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).

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).

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?

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.

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).

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).

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.