Fairy Couple (天仙配)

Date: May 24, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. The seven daughters of heaven travel to middle earth in search of lovers. The youngest daughter soon falls in love with Dong Yong (董永), a poor lad who enslaves himself to three years of servitude in order to pay for his parents’ funeral. After the daughter marries Dong, she buys Dong Yong’s freedom by weaving, with some heavenly help, 10 scrolls of silk quilts in one evening. Heavenly father soon finds out about this forbidden matrimony, and forces the two lovers to separate. At separation, the daughter laments: “来年春暖花开日, 槐荫树下把子交 / in the spring of next year, return to the tree under which we are married to find your son” – a poetic phrase that has become a symbol of Huangmei tragedy.

Performance. Playing the role of the youngest daughter is Plummie Winner Li Wen (李文). At 42, Li was not, at the surface the most ideal actress to play the role of the youngest sister – her older sisters on stage looked and were probably at least a decade younger than Li. But to declare that Li was unsuitable for the role was as ridiculous as calling Deborah Voigt too fat for Ariadne. If anything, Li inhabited the role with aplomb – her first stage entrance revealed an innocent teenager with such a natural playfulness that cloaked her real age. Her mastery of the role became obvious when she danced in a pas de sept in the first act (of six) with her six sisters: as the seven sisters moved in synchronized unison, Li’s movements were distinctly more fluid, with cleaner breaks separating one dance sequence from the other  than her counterparts. As she metamorphosed from an angel engineering her matrimony with Dong to a faux earthling serving her earthly husband, Li’s visage and body language adapted distinguishably from a prankish to a shy yet mature innocence – that shade of difference, albeit physically minute, conveyed a monumental switch in dramatic direction, and epitomized Li’s aptitude as a stage performer. In the role of Dong was top-class actor Yu Shun (余顺), who seemed to struggle at the beginning with a dry throat but recovered to deliver some juicy passages after intermission, including the famous line in which Dong lamented their inevitable separation: “从空降下无情剑 / the heartless sword befalls”.

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Footnote: The performance is part of a series of Chinese operas staged to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, to be commemorated on July 1, 2011.

Multimedia samples:

1. Yu Shun, as Dong and Wu Yaling (吴亚玲) as the sister. The sister tries to engineer their first rendezvous, while Dong narrates his background: 56.com video.

2. Plummie winner Han Zaifen (韩再芬) and Zhao Chun (赵纯), singing respectively the roles of the sister and Dong after they bought their freedom: Youku.com video.

3. Farewell scene, by Zhou Li (周莉): Youku.com video.

4. Tan Chunfang (檀春芳), singing “the heartless sword befalls”: 56.com video.

Bob Dylan

Date: April 6, 2011
Location: Workers’ Coliseum, Beijing.

Back in the old days, Bob Dylan was known to open concerts by reading a couple of reviews by his reviewers and then letting his audience boo and cheer as they saw fit. Expectations for the night, especially regarding energy level and amount of interaction, would therefore be set early on. No such thing happened in Beijing. After arriving on stage, Dylan and his band immediately began playing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”. The audience, initially inebriated with this “I am at the concert of a rock and roll icon” phenomenon, soon returned to a sit-and-clap mentality as the night wore on, periodically letting loose mechanical and icy applauses more appropriate for a B-grade circus trick than for a rock and roll performance. The only real “interaction” between Dylan and the audience occurred between encores, when he introduced his band. There was nary a hint of energy to suggest that he would speak his mind out loud other than through his lyrics. His verbal delivery was occasionally muddled, but not as bad as expected, especially after having read that, at times during his current “Never Ending” tour, Dylan would mumble through his lyrics and produce so much off-key dissonance that he would leave his crowd wanting more. The acoustics at the Workers’ Coliseum bore some blame too: even if he shifted and morphed phrases ad lib – and he most certainly did – or even changed his lyrics, most people would not have noticed. The encore pieces, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young”, stimulated a tad more excitement from the audience, but not by much. If all that Dylan needed was a little extra bit of audience rapture to get him to do or sing something that would piss off the censors, the audience did not oblige.

The controversy over his playlist in China is well-known: see here, here, and here. While I belong to the group who does not believe Dylan’s intention was to deliver a kosher playlist to please the censors, it was still remarkable that Dylan, being who he is and who he represents, would perform in a venue whose stage orientation requires him to directly face a red-carpeted, privileged section where two dozen VIPs would sit comfortably in cushioned chairs and be offered free glasses of water. The “man of the people” ‘s acquiescence in this regard, if nothing else, would partially vindicate Maureen Dowd.

Bob Dylan, in Beijing.

Bob Dylan, in Beijing.

Red carpet and free waters, in Workers' Coliseum's VIP section.

