Chinese opera

The Noble Choice (状元未了情)

Date: January 9, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

The Noble Choice.

Background. The Noble Choice is a cruel piece. From the get-go, the protagonist is thoroughly tormented: his benefactor brutally murdered, his wife taken away to slavery, and a dear confidante violated. On top of all, he is offered a Faustian bargain out of which he must make a choice. Yang Xuejun (杨雪筠), the center character, finds himself in this uncomfortable situation not long after he marries his childhood sweetheart, Tang Meifen (唐梅芬), whose father, the benefactor, has groomed and nurtured Yang since childhood. Before they even get to consummate their marriage, Yang is sent on a business trip by imperial command. During the trip, Tang’s father has been murdered, and Tang has been forcibly ushered into the palace to become an imperial maid. Upon inquiry, Yang finds out that the Emperor’s daughter, longing to have Yang as her consort, has been masterminding the series of events. At the critical juncture of this tragic drama, Yang is presented with these choices: marry the princess out of respect to sovereignty, or choose conscience and face the consequences, perhaps fatal, of disobedience.

Performance. Director Shi Yukun (石玉昆) uses small objects on stage not to dominate but to accentuate the flavors of the drama. At the opening of Act III, for example, a stone mill is presented on stage to convey the location of Tang’s new role as an imperial maid. The mill also provides a clever way for separating dueling actors narrating private thoughts to the audience, often with them standing on opposite sides and the oblivious party looking away from the narrator. Shi offers various expressive delights, including the scene where a devilish eavesdropper is to shatter what remains of Yang’s escape chances. The eavesdropper hides behind an archway throughout Yang’s tell-all dialogue with Tang, and only places a leg under the archway and shows his face for a brief second or two, with the spot light on cue, at the very end of that dialogue, as if on cue in a Hitchcock thriller. By then, the audience knows that Yang’s fate is sealed, and is left to wonder not whether there will be a happy ending but whether such situation — entirely believable as it is — will ever happen to them.

The story’s tragedy beauty centers around the interplay between innocent love’s purity and villainous power’s insensitivity, with the former slowly but surely defiled by the latter. Xiao Ya (萧雅) enters her second night of performance at Changan with a searing portrayal of Yang, embroiled in the middle of this turmoil and obligated to decide what to do with his life. Wu Caihong (吴彩虹) adds plenty of dramatic heft to the production by portraying a sensual Tang, who caps the drama of the evening with her scathing indictment of authority and life’s betrayal. Set to buoyant music, Wu and Xiao team up in Act I to deliver a lyrical love duet:

竹青青带雪翠,梅幽幽望春归。心心相印情意深,天长地久永相随 / “As snow flakes adorn green bamboo shoots, plum blossoms silently await the return of spring. Our hearts attached and our love resonated, we shall stand forever at each other’s shadow.”

Here, still unbeknownst to the imminent tragedy, the two characters sing to a life of passion and happiness together. The same verses are repeated at the very end of the opera, albeit set to a much darker, somber melody, in a sarcastic attempt to contrast a life that was and a life that shall be. Zhang Yingchao (张颖超), playing Tang’s chambermaid and the dear confidante, steals the show by exemplifying the psyche of this drama: seamless alternation between an innocent teenage playfulness and a stubborn resolve even as she is swirled by fate into the tragedy. Her sweet, melodic voice and a fine, pacifying timbre provide her with the right tools to make her character as believable as she is.

This cross-road as collision course puts the innocence of a powerless individual against the domineering, insensitive might of feudal power, and sets the stage for drawing a line between what an individual can overcome and what one shall not be transgressed. Between yesterday’s Interrogating and today’s Choice, the theme is unmistakable: given the power that be, what to do?

Chinese opera

What Up, and Where You At? (盘妻索妻)

Date: January 8, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. If your wife tells you that you ain’t gonna consummate your marriage until three years after your nuptial — and later reveals that she also plans to kill your parents — the first word that comes to your mind is probably not “reconciliation”. But this is Chinese opera, and reconciliation is exactly what Liang Yushu (梁玉书) seeks in front of his ill-intentioned wife, Xie Yunxia (谢云霞). Xie is the orphaned daughter of parents who were brutally murdered by a corrupt imperial chancellor and his wife. When Xie realizes that the chancellor is Liang’s father, she coldly distances from Liang but plans to use the marriage as a stepping stone for carrying out her deadly revenge. Clueless about his father’s murderous past and eager to find out the reason behind Xie’s sudden apathy, Liang interrogates Xie until he gets to the truth, to which he sympathizes. They reconcile, but when Liang returns after a trip to Beijing, he finds not only that a secret order to have Xie’s head has been issued by his father but also that Xie has left with the presumption that Liang has divulged to his father her identity and intentions. After a frenetic search, Liang finds Xie and maintains his innocence. After reconciling once more and then concluding that earthly revenge is not worth their time and effort, they elope together, away from a heartless and corrupting society.

