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Review: The Rare Problem of a New Opera That’s Too Short

When a new opera has a promising but not entirely successful first performance, its length is often the main problem. Too long, I mean.

Huang Ruo’s “An American Soldier” was the rare exception: a premiere that felt too short. It was introduced as an hourlong chamber work in 2014, but the creators were urged to flesh it out. An expanded, two-hour, fully orchestrated version had a triumphant premiere last summer.

Mr. Huang might consider similarly expanding his 45-minute chamber opera “Bound,” being presented through Thursday at the Baruch Performing Arts Center by the center and Fresh Squeezed Opera. As it is, too much remains unclear about important relationships in the piece, and too many motivations unexplored.

Like “An American Soldier,” this work, from 2014, is based on a true story: Diane Tran, a 17-year-old honor student in Houston, was jailed overnight in 2012 for truancy; balancing her heavy school workload and the two jobs she took to help her family, she had missed some classes. During a post-performance talk on Monday, Mr. Huang explained that he was drawn to Ms. Tran’s story for what it revealed about the often-overlooked struggles of second-generation immigrants, trying to meet their parents’ expectations while trying to become fully Americanized.

With a libretto by the poet Bao-Long Chu, “Bound” opens with the humiliated Diane (the intensely expressive soprano Fang-Tao Jiang) enduring her sleepless night in jail. She plaintively calls to her absent mother, trying to understand how a good student struggling to support her younger brothers could have come to this moment.

In Ashley Tata’s effectively simple production, Stephan Moravski’s set suggests the dry-cleaning store where Diane works, with an array of shirts on hangers dangling from above and a long blue table for conducting business. We see Diane at the store, berated by her gruff boss (the baritone Andrew Wannigman) and forced to choose between opening the store and a chemistry test. (Other girls, she observes, struggle with whether or not to kiss a boy, or what dress to wear for junior prom.)

The story shifts back to her cell, where her mother (the formidable mezzo-soprano Guang Yang) seems to appear and sings a fitful monologue about ghosts that haunt: the parents and siblings she left in Vietnam, horrific memories of war, the ancient ancestors she feels she’s betrayed. In the final scene, a by-the-book judge (the stentorian bass-baritone Daniel Klein) decides to teach Diane a lesson and send her to jail.

The score is the strong point of “Bound.” Though many composers meld Asian and Western elements in their music, Mr. Huang does so with such confidence and elegance that you hardly notice the mingling. His is a distinctive voice, spiked by cluster-like harmonies, at once piercing and ethereal, and squiggly rhythmic riffs. Played here in an arrangement for 10 instruments, including Chinese pipa (conducted surely by Alex Wen), the instrumental sounds suggest the heaving, pummeling emotional subtext of the story, as the characters sing Mr. Huang’s urgent vocal lines, shifting from dramatic exhortation to moments of poignant lyrical reflection.

The creators of “Bound” seem to have wanted to keep the work a little vague and open to interpretation, and for Diane to seem emblematic of many young people from struggling immigrant families. But I wanted to know more. And as presented here, the mother’s lament seemed self-indulgent. If she’s so guilt-ridden about leaving her family in Vietnam, why is she not dedicating herself more deeply to her daughter? Diane mourns her mother’s absence. But is this absence emotional or actual?

The real Ms. Tran’s parents were divorced and no longer lived near her; at the time she was jailed, Ms. Tran was staying with a family that owned a wedding space where she worked on weekends. The opera’s audience doesn’t need such detail. But there was too much missing in what the opera presents as a central relationship between mother and daughter. And Diane’s boss seems almost a caricature.

Even in this version, “Bound” drew me in. But it could be so much more.

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