Red carpet and free waters, in Workers' Coliseum's VIP section.

The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭)

Date: May 4, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎) is a kabuki actor who specializes in onnagata, or women’s roles. In 2006, after watching a performance of The Peony Pavilion, Bando-san fell in love with the art and soon began taking lessons from Zhang Jiqing (张继青), an authority in kunqu performance and the inaugural winner of the Plum Blossom prize. It is not unprecedented for a guy to tackle the female role of Du Liniang (杜丽娘) – most famously, Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳) has done it, to great acclaim. But it is unprecedented that a Japanese onnagata would try a role and in an art form so deeply imbued with ancient Chinese sensibilities. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the onnagata – while stage execution may differ, kabuki and kunqu have their similarities – in many ways they often share a similar sentimentality towards a more idyllic past, and tend to extol the virtues of ethereal beauty and ancient customs more than many other art forms. The biggest difficulty Bando-san had to overcome remained with the libretto, which is in Chinese and to be sung in the kun vocal style. After two years of hard work (Bando-san once said that it took him a few months to learn three minutes of the libretto), Bando-san made his debut as Du in Kyoto in 2008, and soon thereafter performed the role in Beijing, Shanghai and then Hong Kong. Dubbed the “Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion”, this production draws from a pool of top kunqu and theater talents from the two countries.

Performance. The Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion presented seven chapters in one evening, out of the original’s 55 chapters (which could easily take a few nights to labor through, a la Wagner). Bando-san began the evening by discovering a beautiful garden for the first time and, in the process, delivered perhaps the most famous bit in all of kunqu:

原来姹紫嫣红开遍 / 似这般都付与断井颓垣 / 良辰美景奈何天 / 赏心乐事谁家院. The spring flowers bloom with abandon / next to broken wells and deserted fences / where have the pretty sight and beauty gone? / who in the past has lived in this pleasant and charming place?

As his Du made her new discovery, she started to lament a wasted past, while carrying a facial expression that effused a curious glow yet tempered with a mild air of regret. Within a short passage, Bando-san was able to showcase a complex array of emotions, yet framing all of them within the psyche of the teenage girl he was portraying. By the end, his Du has transformed from a clueless teenager wondering what love was and where to find love, to someone who had all the answers figured out. In the chapter “Union with the Ghost” (幽媾), when Du’s lover, a scholar, expressed love for a woman in the declaration: “姐姐 / my lovely sister!”, Du barely nudged as she was certain that the woman for whom the scholar declared love was no one else but her. The gesture could be read as naive, but when Bando-san portrayed such on stage, Du, neither jumping to ecstasy nor harboring any doubt, simply beamed with a matter-of-factly confidence. She moved slightly towards her lover, as if acknowledging his declaration for her. The lover, played by Yu Jiulin (俞玖林), provided an excellent counterpoint to Bando-san’s Du. Having seen him in Macao for the first time in 2005, I found his acting now more refined, emitting the innocent warmth of a young scholar with more restrained precision than in the past, when he would tend to over-act.

This performance is part of a series of performances celebrating the tenth anniversary of Kunqu’s selection by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Other performances with reviews include: A Collection of Scepters (满床笏), and The Lute Story (琵琶记).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

A Collection of Scepters (满床笏)

Date: May 10, 2011
Location: Beijing University Hall, Beijing.

Background. The comedic story tells the lives of Gong Jing (龚敬) and his wife. He was a high government official who often sought help from her when he faced issues at work. Well educated and highly intelligent, his wife obliged and effectively became the mastermind behind Gong. Without an heir, Gong was cajoled by his deputies into a farcical plan whereby he would secretly harbor a concubine Xiao (肖氏) behind his wife. His wife found out about his devilish little plan, and briskly sent the concubine away. When the husband learned that his plan was foiled, he begged for forgiveness. After considering their marriage and, more importantly, Gong’s political career in relation to the country, she relented and brought Xiao back in a dramatic turnabout.

The entire story has 36 chapters, of which only five were presented in this kunqu production. As far as I understand, a complete staging of all 36 chapters has not been attempted by any opera troupe in modern Chinese history. The story presented in this kunqu production is actually a small episode of the entire story, which tells the life story of Guo Ziyi (郭子仪), whose life is significantly influenced by Gong and his wife. Guo’s success extended to his children, who at his 60th birthday gathered around him and placed their scepters — a symbol of authority in ancient China — at Guo’s bedside.

