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Tan Dun: Marco Polo - An Opera Within an Opera [Blu-ray]

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Charles Workman, Sarah Castle, Stephen Richardson, and Nancy Allen Lundy star in this production of the Tan Dun opera with the composer conducting the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and Cappella Amsterdam.


After an absence of just more than a decade, Marco Polo, Tan Dun's first opera, returned in 2008 to the Netherlands Opera in a new staging and production. The opera, which had its premiere at the Münchener Biennale in 1996, won the Grawemeyer Award in 1998 and helped secure Tan Dun's rise to worldwide recognition.

Setting a libretto by Paul Griffiths and labeled "an opera within an opera," Marco Polo takes a highly symbolic, multi-level, introspective approach to its subject, rather than attempting a literal representation. The protagonist himself is presented in two simultaneous aspects -- Marco, the physical, active side of the character, and Polo, the character's memory and intellectual self. Other characters include the element Water (who serves as something of a love interest for Polo), Kublai Kahn and three ghosts. The first ghost primarily appears as Rustichello, the scribe to whom the historical Marco Polo dictated his travels. He also represents the Chinese poet Li Po. Ghost 2 appears as Sheherazada, Gustav Mahler and the Empress of China. Ghost 3 manifests himself primarily as Dante but also as Shakespeare. Three simultaneous journeys are occurring in this opera -- a physical journey from Venice to China; a journey through musical styles of medieval Europe through the Middle East, India, the Himalayas and finally China; and a spiritual journey of self-discovery and of the three aspects of time (past, present and future).

As a person who began life in the Hunan district of China, survived the Cultural Revolution and has lived since the mid-1980s in New York City, Tan Dun acknowledges that his own experience of multiculturalism has added an autobiographical reference to Marco Polo. His training in the folk traditions of Chinese music, his work in the Peking Opera and his education in advanced Western classical music have all become internalized and melded into a style uniquely his own, embracing the music of many cultures.

Pierre Audi, who shows a deep understanding both of the opera itself and of his specific team, directs this colorful new production of Marco Polo with great flair. His vision is convincing and powerful. Special praise must go to designers Jean Kalman and Elsa Ejchenrand, whose sets and lighting make highly imaginative use of the entire stage.

The cast for this production is close to ideal. All the roles require singers with a command of an enormous vocal tessitura, and all the performers here make their music sound natural and effortless. A veteran performer in the Kunqu opera tradition (which predates Peking opera style), Zhang Jun as Ghost 1 has the most athletic requirements of all the performers. He is onstage for virtually the entire opera, often dancing as well as singing. Additionally, he serves as a narrator for the physical journey being enacted. His character can be said to be the soul of the opera. His performance is quite moving and charismatic. Charles Workman gives a compelling interpretation of Polo. His is an intensely emotional role to play, and Workman proves fully convincing in it. Sarah Castle does well in the more supporting role of Marco. As Water, Nancy Allen Lundy is enthralling. Tania Kross makes an enchanting Sheherazada, a believable Gustav Mahler and a warm-hearted Empress. Stephen Richardson is appropriately commanding as Kublai Kahn and most impressive near the end of the opera, when he finally gets an extended aria. As Ghost 3, Stephen Bryant, the only carryover from the earlier cast, shows a dazzling mastery of vocal techniques.

Marco Polo is one of Tan Dun's most inspired, successful and spectacular efforts. For those new to his artistry, this DVD would make a fabulous introduction. For those who already enjoy the composer's work, this release will be a benchmark for years to come. -- Opera News, Arlo McKinnon, October 2009

Special Features

  • Sung mostly in English, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch
  • Illustrated synopsis
  • Cast gallery
  • The Music of Tomorrow: A documentary by Reiner E. Moritz, including interviews with the creative team and principal members of the cast

