“Harvey Milk” composer Stewart Wallace returns to San Francisco Opera with another ambitious Bay area-set project, an adaptation of local author Amy Tan’s novel “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” This complicated, semi-fantastical tale, condensed by librettist Tan for the stage, spans three generations of women with serious mother-daughter issues. The results are somewhat unwieldy structurally, but the uneven aspects don’t derail this music drama. Its potent story is compelling, and the music and Chen Shi-Zheng’s staging of the premiere production are adventuresome. Cross-cultural content should make “Daughter” attractive to other major international opera houses.
You know you’re in for something outside the operatic norm when the program notes each of the two acts begins in “a timeless void.” Acrobats fly through the air against projected images of fire and water, their breath turning into the San Francisco fog her mother told Ruth (Zheng Cao) came from the nostrils of their own warring yet intertwined dragon spirits.
There’s certainly some kind of battle going on in the Chinatown restaurant where Ruth has gathered together the two ill-fitting sides of her family for Chinese New Year: immigrant mother LuLing (Ning Liang) on one side, Jewish husband (James Maddalena), in-laws and bratty stepchildren on the other. Nothing goes right; Ruth still can’t seem to appease her ma’s impossible demands for proof of love, which stirs memories of some scarring, early parental scare tactics.
Worse, the gathering triggers a bizarre outburst after which LuLing collapses from a stroke. As mother is taken away by ambulance, Ruth is more torn than ever between familiar feelings of guilt and gratitude.
A ghost unseen by the living — that of Precious Auntie (Qian Yi), who raised LuLing in China — materializes to tell Ruth she can mend the present only by “changing your mother’s past.” Thus Ruth becomes the young LuLing in a 1930s village outside Beijing. Both she and Auntie work at an ink studio run by Wang Tai-Tai’s (Catherine Cook); wealthy coffinmaker Chang (Hao Jiang Tian) frequents the place, courting LuLing in an attempt to obtain from her a coveted dragon-bone family heirloom said to bestow immortality.
When rebellious LuLing announces she’ll use the bone as dowry to become Chang’s newest wife, Auntie curses them both.
A shorter second act finds LuLing scraping along with other refugees in Hong Kong during WWII, hoping to find a husband who’ll take her to a new life in America.
With its huge flashback chunks, three wildly disparate settings (four, counting that “void”), and a story whose climactic moment involves a woman returning from the grave, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” sometimes creaks and sways between spectacle and intimacy, historical and psychological.
It’s often most effective in smaller-scaled moments, as when Wallace’s wide-ranging East/West score (which often impresses but would require more than a first listen to get a fix on) quiets to let the three female leads’ voices entwine in a harmony both literal and spiritual.
Chen’s production deploys onstage musicians (playing Chinese percussion and the trumpet-like suona), a 10-member acrobatic troupe, myriad projections and a host of other design elements, though perhaps nothing is so striking as the specter of Qian airborne over a near-bare stage.
Conductor Steven Sloane and orchestra triumph with challenging material. Use of cast miking to balance out disparate training backgrounds (Western operatic, small-venue kunju theater, even Beijing rock vocalist Wu Tong, who’s arresting in two featured bits) blends seamlessly in Mark Grey’s sound design.