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Judith Weir

Publisher: Chester Music

A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987)
commissioned by the BBC for premiere by Kent Opera
Novello & Co Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 50 Minutes
Soprano, 2 Mezzo sopranos, Countertenor, 3 Tenors, 2 Baritones, Bass, boy (non-speaking)
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Programme Note
Judith Weir A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987)

Thirteenth-century China: Chao Sun, explorer and mapmaker, leaves his city of Loyan for exile. His son Chao Lin is charged with the construction of a canal. Some actors are among his workers. The night before departure they enact The Chao Family Orphan. In the play, the wicked General Tuan- Ku provokes the suicide of his servant Chao and his wife, leaving their young son an orphan. Unwittingly, the General adopts and raises the child.Twenty years later they conspire to overthrow the emperor. The orphan discovers his identity through a friend of his parents and vows revenge. After the play, Chao Lin’s work on the canal is acclaimed. While surveying, Chao encounters an old woman who tells of his father’s fate. Chao immediately plots revenge.

© Judith Weir

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  • Ensemble
    Scottish Chamber Orchestra
    Andrew Parrott
Judith Weir has never written anything more ingenious, entertaining or perfectly formed than 'A Night at the Chinese Opera', in which an original Yuan Dynasty drama is wrapped inside a 'real' 14th-century story that cleverly mirrors the same drama, but takes it into darker and deeper territory.
Richard Morrison, The Times,14/09/2012
... the music has immediate and strikingly idiosyncratic charm, taking its inspiration from Chinese models of music theatre rather than the western Renaissance tradition of opera. Weir doesn't aim to create a kitschy or gentle pastiche: the score's idiom is emphatically alien and sometimes abrasive, but it seems perfectly adapted to the hauntingly ambivalent fable it embodies.
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph,13/09/2012
Weir's subtle, exquisite fusion of eastern and western styles is reflected in a production of considerable grace... [The production] brings out all the detailed nuances of Weir's instrumentation.
Tim Ashley, The Guardian,13/09/2012
...It took courage to choose a contemporary work as one of the season's four mainstage productions [at scottish Opera]. But then Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera has, in its 21 years, shown more of the qualities of a repertoire work than any other by a Britishcomposer since the death of Britten. Apart from Weir's Scottish ties...its advantages for a hard-pressed company are obvious: there's the economy of instrumentation, the fact that it doesn't require expensive voices, and the compactness of the storytelling. How many other living composers- not only British ones- have mastered that trick? And let's not forget that Weir knows how to write music that enchants. We may detect reminders of Britten and of minimalism, but the fascination of her first full-scale opera lies in her knack of creating an orginal idiom, at once intriguing and entertaining...
Andrew Clark, Opera,01/06/2008
Lee Blakeley's delicate, clear-eyed production of A Night at the Chinese Opera is a very different proposition. Where Birtwistle offers gore and misery on a grand scale, Judith Weir offers concision, wit, sorrow, a gentle warning not to mess with nature, and vocal lines that breathe easily. Thoughtfully cast, with Toby Stafford-Allen and Jane Harrington as Chao Sun and Little Moon, Damian Thantrey as their orphaned son Chao Lin, and Rebecca de Pont-Davies, Sarah Redgwick and Stephen Chaundry as the Actors who disrupt Chao Lin's successful career, A Night at the Chinese Opera is the finest ensemble piece Scottish Opera has produced since The Knot Garden. Scored in blocks of shimmering, sour-sweet colour, Weir's cool, bell-like instrumentation glows in conductor Siân Edwards's hands.
Anna Picard, The Independent on Sunday,20/04/2008
This is turning out to be an annus mirabilis for Judith Weir, who ended last year by becoming the first composer to receive the Queen's Medal for Music, and began 2008 as the subject of the BBC's annual Composer Weekend at the Barbican, the last of its august kind. Now she is taking bows for the first Scottish staging of her first full-length opera, A Night at the Chinese Opera...Weir's rich, taut, rewarding score is conducted with loving expertise by Siân Edwards, and a smart double-act from Philip Salmon as the watchman and a ham Marco Polo is but one stand-out turn amid a uniformly strong cast. Scottish audiences should delight in the entertainment value of this unusually accessible modern opera from a favourite daughter...
Anthony Holden, The Observer,20/04/2008
'Although this is Weir's first full-scale stage work (dating from 1987), it is totally assured in style and execution, adapting a 13th-century Chinese drama about a boy who loses his parents after his home town is invaded by the army of Kubla Khan. He becomes a successful engineer under Kubla's repressive regime, but only when he sees a subversively tragi-comic play presented by a troupe of travelling actors does he begin to understand who he is and where he came from. Like all the best fairytales, the significance of this fable is elliptical, and Weir treats it slyly, incorporating the exotic sounds and Brechtian conventions of Chinese theatre into a score underpinned by the influence of Stravinsky and Britten yet rich in quirky individuality. I love its way of accompanying voices with a solo instrument, the rhythmic sensitivity of its word setting, its refinement, wit and grace...A real treat, in sum - and I think the first-night audience was as surprised as I was at how much they relished it.'