Performance. Playing the role of the wife was Wang Fang (王芳), a two-time Plum Blossom prize winner. Her portrayal controlled the tempo and the dramatic arc of the evening. Twice in the evening, she uttered the phrase “please follow me to my chambers / 随我进来” to seduce her husband. She said it in a most sultry voice in a most titillating posture without bordering pornographic or slovenly: this represents seduction at its best. In the final scene, after she sent her husband to the concubine’s chamber, she looked simultaneously satisfied and consumed, knowing that while her plan to save her marriage and perhaps the larger context of her husband’s political career succeeded, she had to face the reality that her husband would be sleeping with another woman. As she retired to her chamber, her body shivered uncontrollably, as if finally feeling the pain of her decision. Zhao Wenlin (赵文林) portrayed an innocent but remorseful Gong, as if begging for the audience’s forgiveness, while Weng Yuxian (翁育贤) played an angelic Xiao with an irreproachable demeanor and a cloudless understanding of the situation. As one of Gong’s deputies, Tang Rong (唐荣) labored as a workable muse but lacked a definitive inhabitation of the role. Fatally, Tang’s vocalism carried too strong a Beijing Opera flavor to be considered a serious kunqu performer.

This performance is part of a series of performances celebrating the tenth anniversary of Kunqu’s selection by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The series includes plenty of delicious goodies, some of which will be reviewed later here at TFS.

Wang Fang (王芳) and Zhao Wenlin (赵文林), in A Collection of Scepters.

Wang Fang (王芳) and Zhao Wenlin (赵文林), in A Collection of Scepters.

The Lute Story (琵琶记)

Date: May 12, 2011
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. The story famously elevates filial and marital duty as a prominent feature of Chinese culture. At his father’s insistence, Cai Bojie (蔡伯喈) abandoned his family and his newly wedded wife to take a national exam in the capital. After acing the exam, Cai was forced by Prime Minister Niu to not only stay in the capital but, in typical ancient Chinese fashion, marry his daughter, Niu Suyu (牛素玉). Trapped in the reality that the prime minister’s words were golden, Cai had no choice but to stay in the capital and marry the younger Niu. Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘), despite having married to Cai for only two months before he left for the capital, took up full responsibility as caretaker of Cai’s parents. Throughout a series of droughts and famine, Zhao slaved through, at times eating chaffs to stay alive. After Cai’s parents died, she began a decade-long (twelve, to be exact) odyssey to the capital in search of Cai. By various strokes of luck and determination, Zhao finally reunited with Cai. Deeply moved by Zhao’s upholding of filial duty and Cai’s unerring love for Zhao, the emperor himself blessed the reunion, while the younger Niu dutifully agreed to stay on as secondary wife. The title refers to how Zhao would play the lute as a street musician to earn her expenses during her odyssey.

Performance. This production is staged and produced by Yongjia Kunqu Opera Troupe (永嘉昆剧团), famously known for presenting kunqu with a unique and unconventional charm. The hand and body movements in Yongjia kunqu (“yongkun” in short) are slightly rougher and less elegant than the kunqu presented by Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre (苏州昆剧院), but move with a more humanly, realistic motion. The tempo in yongkun is also slightly faster, and therefore appears livelier and more energetic, than traditional kunqu. Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao, acted with a deep sense for the role, moving with such seasoned fluidity and singing with such vocal confidence that for the most part camouflaged her advance age of 55 years. The on-stage intensity of her Zhao was clearly the dramatic weight of the evening. Her counterpart, Ma Shili (马士利), was adequate but not particularly noteworthy as Cai. You Tengteng (由腾腾) performed the thankless role of Niu with dedicated conviction, often moving with the same grace and precision as Liu, her teacher. At barely 21 years old, she is surely a rising star in the art, and most certainly is the person to carry Liu’s mantle as the elder master retires from stage.

Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘).

A poster featuring Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘), in The Lute Story (琵琶记).

You Tengteng (由腾腾), as Niu.

You Tengteng (由腾腾).

A Beijing Lohengrin for sure. Perhaps a Ring Cycle too?

While waiting for my Tosca companion in the NCPA foyer, I came across this poster, which is a call for auditions for next year’s opera festival. Everything looks normal, but one thing stands out: an audition call for Lohengrin. Perhaps the NCPA programmers finally feel that Beijing is ready for Wagner. Perhaps in not too distant a future, a Beijing Ring?

The NCPA audition calls, the complete list:

  • Rossini’s La Cenerentola
  • Mozart’s Figaro
  • Verdi’s Traviata and Un Ballo
  • Puccini’s Butterfly and Tosca
  • Strauss’ Fledermaus
  • Wagner’s Lohengrin
  • Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
  • Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
  • China-themed operas: Xishi (西施), Zhaoshi Guer (赵氏孤儿), Yunhe Yao (运河遥).
2012 Opera Festival Auditions. There shall be Wagner. Perhaps a Beijing Ring in the works as well?

2012 Opera Festival Auditions. There shall be Wagner. Perhaps a Beijing Ring in the works as well?