Performance. Playing the male character of Liang is Ms. Xiao Ya (萧雅), a Plum Blossom prize winner and a top student of Yue master Yin Guifang (尹桂芳), whose style, among others, focuses on rhythmizing and then melodizing spoken narratives. Interrogating and Searching for the Wife (my lousy translation of the opera’s Chinese title, but at least more proper than “What Up, and Where You At?”) provides plenty of opportunity to display Yin’s style as the characters move from spoken dialogues to rhythmized dialogues and then to fully melodized delivery. During the nuptial, Xiao sings with a boyish innocence and a tender sweetness:

洞房悄悄静幽幽,. 花烛高烧暖心头 / “In the bridal chamber we find serenity; as the nuptial candle burns, my heart melts.” (video)

The same passage ends with a dramatic interjection, 娘子呀/ “My dear wife!”, which brings pandemonium to the entire theatre. And when Liang becomes baffled by Xie’s sudden apathy, he laments:

夫妻祸福应相共,生生死死在一起 / “A couple shall share happiness and worries, together as one whole, alive or dead.” (video)

陈歆 (Chen Xin), playing Xie, sounds tired and wobbles a few notes, including in the aria after the two reconcile for the first time, when she yearns for Liang’s return from Beijing. Her makeup is thick and, in my opinion, slightly overdone – her plump red lips are way too dramatic and glamorous, thereby discounting her believability as a mourning daughter. Nevertheless, she is a revelation when she delivers a searing indictment of the corrupt Liang family.

盘妻索妻: Inside the bridal chamber.

盘妻索妻: the piece is famous for using synthesizer music.

盘妻索妻: encore by Xiao Ya (萧雅).

Footnote: The story, as it is, ends without accounting for whether or not the villainous Liang clan gets punished for their atrocities unleashed — this ending is deemed by many modern commentators to be the author’s sarcastic commentary of unchecked political power vis-a-vis a disillusioned populace. Nevertheless, the night ends on a high note when Xiao takes a solo curtain call to thank the audience for braving a relentless Beijing weather to fill the seats, and then proceed to sing three encores, including an elegant 月亮走我也走, Xiao’s signature pop number.

Orchestral music

LPO/Eschenbach Day 2: Folklores, tales

Date: January 6, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

If Day 1 focused on a natural world with hints of the supernatural, then Day 2 gravitates towards the telling of stories and the interpretation of ideas. The LPO/Eschenbach lovefest continues at the NCPA, with Eschenbach conducting a night of program music: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, Stravinsky’s (1919) Firebird Suite, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

In Romeo and Juliet, Eschenbach brings the image of Shakespeare’s feud of the Montagues and Capulets to the NCPA’s concert hall by unleashing undulating strings and roaring brass – the composer’s tools for describing not only the fervent emotions of the two young lovers but the turbulence of the two families. In the coda, the timpani leads the funeral march with haunting authority, and ends the piece with a heart-aching drum roll that seemingly crystallizes the inevitability…of death.

While I am captivated by R&J, my reaction to the Firebird is less enthusiastic. Eschenbach’s problem begins right from the beginning, when the all-important double bass intro sounds muffled and lackluster. The more I listen, the more it sounds like music about a procrastinating duck in a wet summer afternoon than a majestic firebird in a heroic fantasy. Stravinsky’s orchestral brilliance seems suppressed until perhaps the Lullaby, but by then I am lost. The audience remains generous, rewarding Eschenbach with two calls to the podium before intermission.

After the intermission, Eschenbach continues with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, when the Maestro looses his baton in favor of bare hands. The third piece, Little Ugly Girl, captivates the audience with a mischievous melody in a familiar pentatonic scale as well as tamtam splashes that add plenty of velvety richness. But the highlight belongs to an astoundingly beautiful Schiedmayer celesta, whose soft, exquisite timbre adds a foliated sweetness to the motherly warmth of the nourishing strings section.

