, June 2009
You film buffs out there who actually pay attention to composer credits (you know who you are—and let me be the first to congratulate you for being so aware) will no doubt recognize the name of Tan Dun, if for no other film than the iconic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Marco Polo presents Dun as composer and conductor in the world of opera, or perhaps more appropriately musical theater, as this piece walks a fine line between classical idioms, ethnic musics, and one of the most audacious physical productions I’ve had the pleasure of viewing lately. This is challenging music wrapped around an equally challenging libretto, but if you stick with it for the long haul, you’re in for one of the most astoundingly unique productions you’re likely to see this, or any, year.
Dun and librettist Paul Griffiths take the basic facts of Marco Polo’s life and mythologizes them, splitting the hero into two characters, Marco (Sarah Castle), the external, physical man (despite being sung by a woman), and Polo (Charles Workman), the interior self made of memory. The character then becomes a symbol for each of us in our dichotomous journey through life, presenting our “mask” to the exterior world while wrestling with our interior monologues and occasional (and maybe not so occasional) demons. Leading our way through this metaphysical enterprise is Rustochello (Zhang Jun), an actual biographer of the real Marco, but in this case a sort of bizarre kabuki version of the Emcee from Cabaret.
Marco and Polo enter several journeys, accompanied by a man (Stephen Richardson) who slowly assumes the identity of Kublai Khan. Along the way, the explorer(s) encounter Water personified (Nancy Allen Lundy) and various “Shadows” of such historical and fictional personages as Dante (Stephen Bryant) and Scheherezade (Tania Kross). If this sounds like a heady mix, it most certainly is, and that is not alleviated by Dun’s often complex and difficult music, a score that spans the gamut from bursts of percussion accompanying something akin to sprechgesang, to a sort of Far Eastern riff on Gregorian Chant, to more lyrical tonal passages that nonetheless do unexpected things like splitting one syllable words into huge octave leaps for the singers. The singers are asked to do everything from quasi-traditional arias to more avant garde vocalizations that may remind some astute listeners of Cathy Berberian. Dun utilizes an amazing panoply of instruments to create an alien soundscape, as it were, including traditional western orchestra instruments, but also some modified ones (like a prepared piano), as well as numerous authentic Eastern instruments.
Making this an adventure in and of itself, though, is the physical production, simply stunning from start to finish (there’s no real curtain in this piece—actors mosey on stage as the orchestra tunes up). Huge set pieces delight the eye with explosions of color and design ingenuity. We get everything from costumes which literally envelope the singers to gigantic props to an always arresting overall physical design that presents glyphs for such things as the Great Wall (which in Marco Polo becomes something of a metaphysical symbol, as so much in the opera does). Even if the libretto and, at least occasionally, the music of Marco Polo throw you for a loop, the production design is sure to enthrall—it’s one of the most amazing pieces of virtuoso stagecraft I’ve ever witnessed, and designers Jean Kalman and Angelo Figus, as well as stage director Pierre Audi, are to be heartily congratulated, as is the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra (augmented by many native ethnic instruments) and Cappella Amsterdam.
If ultimately Marco Polo might not make that much sense, at least on the first go round, that’s OK. Challenging, thought provoking theater like this often penetrates to a subconscious level where all sorts of hidden meanings and connections ultimately weave together, sometimes thrusting unexpectedly up into consciousness to be discovered much like Marco Polo’s “discovery” of China. In a genre that too often tries to reinvent the wheel with hoary properties that have little relevance to today’s theater goers, and become museum pieces tarted up with directorial excess, Marco Polo is something rare and commendable—a completely original, unique piece of operatic art that is compelling and confounding in equal measure. It’s a one of a kind experience, and the more adventurous Art (with a capital A) lovers of you out there are in for a very exceptional experience.
Unfortunately, Marco Polo’s astoundingly brilliant physical production got a less than brilliant DVD transfer in standard definition. I’m happy to report that the BD, with an AVC codec and enhanced 1.78:1 OAR, is significantly better in all respects. Colors are bold and extremely well saturated, and detail is sharp and precise. None of the artifacts which hampered the SD-DVD are apparent in this release, and in fact I can see now on this BD version that the staffs in the final scene are outlined in white, something that on the SD-DVD devolved into aliasing and edge enhancement. Notice the moire patterns on one of the gold costumes in the opening scene, for example. Contrast and black levels are superb throughout.
Both the uncompressed PCM 2.0 and 5.0 mixes are exceptional. This is one of the most colorful scores in recent contemporary music, and the 5.0 track especially catapults the listener into the percussive elements with elan. Voices and instruments are all reproduced with excellent fidelity, and some at times amazing dynamic range. Subtitles are available in English (which you’ll want on. even though the piece is sung mostly in that language, due to some hard to understand melismas and, frankly, accents), French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.
An excellent booklet comes with the DVD, as well as OpusArte’s typical DVD synopsis and cast gallery. A 24 minute or so featurette takes you behind the scenes, showing props being made, as well as offering interviews with cast, crew and of course Dun himself.
This is a major piece and anyone with an interest in contemporary music and/or music theater is going to want to watch it. Dun’s music is visceral and propulsive, and the theatricality of the entire enterprise simply must be seen to be believed. Even if you’re not a big fan of opera, my hunch is there will be enough incredible stuff for you to feast your eyes and ears on that you’ll come away with a new appreciation for this art form that is too often seen as the stuffy refuge of the hoity toity. Highly recommended.