Chinese opera

The Migrating Bird (孔雀东南飞)

Date: May 2, 2011
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. The Migrating Bird / The Peacock Flies Southeast (alt.) is based on an epic poem written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.). The poem, with exactly 356 phrases, each having exactly five characters, is considered by many to be the first narrative poetry in the Chinese language. The story begins by introducing a married couple: Liu Lanzhi (刘兰芝), a lovable housewife, and Jiao Zhongqing (焦仲卿), a government official. Jiao’s mother never quite approves of their matrimony, and is openly choleric towards her daughter-in-law. Eventually, she also manages to orchestrate their divorce, after which Liu is sent back to her hometown and slated to be remarried to the son of a high government official. Vowed never to be remarried again, Liu decked out in splendid matrimonial wear and, just before the wedding, drowned herself to death. After learning of Liu’s death, Jiao was devastated and later also committed suicide. The Chinese title, “孔雀东南飞”, comes from the first two verses of the poem: “孔雀东南飞,五里一徘徊”, which refers to how migrating birds in mid-flight often turn back to look for each other. These two verses, coupled with the final stanza (see below), set the tone for the relationship between the two characters:

“两家求合葬,合葬华山傍 / 东西植松柏,左右种梧桐 / 枝枝相覆盖,叶叶相交通 / 中有双飞鸟,自名为鸳鸯 / 仰头相向鸣,夜夜达五更。”

The two finally reunited, in adjacent burial grounds / Cypress and phoenix trees standing by in eternity / Branches intertwined, leaves mingled / Therein rest two birds, a pair of mandarin ducks / To each other they listen, till the wee hours of the night.

Performance. Chen Moxiang (陈墨香), one of the most prolific Beijing Opera scriptwriters and a frequent collaborator with Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋), adapted the poem into the standard opera repertory in 1932. Chen’s version was generally faithful to the original poem, only slightly altering the ending to allow the lovebirds to be reunited one last time, before they held hands and drowned together. Chi Xiaoqiu (迟小秋), as Liu, was fearless in her portrayal and impeccably fluid in her delivery. Her on-stage agility, coupled with the acute crispiness of her phrasings offered a model exhibit of Cheng-clan artistry. Bao Fei (包飞), as Jiao, was authoritative and focused, and weaved through some of his difficult lines with apparently very little effort. Mei Qingyang (梅庆羊) provided some comic relief as the theatrical muse playing Jiao’s mother. A playful conversational interchange between Mei and Chi’s characters marked the dramatic focal point of the evening, in which the elder tried to embarrass the younger by assigning the younger the impossible task of placing a lamp in a small room with very little space, only later to realize that in the process the elder could not offer a counter-solution and thereby putting herself in an awkward, frying-in-her-own-grease moment. The ebb and flow of the dramatic energy between the two, coupled with swift circular stage movements, epitomized the strength of the cast and clarity of the night’s execution.

The story is nothing less than a direct criticism of feudal society where parental wishes trumped individual choices back in the days (and I can safely say that some flavor of this feudal society is still prevalent in today’s rural China). The ending was depressing, but necessary as a means to set free from the historical status quo. Perhaps in an attempt to lift the audience out of such morbid melancholia and end the night on a more positive note, Chi sang a highly-charged encore from Magnolia (玉堂春), to rapturous applause.

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMTgyNDc2Njg=/v.swf

Chi Xiaoqiu, in Bird (on Youku).

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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).

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