Over the years I have attended plenty of Kunqu classics, including the Peony Pavilion, The Jade Hairpin Tale, and The Palace of Eternity. But Romance of the West Chamber (西廂記), considered to be a hugely significant, if not the most monumental, piece in the classical repertoire, has eluded me, until now.
The NCPA currently plays host to Beifang Kunqu Opera Theater (北方昆曲劇院), which has put together a fine West Chamber production and has been going rounds in China in the past few years. Helmed by famed director Guo Xiaonan (郭曉男) and staged by Huang Kaifu (黃楷夫), the production is shortened for the ADD-infested modern audience, the kind of Blackberry-toting, multiple cellphone-juggling Twitter-phile who prefers book rags over actual tomes and one-liner news digests over newspaper copies. Aptly named the "Metropolitan" version (大都版), this Guo/Huang version, to be performed over the span of two days and includes 3 volumes and 12 chapters, is not exactly pocket-sized, but is still heavily condensed from an original magnum opus featuring 5 volumes and 21 chapters to be played out in three days. The compaction is different from the recital hall version (廳堂版) of the Peony Pavilion at the Imperial Granary in that the latter highlights famous chapters while the former reworks some of the chapters to re-weave the entire story line without taking away substance and performance (at least in theory, but more later).
The piece tells the story of Zhang Sheng (張生), an intelligent young man of proletarian origins, who meets and falls in love with Cui Yingying (崔鶯鶯), an elegant woman with prim lineage. They meet while he is resting at a temple on his way to attend the imperial examination. As this happens, Sun Feihu (孫飛虎), a rebel leader, surrounds the temple and demands the betrothal of Cui. Cui’s mother, under pressure, vows to marry her daughter away to anyone who could save them from the evil hands of Sun. The ever resourceful Zhang, steeped in his new-found love, sees opportunity and manages to find outside help who then, as if right on script, quashes Sun’s hopes. But Cui’s mother backpedals and, instead of giving Cui’s hand to Zhang, she simply makes Zhang Cui’s brother, reopening the prospects of a betrothal with a well-to-do family. Siblinghood, however, does not stop Cui’s chamber maid (紅娘) from stringing the two lovebirds together, as she deftly arranges their dates and secret rendezvous, thereby ensuring that the fruit of love between Zhang and Cui continues to ripen. Eventually, recognizing a path of inevitability but remaining stubbornly allergic to Zhang’s less-than-impressive lineage, the mother devises her allergy suppressor and agrees to their marriage under one condition: that Zhang would have to return triumphant from the examination. After a painful departure and an extended period of separation, Zhang finally returns as a top scholar, proves his upward mobility, and returns to find a life of happiness with Cui.
The original version of the story is invariably more complicated, in which the mother is so hostile to the peasantry class that she tries to ensconce the truth about Zhang’s examination triumph from Cui and plans ahead to marry Cui off to an aristocrat – until the truth eventually reveals itself. Wei Chunrong (魏春榮) and Wang Zhenyi (王振義), both of whom I had the privilege of listening to multiple times back in April, star as the pair of lovebirds. The performance is heavily modernized, with a production set that projects an art-deco flavor a la Frank Lloyd Wright, albeit with motifs seemingly, and loosely, based on the auspicious cloud (祥雲), a more organic and traditional Chinese elemental feature. The stage is a glass platform that lit from below by a plethora of colorful lighting, to be switched on and off based on the scene and character mood. Minimalist decorations draped from the lighting grid and sparsely anchored on stage provide subtle cues depicting seasonal and scenic changes. Between chapters, no curtain is dropped while lights are rarely dimmed enough to hide scene changes. The furniture, considered a cornerstone of the movement and the basis for character interaction in traditional Chinese opera, is not the typical fabric-wrapped kind that is abundantly featured in traditional opera fare. Instead, the chair and the table are actually somewhat a cross between Rococo and Chinoiserie revivals, subtly paying, if only accidental, homage to Thomas Chippendale and, with some imagination, Townsend-Goddard. Lighting is heavily modernized too, with spot lights and modulated coloration that not just provide illumination but awash the set with the mood of the moment. By comparison, several features of the art form, including the costume, head dressing, and the rare cues of martial arts, are decidedly more traditional. Also faithful to tradition is the lack of physical props, e.g. unlike some other revivals I've seen on DVD, this production offers no physical barrier in the critical wall scene (跳墙); nor are there painted curtains to convey scenes and background. That leaves much of the scenic description to the acting.
The actors are magnificent, with Wang bringing out the comic, if not also slightly naiveté, nature of Zhang. Wang's Zhang transitions from wandering pensiveness to streaks of thoughtful deliberation, to great effect. Wei, with her fragile porcelain face and her immaculate bodily movement, exudes a poignant character with profound intellect and a virgin’s vulnerability. Wang and Wei’s characters are meticulously built up over two evenings, culminating in a verboten scene where their relationship is consummated in a prolonged physical embrace underneath a piece of white fabric -- decorated, or metaphorically tainted, with an embroidered, bright-red peony -- that could have been a tad too suggestive and scandalous not too long ago. While the two lovebirds strike the right tone by themselves, West Chamber, in my view, is really pulled together by Hong Niang, the chamber maid character, a vocally prodigious and visually demanding creation that provides the necessary emotional, energetic, and philosophical anchor-piece to facilitate the slow-brewing love story between the two lead characters. Ni Hong (倪泓), as a Shanghai-based invitee to this northern production, handily delivers the role of the maid, with a fiendish expressiveness and a dominating stage presence. Ni's voice is pitch-perfect, with a robust coloratura projection and a convincing range of dynamics.
In my opinion, this "Metropolitan" version is just a chapter or two too short, thus leaving more to be desired. At 1.5 hours, the second evening is much shorter than the first (almost 2.5 hours without intermission). It seems to me that the ending is a little too rushed, with the all-important return scene not acted out but merely recited in a quick, unemotional epilogue. This is unfortunate, because even though the crux of the story is about the romantic, and sometimes annoying, aspects of courtship, this courtship is not going to achieve consummation in totem, at least in spirit, without Zhang’s triumphant return following a painful separation scene (長亭送別). Perhaps this is one way for Guo/Huang to downplay a de facto caste system in ancient China imbued with strict adherence to intra-caste marriage between aristocracies with traceable gotras. That said, this West Chamber is marked by excellent acting, as well as a hauntingly minimalist yet superbly effective stage modernization that showcases Kunqu, in my view, not merely as an artistic relic of the yesteryear but an art form willing and able to adapt for a rapidly modernizing aesthetic POV and social psyche.