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph,18/04/2008
Twenty years have passed since Judith Weir's first opera was first performed at the Cheltenham Festival. Since then there have been concert performances andstudent productions of A Night at the Chinese Opera; but only now, thanks to Scottish Opera, is the work receiving a professional staging once again. It has certainly been worth the wait. Sian Edwards, conducting, and Lee Blakeley, directing, create a thrilling evening. Weir's music, by turns flinty and pungent, lyrical and lean, has never sounded better, and there's not a weak link in the cast. The title refers to the play-within-a-play which is at the heart of a triptych of self-discovery. Violence and non-violence, man's place in the natural world and an archetypal quest adventure all fuse as an orphaned boy's history catches up with him in the China of Kublai Khan. Blakeley and his designer Jean-Marc Puissant, listen acutely to Weir's music and respond with deft brush-strokes of image and movement. The opening dark moon, shattered jade vase and searching ray of light make the eye 'see' the music: the luminous wind chords, pitched percussion and highly strung strings of Weir's brilliantly tense evocations of a troubled China. A diagonal walkway and two towers serve for all three acts: Chao Lin's home; the theatre stage; and the workers' trench which becomes the quest-path to the mystical White Raven Mountain. The effect of the earthquake and Chao Lin's realisation that it is his story which is being told in the demotic black comedy do not as yet come over quite as powerfully as they should. But the production's moments of visual beauty never upstage the thoughtful and detailed individual performances...
Hilary Finch, The Times,16/04/2008
A tank's gun barrel looms into view in the first few minutes of Scottish Opera's opera, sweeping a porcelain vase to the ground. A Night in the Chinese Opera may be set in 14th-century provincial China when the country was threatened by Kublai Khan, but, as the matter-of-fact blending of historical periods and styles in Lee Blakeley's staging (with designs by Jean-Marc Puissant) implies, repression and brutality have been constants in the country's history. Such concerns, though, are really just a backdrop to Weir's wry, witty and bittersweet drama, with its neat nesting of one story, the Chinese opera performed in the second act, within another, and whose story lines tellingly converge. Though first performed in 1987, this is the work's stage premiere in Weir's native native Scotland, and after more than 20 years, it is still the perfect fusion of her text and music that dazzles, with not a gesture wasted. With Sian Edwards conducting, that deadly clarity is wonderfully conveyed. The Scottish Opera Orchestra shows how precious every note is, and words come across so crisply, the English surtitles are more than usually redundant. But the score's economy creates its own problems for a director. Blakeley's knockabout staging of the Chinese opera is deftly hilarious, with Rebecca de Pont Davies outstanding as the leader of the acting troupe...
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,14/04/2008
The sheer technical skill of Weir’s score, the way she tells a story in music, her word-setting, her spare buy spicily colourful instrumentation, her feel for dramatic shape and pace, not least her wit – all remain extremely impressive and, in a production as good as this, highly enjoyable. The director, Jo Davies discreetly, un-lapel-grabbingly updated the action to present-day China in Yannis Thavoris’s spare but atmospheric décor. Such effects as the building of the canal or climbing to the roof of the world were brilliantly managed. Above all, Davies matched Weir’s quirky humour in her telling of the story. The parade of little toy tanks, for instance, was both funny and, um, not funny. The chamber orchestra played with warmth and precision for Dominic Wheeler, joining him in appreciation of the colour and pace of the writing. There were some very fine voices […] overall the standard of performance deserved nothing but praise. Some other company must take this marvellous piece into its repertory, or maybe one of the country houses should take a look at it. Meanwhile, this month’s second bite at Weir’s Blond Eckbert in the Linbury is awaited with growing impatience.
Rodney Milnes, Opera,01/06/2006
[Weir] is now regarded as one of the leading contemporary British composers of opera. Therefore interest naturally focuses on her earlier work in the medium and it was much to be applauded that the Royal Academy of Music revived A Night at the Chinese Opera in a new production for four performances, beginning on 20 March at their Sir Jack Lyons Theatre. In the first place, despite the, at times perilously thin orchestration, the awareness of locale was admirably done, with the underlying sense of satire never too much and delightfully tongue-in-cheek when called for. Weir's orchestration is spot-on.
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion,01/05/2006
