The genre is immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with the plays of Chekhov, Tennessee Williams or, in the operatic world, Janáček's Káťa Kabanová: a family in a large house where the gaps between conventional propriety and human needs and desires cause the characters to bring about their own destruction. The Shanghai Opera's Thunderstorm is based on a 1934 play by Cao Yu, one of the first Chinese to write huàjù (western style) drama, and is considered to be his masterpiece.

<i>Thunderstorm</i> © Shanghai Opera
Thunderstorm
© Shanghai Opera

The musical style of Mo Fan's opera, composed in 2001 and first staged in 2006, is clearly within the western opera tradition, albeit with a strong Chinese accent imparted by plenty of pentatonic melodies, a generous dose of vocal glissandi and the inclusion in the orchestra of two Chinese instruments: the pipa and the erhu. Anyone in the audience looking for immersion in an alien opera tradition will have been disappointed; those looking for a touch of the exotic on familiar territory will be content – especially those who like their opera with plenty of melody and not too much in the way of discords.

The best thing in the evening was the performance of Xu Xiaoying as Fanyi, the lady of the house and the main protagonist in the drama. Xu has everything a dramatic soprano needs: a warm, smooth voice with plenty of power all the way up to the highs, without a touch of shrillness. Most importantly, she displayed total engagement with the text. Things really came to life in the penultimate scene of the opera, when Fanyi, seeking revenge for years of abuse by her husband Zhou Puyuan and for having been sexually abandoned by her stepson Ping, believes that she has accomplished that revenge: Xu gave us a bravura performance.

<i>Thunderstorm</i> © Shanghai Opera
Thunderstorm
© Shanghai Opera

The orchestra and chorus performed consistently well. Conductor Zhang Guoyong kept everything under reasonably tight control, managing the balance well between the high octane depiction of the thunderstorm that gives the opera its name and the more reflective moments. The chorus operates as in Greek drama – they're not characters in the opera, but either voice the inner thoughts of the other characters or comment on the situation: they were effective in this role.

All of the six principal singers sang well in ensemble – there was a lovely sextet in Act I – but the other individual performances were more mixed. As the feckless stepson Ping, Han Peng sang a couple of his arias well, getting the big dramatic phrasing right, but he lacked power on others and was unable to maintain dramatic impetus consistently as Xu did. As the father of the household Zhou Puyuan, Zhang Jianlu lacked the bass vocal heft to come across as the patriarchal, domineering bully. In the smaller role of the son Chong, Zhang Fantaoi, impressed with a bright, open tenor.

<i>Thunderstorm</i> © Shanghai Opera
Thunderstorm
© Shanghai Opera

Where Thunderstorm struggles is dramatically: the plot, characters and setting provide plenty of potential,but the way it is portrayed comes across as overly simplistic, both in the text and in the staging. There is the occasional truly cringeworthy moment, such as the maid Sifeng's announcement that she is pregnant (she is unaware that her lover is also her brother) to the accompaniment of a huge sound effects thunderclap. The single set is uncomplicated, which is fine, but the projection onto a front screen of rain and lightning strikes an amateurish note.
When a high intensity family drama in a well understood genre is translated into opera, a lot of skill is needed in both libretto, music and direction to perform the inevitable cutting down of detail in a way that keeps the tension up and ensures that the audience is really sucked into the drama - and in that respect, Thunderstorm misses the mark. But there's some attractive, well played music and an excellent prima donna performance to enjoy from Xu Xiaoying.

Note that Thunderstorm is double cast, and that the promoters have not, at time of writing, announced which cast is singing on which dates.