Dozens of aspects deserve comment but let us focus on the plot. There isn’t one.The work is a succession of sensations in the progress of a voyage of exploration and ultimate confrontation with the unknown. Of the extensive dramatis personae, only two characters are ‘real’ in the conventional sense: Polo and Kublai Khan. The explorer’s spiritual side (Marco) is assigned to a female voice.The supporting players are all notional. Viewers are advised to bring their sense of the abstract to these proceedings.

Dun gives us fascinating music, combining traditional Eastern instruments with a modern chamber orchestra. The score includes quotations from Wagner and Mahler (who is also recruited as a character in the opera). The vocals are similarly interwoven. It is a performance which breaks down boundaries in all directions. Opus Arte also offer DVDs of Tan Dun’s Water and Paper concertos.

Arlo McKinnon
Opera News, October 2009

After an absence of just more than a decade, Marco Polo, Tan Dun’s first opera, returned in 2008 to the Netherlands Opera in a new staging and production. The opera, which had its premiere at the Münchener Biennale in 1996, won the Grawemeyer Award in 1998 and helped secure Tan Dun’s rise to worldwide recognition.

Setting a libretto by Paul Griffiths and labeled “an opera within an opera,” Marco Polo takes a highly symbolic, multi-level, introspective approach to its subject, rather than attempting a literal representation. The protagonist himself is presented in two simultaneous aspects—Marco, the physical, active side of the character, and Polo, the character’s memory and intellectual self. Other characters include the element Water (who serves as something of a love interest for Polo), Kublai Kahn and three ghosts. The first ghost primarily appears as Rustichello, the scribe to whom the historical Marco Polo dictated his travels. He also represents the Chinese poet Li Po. Ghost 2 appears as Sheherazada, Gustav Mahler and the Empress of China. Ghost 3 manifests himself primarily as Dante but also as Shakespeare. Three simultaneous journeys are occurring in this opera—a physical journey from Venice to China; a journey through musical styles of medieval Europe through the Middle East, India, the Himalayas and finally China; and a spiritual journey of self-discovery and of the three aspects of time (past, present and future).

As a person who began life in the Hunan district of China, survived the Cultural Revolution and has lived since the mid-1980s in New York City, Tan Dun acknowledges that his own experience of multiculturalism has added an autobiographical reference to Marco Polo. His training in the folk traditions of Chinese music, his work in the Peking Opera and his education in advanced Western classical music have all become internalized and melded into a style uniquely his own, embracing the music of many cultures.

Pierre Audi, who shows a deep understanding both of the opera itself and of his specific team, directs this colorful new production of Marco Polo with great flair. His vision is convincing and powerful. Special praise must go to designers Jean Kalman and Elsa Ejchenrand, whose sets and lighting make highly imaginative use of the entire stage.

The cast for this production is close to ideal. All the roles require singers with a command of an enormous vocal tessitura, and all the performers here make their music sound natural and effortless. A veteran performer in the Kunqu opera tradition (which predates Peking opera style), Zhang Jun as Ghost 1 has the most athletic requirements of all the performers. He is onstage for virtually the entire opera, often dancing as well as singing. Additionally, he serves as a narrator for the physical journey being enacted. His character can be said to be the soul of the opera. His performance is quite moving and charismatic. Charles Workman gives a compelling interpretation of Polo. His is an intensely emotional role to play, and Workman proves fully convincing in it. Sarah Castle does well in the more supporting role of Marco. As Water, Nancy Allen Lundy is enthralling. Tania Kross makes an enchanting Sheherazada, a believable Gustav Mahler and a warm-hearted Empress. Stephen Richardson is appropriately commanding as Kublai Kahn and most impressive near the end of the opera, when he finally gets an extended aria. As Ghost 3, Stephen Bryant, the only carryover from the earlier cast, shows a dazzling mastery of vocal techniques.

Marco Polo is one of Tan Dun’s most inspired, successful and spectacular efforts. For those new to his artistry, this DVD would make a fabulous introduction. For those who already enjoy the composer’s work, this release will be a benchmark for years to come.

Frank Swietek
Video Librarian, September 2009

Even people with a taste for the avant-garde may require several listens to appreciate this first full-length opera by Tan Dun (b. 1957), which premiered in 1996 and has been performed in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Collaborating with librettist Paul Griffiths, the Chinese composer (residing in the U.S. since 1985) employs a musical idiom and instrumentation blending Western and Eastern influences here in an “opera within an opera,” in which the title character is divided into two: Marco the traveler and Polo the memory. Marco Polo’s theme doesn’t simply follow the legendary figure’s physical journey from the Mediterranean to the Orient, but also looks at the cultural and spiritual aspects of the trek, while introducing a panoply of other characters—Dante, Scheherazade, Kublai Khan, a Kabuki-like narrator named Rustichello, and the personification of Water. The opera concludes at the Great Wall, which a reunited Marco and Polo must break through. The score runs the gamut from medieval-like chant to Chinese opera, with Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian elements also apparent, often in strange, otherworldly combinations that Tan (in the “behind-the-scenes” featurette included as a DVD/Blu-ray bonus) calls the “music of tomorrow.” Directed by Pierre Audi, this 2008 production at Amsterdam’s Het Muziektheater is conducted by Tan himself, with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra negotiating the difficult music with amazing skill, and all of the vocalists ably meeting the almost inhuman demands. A visually stunning production (especially on Blu-ray) with colorful, imaginative sets and costumes, Marco Polo is a heady brew requiring concentration, but should be of great interest to fans of contemporary opera. Presented in DTS and LPCM stereo on DVD and PCM 5.0 and stereo on Blu-ray, additional extras include an illustrated synopsis and a cast gallery. Highly recommended.

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