This is an inventive work with a refined and witty score – rare commodities in modern opera.
John Allison, The Sunday Telegraph,26/03/2006
When Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera was premiered in 1987, it was acclaimed by the critics and warmly welcomed by audiences, but for some reason, it hasn’t been seen in London since. The Royal Academy of Music’s new staging serves as a welcome reminder of what an entertaining piece it is. Weir makes the whole piece lightly ironic. The Chinese opera of the second act is a tour de force of comic burlesque, scored with finesse. But the two, real-life outer acts are deftly composed, too. With a sharp-edged production by Jo Davies and stylish designs by Yannis Thavoris, A Night at the Chinese Opera goes down a treat.
George Hall, The Observer,26/03/2006
Quirkily inventive and sparely elegant, with passages of dainty chinoiserie alongside outbursts of almost Wagnerian sonority, it has the Stravinskian capacity to be both witty and beautiful at the same time.
Rupert Christiansen, The Daily Telegraph,24/03/2006
Back in 1987, Judith Weir’s first opera seemed the most striking operatic debut by a British composer since Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, and it looked likely that companies would be falling over each other to present it. Amazingly, this new production by the Royal Academy of Music is the first full staging in this country since that premiere. Hearing Weir’s score in the theatre again makes that neglect even harder to understand. Its opera-within-an-opera structure is a perfectly worked out conceit, richly textured with passages of farce and moments of emotional juxtaposed in a way that cuts through the glaze of postmodern irony, and underpinned by music that is wonderfully spare and dramatically effective.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,23/03/2006
When Judith Weir’s adaptation of a 14th-century Chinese play was first performed it was hailed as one of the freshest and most tuneful contemporary operas for years. Nearly two decades on, it still seems a little miracle of music-theatre ingenuity, The original Yuan dynasty drama, blisteringly fast and funny in this fine Royal Academy of Music staging by Jo Davies, is wrapped inside a ‘real’ 14th-century story that takes the same scenario into infinitely darker and deeper shades (especially in this production, which updates the costumes to present-day China). Weir sets all of this to music that is pungent yet beautifully translucent, every word crystal-clear. Much of it is scored for deft little combinations of just three or four instruments, often underpinning not singing but rhythmic speech. And the ‘Chinese’ sounds are wonderful, too: neither Eastern nor Western, but plucked from an imaginative world that alludes and hints without ever lapsing into pastiche. Within Yannis Thavoris’s sparse yet evocative sets – translucent screens and calligraphic squiggles – the show is stunningly delivered by students who seem not only to understand the hybrid medium but to revel in its startling changes of tone – from pathos to irony to slapstick, sometimes all in the course of a single sentence. If the casts of major opera houses acted with half the panache of the three singers who present the Chinese opera ‘proper’ – Kishani Jayainghe, Catherine Hopper, Allan Clayton – my life would be much improved. The baritone Ronan Collett, whose voice seems richer and warmer each time I hear it, is outstanding as the anguished canal-building hero Chao Lin. And the Royal Academy Sinfonia offers a very spruce account of the score under Dominic Wheeler’s direction.
Richard Morrison, The Times,22/03/2006
Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera caused a stir at its premiere in 1987, praised for its freshness and originality and confirming the composer as a serious talent. The play-within-a-play story, to Weir’s own libretto, is based on a Yuan dynasty drama from the 13th century, the era of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Folk tale is mixed with satire, using familiar stereotypes: the government official, the Mongolian soldier, the old crone. Even if you have only the haziest clue of what’s happening, you always understand. Weir’s economic and endlessly subtle scoring is remote from the excesses of romantic opera but still lyrical and beguiling. The RAM orchestra, with its burbling woodwind choruses, exotic percussion and, in the last act, radiant strings, coloured the music expressively. A Night at the Chinese Opera retains its delicate sensibility.
Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard,21/03/2006
Judith Weir's new opera is simply brilliant, brilliantly simple, fresh, colourful, enchanting and quite the wittiest thing to be done in the musical theatre for years... This is the debut of a very remarkable operatic composer; it is also a great night out…
The Times,01/01/0001
...the most remarkable first full-length opera to have reached the British public in at least a decade... Weir is a creature of the theatre and it shows in every bar... a brilliant feat of theatrical imagination - endlessly witty, economical and pointed... on no account to be missed wherever it turns up.
Financial Times,01/01/0001
Weir's music now functions with a grace and ease entirely her own that puts this listener in a state of constant and almost disbelieving delight.
The Independent,01/01/0001
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