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Datong – The Chinese Utopia review at Richmond Theatre, London – ‘an entertaining chamber opera’

Scene from Datong – The Chinese Utopia at Richmond Theatre, London Scene from Datong – The Chinese Utopia at Richmond Theatre, London

Utopian thinkers are often dismissed as dreamers, madmen or heretics. But for a brief moment in China’s history, one man succeeded in realising his vision of utopia, a blend of Confucianism and constitutional monarchy.

Kang Youwei was the trailblazing political reformer who persuaded the Emperor to launch the Hundred Days’ Reform. His vision of Chinese democracy was, however, dashed by a vicious coup d’etat organised by the imperial concubine, Empress Dowager Cixi.

Writer and filmmaker Evans Chan has turned this little-known story into an award-winning film and a chamber opera, Datong: The Chinese Utopia, which had its UK premiere during London’s Hong Kong Music Series.

Eclectic and at time brilliant music by Chan Hing-Yan, referencing styles from Alban Berg to Chinese folk song and the Beatles and played by an ensemble that included Chinese traditional instruments, ensured that the story came alive in spite of the slightly didactic text.

Director Tang Shu-Wing created cinematic pictures with simple sets and projections: Act I was set on a cruise liner; Act II in the book-lined lobby of the US Department of State where Kang Youwei and his daughter Tongbi ask President Roosevelt to stop discriminating against Chinese workers and Act III a garret where Tongbi and her daughter were hiding from the zealots of the Cultural Revolution. Costumes were spectacular, especially the rich robes of the Emperor and the Dowager Cixi.

It was uniformly well-sung and acted by a small chorus and soloists with Hong Kong connections– special mention goes to indefatigable soprano Louise Kwong in the demanding role of Tongbi, but the other three soloists, bass Apollo Wong (Kang Youwei), mezzo-soprano Carol, Lin (Empress/ granddaughter) and tenor David Quah (missionary/ Roosevelt) created equally vivid characters. A potentially dry slice of China’s history was transformed into an operatic event by skilful direction and a scintillating score.

 

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Verdict
A fateful moment in Chinese history brought to life in an entertaining chamber opera
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