Judith Weir's ``A Night at the Chinese Opera'' never stoops to the banality of Hollywood music clich'es. There's not a hint of a Charlie Chan movie score here. Miss Weir avoids formulaic Chinese writing - five-tone scales, squawky oboes, whole-tone clusters, and so on. Instead, her orchestration suggests how China might sound to a westerner. She also uses the orchestration to draw a distinction between the main action of the opera (Acts I and III) and the opera within the opera (Act II). Hence, the violin and cello sections remain silent throughout Act II. (``Their sounds are too resonant for a true Chinese instrumental ensemble,'' she writes in the program booklet.)
Weir uses a countertenor in the role of Military Governor, the character who personifies evil in this adaptation of a Yuan dynasty play. It's a clever move, since the text (which Weir wrote) points out that evil sometimes masquerades in rather attractive forms. As sung by Michael Chance, the Military Governor's Act I aria was the musical highlight of this always tuneful work. (One of the delights of the opera is its consistent melodiousness.)
The cast on the whole was excellent, although Tomos Ellis, as Nightwatchman, had faulty diction. But Andrew Parrott conducted the intriguing score with great verve.