Marco Polo

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Composer: Tan Dun

Libretto: Paul Griffiths

First Produced: Munich, 1996

Present Company: The Netherlands Opera, 2008

Director: Pierre Audi

Set & Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman

Costume Designer: Angelo Figus

Choreographer: Nanine Linning

Film Director: Misjel Vermerien

Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

Capella Amsterdam

Conductor: Tan Dun


Polo: Charles Workman

Marco: Sarah Castle 

Rustichello/Li Po: Zhang Jun

Kublai Khan: Stephen Richardson 

Water: Nancy Allen Lundy

Queen/ Sheherazada/Mahler: Tania Kross 

Dante/Shakespeare: Stephen Bryant

Chinese/Arabian dancer: Mu Na



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 37.37 GB

Bit Rate: High (30-42 Mbps)

English LPCM 5.0

English LPCM 2.0

Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian, Dutch & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 123 minutes

Opus Arte 2010



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A+

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A+

Video Direction: A-

Image: A-

Audio: A

Extras Features: A

Recommendation: A


Tan Dun is, for us in the West, the most widely recognized composer from China.  He was born in Hunan province and studied music in Beijing with Toru Takemitsu, among others,  and moved to the U.S. in his twenties to study at Columbia, where he came under the influence of Varèse, Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich.  Tan is one of the few composers of opera still living whose works outlive their initial performance. Adams and Glass come to mind as other examples.  He is more popularly known for his film scores, notably for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.


Marco Polo was his first opera, completed in 1995 and given its premiere the following year in Munich.  The present production was mounted in Amsterdam in 2008.  The libretto by Paul Griffiths is in English and is one of the few things obviously Western about the opera.  The rest is a conscious effort to integrate styles from East and West.  It is highly symbolic and metaphorical with movement and tableaux central to its being.  Melody, as we generally think of it, is less important than sound, with words generously inflected for their effect and color as much as for their dramatic implications.  At times we have the impression that each syllable has a life of its own.  Instrumental forces include recognizable parts of the modern symphony orchestra (though not nearly as large), a modified piano, pipa (a traditional Chinese lutelike instrument, more percussive and yet more expressive), sitar, tabla, sheng (a Chinese multihorn reed instrument) and Tibetan horns and bells.  There are seven vocal soloists, one of whom - in this production at least - is an accomplished gymnast; a solo dancer; and an onstage chorus.


Marco Polo is about coming together: Yin and Yang/East and West/journey and home/left and right hemispheres/music and dance/time and space.  Several of the the actor/singers play more than one person or different aspects of the same person, each more or less with their own vocal style.  By the end of the opera, there is a resolution of identity, of goals and needs, particularly in the case of Marco Polo, who is rendered by two actors: Polo, a tenor (Charles Workman), the hardened man, and Marco, a mezzo soprano (Sarah Castle), who is the voice of Marco’s memory and, in some ways more alive.  While Kublai Khan, a bass (Stephen Richardson) is always the emperor, he doesn’t seem to get settled until the end.  The exception to the dual nature of actor/character is Water, a soprano, who sings in a very high tessitura (Nancy Allen Lundy) and who remains a constant.  As you might imagine, Water has a very special relationship to Polo, since he cannot do without her for a number of obvious reasons.


Tan’s one-act opera is introduced, commented on and narrated by Rustichello, an historical person responsible for most of what we know of the famous traveler, having written his autobiography while they were in prison together in Genoa not long after Polo’s return from China. Rustichello is played, acted, danced and sung by the remarkable Zhang Jun, known in China for his performance in and promotion of the “mother of all opera”: the 600 year old Kunqu.

The opera begins after the actors march out onto stage and take their places at the court of Kublai Khan.  It starts in its own time without a downbeat.  (In fact, there seems to be little if any visible communication between stage and conductor.) Rustichello utters the first phrase ”As the Book of Timespace opens” and our journey wanders though one of the strangest stage works you’ve ever seen or heard. Rustichello says that what we are about to see is in the tradition of “Peking Opera” - as interpreted by Tan Dun, Stafe Director Pierre Audi, Set & Lighting Designer Jean Kalman, Costume Designer Angelo Figus, and Choreographer Nanine Linning.


