Review of “The Peony Pavilion” part two (“Romance and Resurrection”) – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells

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Last night was part two of the three part “Peony Pavilion” Kunqu opera currently on at Sadler’s Wells. This was the one Mel (who is quite familiar with the story) was most looking forward to, as it takes place partially in hell and is substantially about a romance between a man and a ghost.

Well! I would say the show did not disappoint. The judge of hell was a fire breathing, red bearded demon surrounded by neon-costumed, cartwheeling lackeys and heavily gilded guards brandishing spears. The whole thing was quite a spectacle, with Du Liniang’s movements carefully coordinated to allow the various demons to dance around her (my favorite bit was when she cowered underneath the judge’s desk, then threw her sleeves out to the side while he leapt over her). For about half of this scene, Du Liniang was a trembling maiden, terrified of the creatures surrounding her, as if she’d just finally understood what being dead was going to be like; but at some point she got positively smug, something I would never have expected of a dead person! It was really quite a different version of the land of the dead from that of La Bayadere – no detached shades, but rather a world in which there are politicians, lust, and laws. I believe that this scene must be one of the highlights of the show, as it certainly was the highlight of the night for me. (If you were only going one evening, this would probably be the best choice to see.)

The rest of the story involved the ghost of Liniang returning to her family’s home, where Liu Mengmei has been recuperating (and has fallen in love with the self-portrait Du Liniang did in the first section of the opera). Liniang goes to see him in the rooms where he has taken shelter, and they become lovers. Finally she convinces him to dig her up, and, voila! She is brought back to life, and they get married (it’s possible they were technically married in the scene where she tells him her big secret, but I’m not sure). There’s a great scene in which a rebel general is coached in war by his wife, both of them fantastically costumed (in fact the wife, Duchess Yang, is the one pictured on the advertisements for the show), but which seemed to have little relevance to the rest of the narrative. Overall it seemed like quite the Gothic love story – very different from anything I’ve ever seen in a Western play.

The scholar Mengmei really does seem to be a good match for Liniang, as he is just as dreamy and prone to melancholy as she is, not to mention egotistical and prideful. As the story is evolving, I’m finding Liniang a fun person to watch but quite flawed; I feel like she’s very much a spoiled brat! That said, I actually thought that artistically, the first part was better than this one, as her poetry seems generally to be better than Mengmei’s and she gets far more time to sing it in part one. Still, I wound up thinking both of them could really use with doing a hard day’s work.

The other particularly good scene in part two is, unsurprisingly, the seduction scene. I was pretty shocked to see Liniang being so forward. Of course, this is all contextually possible because of her being a ghost, but she’s been so prim and proper as a real person I wasn’t able to see how she could so easily throw that off! Mengmei, although he appeared to be handsome, seemed to me someone who would very quickly become extremely hidebound and conservative, so I am a bit mystified as to what Liniang is really attracted to. On the other hand, she’s 16, and that’s not an age known for depth of thought.

We’re taking a three day break and returning on Sunday afternoon to watch part three. Thankfully last night we got out at a quarter after ten, so I made it home by 11:30 (much better than the night before). It turns out the express buses from Sadler’s Wells to Waterloo won’t run after 10 PM, so we were just stuck to get home as best we could – a preview of life after mid-July, when apparently this service just won’t be offered anymore (as Arriva is letting their contract lapse). Final section: war!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 4, 2008; it will be repeated Saturday, June 7th.)

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