IRON ROAD by Chan Ka Nin and Mark Brownell, directed by Tom Diamond, with Zhu Ge Zeng, Stuart Howe, Zheng Zhou, Grace Chan, Henry Li and Jovanni Sy. Presented by Tapestry New Opera Works at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge). April 26-28 at 8 pm. $28-$88. 416-872-5555. Rating: NNNN
what a coincidence: a pair of
premieres about the Chinese immigrant experience in 1880s Canada. Ghost Train (see above) speaks to an audience. Iron Road sings to it.
Like Ghost Train, the opera Iron Road follows the adventures of a young Chinese woman seeking her railroad-building father in Canada. Chan Ka Nin's remarkable score -- eminently easy on the ear -- relies on traditional Chinese instruments in the early scenes and blends them with a western orchestra when the shipboard immigrants sight the BC mountains.
Mark Brownell's libretto, with translation and Chinese lyrics by George K. Wong, focuses on the loneliness and hopes of the immigrants, and on a romantic plot involving Lai Gwan, a woman disguised as a man, and the Caucasian railroad foreman Nichol. The weight of family tradition, personified by her mother's ghost, makes Lai Gwan tentative with Nichol, but her own feelings draw her closer to him.
Strongly staged by Tom Diamond, with choreography by Zing Bang Fu and a simple yet eye-catching design by Dany Lyne (set and costumes) and Bonnie Beecher (lighting) that involves railway ties and a sense of vast mountain landscapes, the impressive production tells its story clearly.
The singing and playing under conductor Wayne Strongman are first-rate, with Zhu Ge Zeng a moving Lai Gwan and Stuart Howe an ardent Nichol. As the father, Zheng Zhou is sometimes stiff and not always articulate in projecting the text, while Grace Chan's mother exerts a magisterial force whether on the ground or sailing as a spirit through the air.
Iron Road's main weakness are its patches of emotional emptiness. The story is always strong, but its feelings don't always come across. Some moments that should touch our hearts just miss, undercutting an otherwise admirable premiere.