Anchoring two days of spectacular performance is Francesca da Rimini, where Eschenbach and the musicians seem most musically determined and alert. The moral tragedy of Francesca, immortalized in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, is ushered in through the mastery of Eschenbach’s intense direction. Francesca, who was caught flinging with her husband’s brother, is condemned to death together with the brother. The music becomes a canvas for their damnation, in an intense series of music themes that oscillate between retelling joyous embraces of the past and foretelling the inexorable road to perdition. Here, Eschenbach deftly showcases this unique paradigm of romantic music with a boisterous fanfare in one minute, followed by subdued contemplation in the next. Immaculate cymbal work captures the fragmenting reality of yet another pair of doom-bound lovers, and marks the end of two days of excellent music making.

A poster at the NCPA, with Eschenbach getting light-sabered.

Footnote: This is Eschenbach at his best. In my opinion, the Maestro is my favorite interpreter – still alive today – of the late romantic period/impressionist/early 20th century music, next to or even on par with my much beloved but ailing Maestro Sawallisch. Eschenbach’s Francesca is the case in point: the intense ferocity and mellow grace embellishing the embrace and separation of the doomed lovers are tightly interwoven into one coherent fabric of vivid romanticism. I hope Eschenbach will return to Beijing soon.

Orchestral music

LPO/Eschenbach Day 1: Dvořák 8, 9

Date: January 5, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Antonín Dvořák wrote his Ninth symphony while visiting America, in the late 19th century. He was quoted as saying, in writing the piece, he drew much inspiration from and often alluded to the colors and textures of Native American music. Even though modern scholars have since analytically concluded – rightly or wrongly – that those textures are more attributable to Dvorak’s native land of Bohemia than to the American Midwest, a heavy handed usage of themes that evoke rolling landscapes and pastures, wherever they may be, is unmistakable.

This evening, Maestro Christoph Eschenbach highlights those themes with long, sweeping phrases, as if he were directing slow-moving herds in an Albert Bierstadt landscape of rolling hills and gentle mist. In the Largo movement, Eschenbach leads at a contemplative, measured pace, and yields plenty of maneuvering room for the much-beloved English horn solo. It is in this movement that the audience is transported into a pastoral where sandalwood-infused smoke from cottage chimneys dances into a lethargic evening. This pastoral silence is impregnated by scattered applauses soon after the final note in the second movement: that, though normally considered to be a serious faux pas in the parlance of proper concert hall manners, is not entirely inconsistent with the piece’s history: at the world premiere of the Ninth, each movement was greeted with such rapturous applause that Dvorak had to turn and take a bow. Moving on, the third movement is by comparison a little prosaic, but provides the necessary springboard to the empowering fourth movement, which is marked with such spiritual force that I wonder if the ceiling of the hall would finally crack open to give way to plenty of celestial radiance.

Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and the Eighth fill out the rest (or first-half) of the evening’s program. Eschenbach, together with the London Phil, delivers a Carnival Overture that is lively and feisty, while their Eighth, especially the first movement, is idyllic and cheery. The sequence of birdcalls and woodland voices knits nicely into yet another bucolic imagery. The strong brass section in the fourth movement brings much warmth to an audience who has to cut through an unrelenting, -15 degrees Celsius weather to get to the Egg – in one of Beijing’s coldest winters on record – to kick off the NCPA’s 2010 spring season with style and class.

LPO with Eschenbach at the NCPA.

LPO with Eschenbach.

LPO with Eschenbach

The Egg is covered with snow.

Footnote: Given the prohibitive weather, I give much credit to a well-behaved audience who definitely managed to control their coughs and sneezes well – perhaps in huge deference to the maestro and the incredible musicians of LPO. The only major blemish of the evening, notwithstanding the applause between the second and the third movements in the Ninth, occurred when some idiot decided it was high time to picnic – and for nearly 8 seconds he was trying to open what seemed like a bag of potato chips…during the second movement of the Ninth…during the English horn solo! And that idiot, sitting in the first row of the left dress circle, had the balls to do just that, not merely in front of a capacity audience but in front of Wu Yi, a former Vice Premier and an avid classical music fan, who was sitting in the first parterre row, just a few seats in front of mine and about 10 meters away from that idiot. I swear Wu heard the ruffling of the bag and reacted with a slight body movement. For a second or two, I drifted away from Dvorak’s dreamscape, and imagined how wicked cool it would be if heaven actually opened in the fourth movement, sending down a bunch of manner police to teach that idiot when not to ruffle open a bag of chips.