To say much more I think intellectualizes the experience, which is easy to fall into (Opus Arte’s Synopsis distills the story to just such a point) but which I want to avoid, so what little I have said will have to suffice.  In respect to the “plot” your best introduction to its understanding is to be found in Reiner E. Moritz’ excellent bonus feature titled, somewhat presumptuously “The Music of Tomorrow.”  In this 25-minute documentary, we meet the Dalai Lama, sorry, Tan Dun (whose temperament puts me in mind of His Holiness) who guides his musicians and singers through virtually every aspect of performance.  It’s a sight to behold.  Tan is calm, yet full of humor, loving yet firm - the very embodiment of what his opera is about: synthesis, peace, connection, enabling.  We can assume the man has already made his personal journey through pain and conflict.  He engages his players, at times specifically for our benefit, at other times for the instruction of colleagues.  His very manner invites them and us to indulge his uniquely foreign opera - foreign, that is, if your diet has consisted of Puccini, Verdi, Mozart and Wagner.


The composer is aided in the bonus feature by his various designers. I particularly liked the segment with Choreographer Nanine Linning and Chinese dancer Mu Na, who explain how traditional elements are integrated with the modern and with this production. There’s a great deal to consider, none of it in isolation.  Zhang Jun comments that he is not entirely happy with his makeup, which he he feels suggests a character different from how he sees it.  I noticed that the costumes are remarkable for two reasons: their use of saturated primary colors, especially blue and red, and the general lack of natural fabrics, especially in the many and varied capes of all the performers. Styofoam figures prominently, in the sets as well.  Moritz’ documentary is unusual in its temperament and focus, even as it covers much the same ground as many others before and since.  However, missing is a discussion, preferably with the librettist himself, of his collaboration with the composer.  Just so, it appears that Mr. Moritz is becoming Opus Arte’s go-to author of background material.  He does good work.  You should watch this before you do the opera.


Video & Audio

Opus Arte once again grants considerable space to what other studios would be content to squeeze onto a single-layered disc.  Nearly 40 GB for a mere two-hour opera!  Almost unheard of - though it shouldn’t have to be so uncommon, considering the demands on video and audio.  Jean Kalman’s generally very dark sets and striking lighting encompasses far more dynamic range than today’s HD-video sensors can accommodate, yet somehow we are not distressed.  Hot lighting does not gauge the eye, and dark rocky areas do not demand more shadow detail.  That said, the start of the opera does invite us to question the lighting, since only the figures are lit.  We soon see that this is common in the opera in order to spotlight the characters.  When needed, props such as long staffs are well-lit, and morph into familiar structures, in one instance, the Himalayas.  Colors are well-saturated or brilliant as demanded, and there appears to be no transfer issues.  Movement across the screen with my OPPO BDP-95 is flawless.


There is less difference between the stereo and surround mixes here than for other Blu-ray opera I have come across.  This is all the stranger when you consider how expansive the ideas in the piece are.  I’m not saying I’m disappointed that the surrounds aren’t taken more advantage of than they are, merely that I am surprised.  The surround is more open, which is helpful when the texture is busy, while stereo is just a wee but more dynamic and textured.  “Dynamic” is the key word here, for I doubt you will run across an opera with as much silence or as subtle a score, especially in the whisperings of the text.  See if you can make out the delicate shadings of handheld bowls that are set into sonic motion by a gentle, persistent rubbing their edges.  Elsewhere, the text is hooted, hummed, spoken, squealed, semi-traditionally sung or with overtone singing (which Kublai Khan’s Stephen Richardson describes and demonstrates in the bonus piece.)  The orchestra is used largely for percussive effect even when it isn’t banging about.  It’s all very colorful and Opus Arte’s rendering is up to the task.



Your initial reaction to Marco Polo is that it might seem quite alien, especially if you listen to nothing more recent than Richard Strauss.  Everything about the opera is unusual and it may take some minutes to get into its world.  My advice is to avoid being concerned about the metaphysics or its “intended” meaning.  The text, as much as anything else, is remote and difficult to grasp even with subtitles, which, by the way, you will almost certainly require.  Place your fate in Tan Dun’s hands and in the uniformly brilliant performers on stage and in the pit.  Notice the forest. The trees will take care of themselves.  The first time through try not to think about what you see and hear, but rather let the overall effect sink in as if massaged.  Forget the message.  It will come to you.  Recommended.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

July 2, 2012

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