The UK premiere of a work by Tan Dun must rank as one of the highlights of any concert season, anywhere. When that work is a “Passion” and the occasion billed as one “without precedent in the Western concert hall”, we take our seats with great expectations, and the promise of a transcendent experience. With substantial forces assembled in the Royal Festival Hall – the London Philharmonic Orchestra, two choirs, five singers and a dancer – all under the baton of the composer, the stage was set for a defining moment of historical import. Alas, the hype outdistanced the reality by very many leagues, and this member of the congregation remains unenlightened.

Tan Dun conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Six years in the making, Buddha Passion seeks to bring to life scenes from murals in the Mogao Caves, located in the Dunhuang desert of China. As described by Tan, the murals depict “compassion, love and nature”. With his own libretto he constructed a narrative in six acts charting the emergence of the Little Prince who would become Buddha, to the moment when that Eminence “closes his eyes and leaves for Nirvana”. The text is an eclectic mix of fable, philosophy, theology and ethics; the music is also an eclectic mix of styles and gestures drawn from opera, operetta, musical theatre and cinema.

On the debit side of this review is music that drifts dangerously close to the sound-worlds of Turandot and Madama Butterfly, harmonic and lyrical gestures that can only be described as kitsch. The choral writing in some sections is unimaginative and seems intended to elicit an audience response similar to that enjoyed by Carmina Burana. There was almost a moment of transcendence when, as Buddha attains Nirvana, the music fades into the calm of silence. However, there swiftly followed the reappearance of the chorus, shattering the fragility of the moment. After that the orchestra played a minute or so of gratuitous, rollocking, happy-clappy music designed to bring down the house – which it duly did. 

Yining Chen, Tan Dun and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

On the credit side, the performers all gave good accounts of their undoubted talents. The brass of the LPO had the best of the scoring and the sensuous sound of the strings added an intermittent glow to the proceedings. A large chorus – the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Chinese Philharmonic Choir – sang beautifully and enjoyed themselves as percussionist on pebbles and bells. The soloists were Sen Guo (soprano/indigenous female singer), Huiling Zhu (mezzo-soprano), Kang Wang (tenor, finalist in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World), Shenyang (bass-baritone) and Batubagen (indigenous male singer/Dunhuang xiqin). With the exception of Batubagen, they all sang multiple roles, helpfully delineated by the surtitles. I particularly liked the voice of Huiling Zhu, whose upper notes shone with real colour. Dancer Yining Chen performed an excerpt of her work Fantan Pipa – not originally conceived as part of Buddha Passion, but appearing at the invitation of the composer. An imposing sight on the stage, she danced for all of two minutes, and was possibly one ingredient too many.