Product Details

  • Actors: Charles Workman, Sarah Castle, Stephen Richardson, Nancy Allen Lundy
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Classical, Color, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English (PCM Stereo), English (PCM Surround)
  • Subtitles: Dutch, English, French, Italian, Spanish, German
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Opus Arte
  • DVD Release Date: June 30, 2009
  • Run Time: 156 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0025XW968
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #204,876 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Richard on July 7, 2009
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
Richard Wagner envisioned the theater of the future as a coming together of all the different arts. Certainly for Wagner as for most other composers this ideal remains an ideal. Wagner may have brought together music, word and stagecraft but where is dance in his theater?
Marco Polo on the other hand seems just such a work where all the different arts work in harmony for the sake of the whole. Most operas use the words to convey the story. Not Marco Polo. The words are few and far between and they do not primarily carry the plot. For plot you have to look elsewhere - the words, the music, the choreography, the stagecraft, everything.
And for those of us accustomed to rather linear works Marco Polo poses some problems. It may be advisable to play the synopsis before jumping into the work. I preferred to jump in with no cheat sheets. It was hard at first but after a while I could follow the outline of the plot. I think I caught maybe 70% of what was happenning. And that is all right. Marco Polo is a strange and wonderful experience - just as the original story is.
The music as a blend of East and West. I was a little put off by the Chinese style of singing until I realized it wasn't so different from Western Baroque opera seria. Both styles put the singer's virtuosity first.
Is Marco Polo for everyone? Hardly. I have seen the three DVDs of Tan Dun operas and Marco seems the most difficult to comprehend. But it is a wonderful sound world and once you take it on its own terms rather than the expectation of what an opera should be it is quite a show.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Wilcox on September 1, 2009
Format: DVD
Tan Dun is probably known best for his film scores to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero". This DVD is a performance of his 1st opera. In "Marco Polo", the title character is actually played by two people: a woman plays the part of Marco, and a man plays the part of Polo. The piece transitions between a physical journey and a spiritual journey.

As the orchestra tunes, the players are already on the stage, with others approaching. The character Rustichello acts as a storyteller, and uses a sort of sing-speak method of telling his story. The music is a combination of traditional Oriental and avant-garde Western (modern classical). At one point, a sitarist and a tabla player join the actors onstage. The staging and costuming are bizarre, and complement the music well.

"Marco Polo" is very colorful and theatrical, like his opera "The First Emperor", which was a huge success when it premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007. Opus Arte DVDs (such as this one) usually contain an illustrated synopsis, which may be helpful prior watching the opera. A 25-minute documentary is also included, allowing the viewer to learn more about the composer, players and crew.

Tan Dun - The First Emperor (The Metropolitan Opera HD Live Series)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Erik C. Pihl on July 25, 2010
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
Tan Dun is arguably one of the most creative composers to come out of modern China. And in that coming out, he has not left his roots behind. This work is an early one, but stands the test of time very well. The production is remarkable for both the costumes and the stage sets. Certainly, a "must see" for modern opera lovers.
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By A. Lupu VINE VOICE on January 11, 2015
Format: Blu-ray Verified Purchase
I strongly advice viewers to watch the synopsis before the Opera itself (it's only about 8 minutes long). The synopsis actually would have been helpful part of the booklet, to facilitate a better understanding of the opera and its detailed symbolism.
The opera separates Marco Polo into two characters -- Marco is the external figure of the explorer sung by a mezzo-soprano, and Polo is his inner being including his memory sung by a tenor. They are united at the end of the Opera into one being. Other characters making appearances include Kublai Kahn, Dante, Shakespeare, Mahler and more. It makes for a symbolic/philosophical plot with many layers without strongly defined beginnings and ends.
Tan Dun, the composer, is more broadly known for the score of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, for which he won Academy and Grammy honors. His most recent opera “The First Emperor” debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.
The music of Marco Polo is a symbiosis of Chinese and Western Classical music. It is highly symbolic and requires focus while listening. For western audiences, not familiar with Chinese music and opera, it requires some effort, but once the essence of each scene is understood the music makes sense and it becomes part of the whole. When you watch this opera for the second time, as I did, it becomes immensely more familiar, interesting, and easy to enjoy.
The staging is somewhat overdone; the customs distract from the music and the meaning of each scene, themselves becoming the center of attention, which I don’t think is the purpose of the opera.
This opera is for explorers - those willing to learn and experience something different. I certainly enjoyed the experience.
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Tan Dun: Marco Polo - An Opera Within an Opera [Blu-ray]
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