Chinese opera

Unicorn Purse (锁麟囊)

Date: January 3, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. A unicorn purse is a bag of matrimonial jewelry gifted to the bride by the mother of the bride in ancient China to bring her fertility. Unicorn Purse, the Beijing opera, refers to a dramatic comedy about Xue Xiangling (薛湘灵), a well-to-do bride whose fate takes a wrong turn when a flood wipes out her wealth and possessions. Worse, she becomes separated from her family and, facing homelessness she resorts to seeking refuge at a rich family in a town nearby. In a comedic turnabout, the matriarch of the rich family is Zhao Shoujing (赵守贞), whose fortune has been built on top of the treasures in a unicorn purse, which was given to her, in her most impoverish days, by an anonymous donor. That anonymous donor, of course, is Xue. Zhao would eventually restore Xue’s good fortunes in a happy ending. In short, the story extols the virtues of doing good.

Performance. Zhao is portrayed adequately by Lu Tong (鲁彤), who delivers a splendid top vocal range but lacks dramatic weight relative to her peers. Huang Baixue (黄柏雪) brings plenty of comedy as he plays Mei Xiang (梅香), a female chou character who brings down the house with plenty of modern-day references, including “I’ll go online now” after she is dismissed by her master, and a reference to “January 3, 2010” as she marks the date when Xue and Zhao reconcile.

But the night belongs to Guo Wei (郭伟). She plays Xue Xiangling, a character most definitively portrayed by Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋) and his students. Guo, following Cheng’s traditions, renders a somber, pensive figure whose heart-warming magnanimity is well veiled behind a languishing melancholy. Her starkly-drawn eye brows and pin-pointedly attentive eyes lend dramatic credence to her naive, porcelain face. My heart aches just to see her Xue overwhelmed by, even if merely for a small section of 2.5-hour drama, an unrelenting force of misfortune. Her interjection:

苦哇——- / “What tormenting life….”

is vocally dramatic and sensually mesmerizing. Given that Changan’s audience is quite possibly the stingiest in Chinese opera, the intervening round of thunderous applause is a testament to Guo’s stature as a flag-bearing authority of Cheng’s artistry. Granted, when she navigates her carriage through the storm (in which she would meander across the stage with two poles, one on each side of her body to signify a wheeled carriage), she reminds me of a kindergartener encircling the play room in a toy Buick – a far cry from Zhang Huoding (张火丁)’s fluidic motions of aerodynamic clarity and expansive elliptical beauty. Zhang, a few years Guo’s senior, is considered to be a leading performer in the Cheng mold. But with Zhang and many others in the Cheng clan now retired or soon retiring from performing, and with Guo getting more commercial bookings, I won’t be too surprised if Guo (33 years old this year) will soon be recognized as a leading source of Cheng’s artistry.

Unicorn Purse: curtain call.

Guo Wei (郭伟).

Chinese opera

River Lookout (望江亭)

Date: January 2, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. River Lookout, written by playwright Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), is basically a comedy drama featuring plenty of witty and verbal interlocutions. It details the story of Tan Jier (谭记儿), who has been hiding inside a Taoist Abbey to avoid an unsolicited paramour. One day she meets Bai Shizhong (白士中), the nephew of the abbey’s leader. They instantly fall in love, elope but run into the fury of the paramour, the aristocrat Yang Yanei (杨衙内), who obtains forged imperial documents seeking his competition’s — i.e. Bai’s — head. Furthermore, he manages to smuggle from the Imperial Palace a gold medallion which allows him to take anybody’s head — in this case, Bai’s. Upon learning of Yang’s murderous plans, Tan dresses as a fisherman at the River Lookout, gets Yang drunk, and steals from Yang the forged documents and the golden medallion. When Yang’s atrocious plan is finally unveiled, Yang is thoroughly embarrassed and disgraced, while Bai and Tan live happily ever after.

