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).

Standard
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).

Standard
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).

Standard