Chrysanthemum (金葉菊)

Date: August 2, 2014
Location: Ko Shan Theatre, Hong Kong.

Troupe: Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong (廣東海豐縣白字戲劇團)

Hailufeng Baizi (海陸豐白字戲) is a regional operatic art form still loved by local folks along the northeastern coast of Guangdong Province. Its origins can be traced back to late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty, when dialectic singing theatre from the neighboring Fujian Province started to make its way down the coast. Unlike other flavors of Chinese operas, where the libretto’s language often adheres to the prevailing official parlance of the time, Baizi is literalized from local speak and influenced by folk music. The regionalization of this art form makes it quite different from the body of work descending from and influenced by Beijing Opera/Kunqu. However, because of the compartmentalized nature of the region’s social culture, Baizi has never found a broad audience. In face of today’s onslaught of media and entertainment, the demand for Baizi’s artistry has waned in recent years.

Baizi proliferated at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and its repertoire has realigned accordingly. After a brief extinction towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, it resurrected, and one of the first operas to regain prominence on stage was Chrysanthemum (金葉菊), a story about justice and revenge. The story tells of a duke named Ma Yinglong (馬應龍) who had to fight an uphill battle against the treasonous instincts of Emperor Wanli’s relatives. Lin Tianyi (林天義), a loyal servant of a good general slain by the Emperor’s treasonous relative, entered the service of the treasonous camp a la Infernal Affairs to unearth evidence of treason. The daughter of the good general, Lin Yuejiao (林月嬌), after many years of banishment, reconnected with servant Lin and, together with Ma, eventually managed to foil the treachery of the bad camp, though not without significant loss of lives. Yu Jincheng (余錦程), Director of the Troupe, impressed in the role of Ma with clean delivery of his lines and a commanding stage presence – in a role that requires plenty of both. As the servant Lin, Yu Haiping (余海平), Deputy Director of the Troupe, portrayed one of unrelenting loyalty. Ma Sixiang (馬四香) had a good evening as daughter Lin: singing with grace and performing with a glowing stage presence. The letdown came mainly from Yu Ronggui (余榮貴)’s Emperor, who could not present prestige and stature, even for a diminished and severely flawed character. The production also exposed the downside of an art form untainted with the strict regimen of Beijing Opera/Kunqu: tables and chairs were set too close together (the Emperor had to use his legs to slide the chair away from the table before he could squeeze in – a serious faux pas in Chinese operatic arts). Various character actors (including imperial guards) looked like extras who have not had enough rehearsals and seemed dazzled and confused on stage. Dialectic differences and cultural compartmentalization may have contributed to the art form’s relative obscurity, but a lax approach to staging and discipline could also be non-trivial contributors.

For all of Baizi’s long history and cultural significance, it needs and deserves preservation. It’s up to those on stage and the patronage network off it to ensure its survival. Nevertheless, Hong Kong audiences should be glad that their Government, with its generous financial support, was at least willing to take up its share of the bargain.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma. Photo Credit: Chinese Opera Festival/LCSD.

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

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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.