Performance. Tan Jier is a character full of vivacity and wit, and is most famously portrayed by the Zhang-clan (张派), which combines the velvet luxury of Mei (梅) and the fluidity of Cheng (程), and favors an agile coloratura delivery. The artistry of the Zhang-clan is best represented by none other than Wang Rongrong (王蓉蓉), an exhilarating performer whom I’ve seen a few times last year: as 武则天, as 吕雉 in 《下鲁城》 and as 阿庆嫂 in 《沙家浜》. The evening hits a number of euphoric highs, including a spectacular series of top notes in “见狂徒不由我怒满胸怀” / “Ablazed with anger when I the maniac encounter” and “妾身自有锦囊计,管叫他海底捞月空自欺” / “your wife has the perfect plan, to foil his and his self-serving delusions” (my translations). When Bai first runs into Tan at the abbey, Tan expresses her affection for Bai with a subtle poem:

愿把春情寄落花,随风冉冉到天涯。君能识破凤兮句,去妇当归卖酒家。/ “My love shall etch with falling flowers, which shall flutter to the end of the world. If sire can decipher this poem, yours truly shall follow.”

When the first word of each verse is put together, a phrase reads: 愿随君去 / “I shall follow you, sire.” Ecstatic over Tan’s response, Bai reverberates with an equally crafty missive:

当垆卓女艳如花,不负琴心走天涯。负却今朝花底约,卿须怜我尚无家。/ “She is gifted as she is ethereally beautiful, but does not mind traveling with the poor scholar. The lady shall have pity on this sire.”

Without delving too deeply into the historical context, the response smartly echoes the historical context brought forth by Tan’s. More significantly, the first words of the verses read: 当不负卿 / “I shall never let you down”. This poetic interchange basically sums up to an ancient analogy of a girl’s “Yes I do” after a guy’s proposal, followed by the guy’s promise of “I won’t let you down”.

Wang’s performance lights up the house, which evidently includes a lot of her rabid fans. Time and again the whole crowd stands on its feet, roaring with approval and completely awed by Wang’s vocal agility and dramatic acuity. Bao Fei (包飞) delivers a strong performance as Bai, although he sounds overwhelmed especially when juxtaposed against Wang’s much more powerful, confident voice. Yang is played by Sun Zhen (孙震), a fine, young actor with plenty of comedic genes who brings down the house with his recitative in the penultimate scene. The imperial symbol is signified in this production by a sword instead of a gold medallion. Depending on the troupe or the literature source, one may find different objects used as this imperial symbol, but that’s a minor detail that hardly gets in the way of the story flow.

The only letdown of the evening is perhaps the lack of a second – and, in my opinion, very much deserved – curtain call. This oversight is partially due to the end time (just after 10pm) and much of the crowd shooting for the nearest exit in a snowing evening in Beijing. Regardless, this wonderful performance marks a great start to my 2010 season, which hopefully will be just as good as, if not better than, 2009’s. Happy new year to all!!!

River Lookout: lookout scene, with Yang piss drunk on the floor and Tan readying her get-away.

River Lookout: curtain call, with Yang (played by Sun), Tan (Wang), and Bai (Bao).

Chinese opera

Stop the Horse (挡马)

Date: January 2, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. Set in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD), “Stop the Horse” retells the story of Yang (杨八姐), who disguises herself as a young man and penetrates into enemy territory (Liao Empire) to gather military intelligence. On her return, she chances upon Jiao Guangpu (焦光普), a seemingly shoddy hotel owner who salivates over one of Yang’s possessions — an entry permit to the Song Empire. The two would then fight for it before the two reconcile through verbal probing: Jiao realizes that Yang, the spy, is more than just a cross-border merchant, while Yang realizes that Jiao is actually a former general of the Song Empire who was once captured by the Liaos, has since managed to escape, but had difficulty returning to Song because he changed his name (while on the run) and lost all his entry papers. After the reconciliation, the two make their way back to the Song Empire. “Stopping the Horse” refers to the initial chance encounter between Yang and Jiao.

Performance. “Stop the Horse” is a martial arts-heavy “operetta” between Yang and Jiao, played respectively by two veteran performers from the Beijing Opera Troupe: Wang Xiaoli (王晓丽) and Ye Jiangxiang (叶江翔), with Wang being a student of a prim lineage of Beijing opera masters: Xie Ruiqing (谢锐青), and Wang Yaoqing (王瑶卿). Using an open stage, the two engage in nearly fifteen minutes of non-stop, jaw-dropping martial arts combat. Two stage props, a table and a chair, are used not only to depict Jiang’s hotel but as, before the two characters finally reconcile, improvised shields for Jiao while Yang’s sword aggressively pursues. To be sure, this “operetta”, being less than half an hour long, is scheduled as a filler to open the evening’s main performance: River Lookout. Nevertheless, the martial arts are impressive, bringing much-needed energy to an audience that seems still recovering from the party on New Year’s Eve.

Stop the Horse.