Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Three Nights, Three Kunqu Operas

Wei Chunrong (魏春榮), one of my favorite Kunqu (昆曲) artists, has recently completed an impressive cycle of Kunqu performances at Changan Theater (長安大戲院): Guan Hanqing (關漢卿), Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭), The Li Family Saga (奇雙會), and The Jade Hairpin Tale (玉簪記) (anglicized translations are mine). I bought tickets to attend the three pieces that I haven't listened to before: Guan Hanqing, The Li Family Saga, and The Jade Hairpin Tale.

Each of the performances was produced by the Beifang Kunqu Opera Theater (北方昆曲劇院) and each featured Wei, whom I already had the privilege of hearing last year when she performed a segment in The Palace of Eternity (長生殿). In any case, here's a recap:

April 2: Guan Hanqing. The Company puts forth a winning effort in modernizing this production, with meticulously choreographed stage work and lighting. This modernization is tasteful, and, in my opinion, complements perfectly the traditional vocal and gestural artistry in Kunqu. The modernization also reminds me of Bai Xianyong (白先勇)'s Peony Pavilion, which was modernized back in 2004 to monstrous critical acclaim. Wei kicks off the evening with a persuasive Zhu Lianxiu (珠簾秀), the heroine who carries much of the dramatic -- and spiritual -- weight of the story. By comparison, Wang Zhenyi (王振義)'s eponymous character submits an initial effort that seems to me listless and sluggish, leaving Wei with even more on-stage burden. That burden is, as it seems to me, not relieved until the penultimate number, My Life is Proffered to the Dramatic Arts (雜劇就是咱的宿命), in which Wang's Guan springs to life with a forceful, emotional reckoning. The powerful ending sends the crowd to a roaring standing ovation.

April 4: The Li Family Saga. This production is worthwhile if only because it is rarely staged. Compared with Guan, this production is more subtle and much more in agreement with Kunqu's traditional forms, whereby minimal stage work and simple lighting take a more comfortable backseat to gestural movements, facial expressiveness and the vocal box. Wei's Li Guizhi (李桂枝) is convincing, but, for much of the evening, Wei seems agitated by the faulty microphone that pipes plenty of annoying static to all four corners of the auditorium.

April 5: The Jade Hairpin Tale. If this performance is rated by virtue of its stage design it has to be an utter failure -- not because it is any more different from a regular Kunqu performance but because Guan's aesthetic modernization makes Jade appear as if it were Guan's outmoded cousin. My apparently vanguard taste notwithstanding, this lyrical drama of courtship and love is perfect in every way, the centerpiece being Wei and Wang's incisive and revelatory interpretation of the piece's elegant poetry. The story basically unfolds in three major sketches: 琴挑, 問病, and 偷詩. Wei's Chen Miaochang (陳妙常) is as ethereal as her dramatic gestures are subtly sapid. Wang's Pan Bizheng (潘必正) is playful and crisp. In fact, Wang is so into his character that, at the final curtain call, he, looking roiled and disoriented, still seems mentally embroiled in Pan's world. Overall, this performance is reminiscent of the classic performance by Yu Zhenfei (俞振飛) and Yan Huizhu (言慧珠) -- except that Wei's Chen seems to me more refined. The literary brilliance in 琴挑, the comedy in 問病, and the playful gestures in 偷詩, in my opinion, showcase the full glory of the literary and dramatic qualities of Kunqu -- a befitting ending to half a week of outstanding performance.

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