Posts Tagged ‘Slippery Mountain’

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

June 5, 2008

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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Review of “The Peony Pavilion” part one – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells

June 4, 2008

Although I am not a big opera fan, I am a big fan of Chinese culture, and when I realized I had the opportunity to see a full length (three day!) Chinese opera performed in London by a professional cast from China (the Suzhou Kunqu Opera company), I jumped at the chance. I was a bit hesitant to go for all three nights, but with my fellow Sinophile and good friend Mel encouraging me (well, she was just enthusiastic, but that was enough), I went for it and bought tickets for The Peony Pavilion at Sadler’s Wells (really good preview available on The Guardian‘s website). Surprisingly, I was even able to convince my husband to go, so we had a group of three with nice seats on the main floor. (Actually, he convinced himself to go for all three nights, saying, “You can’t just see one part of the Ring Cycle, so why would I only come for one evening of this opera?” As for me, I can see where you might want to see The Empire Strikes Back and skip Return of the Jedi, but I was glad he showed that much interest without even a little bit of prodding from me.)

We did our best to get warmed up beforehand at the New Culture Revolution restaurant (just around the corner from Angel station), but my noodle and dumpling soup still failed to be as good as what I used to get in Nanjing, so I left somewhat dissatisfied. (They also tried to give us a pot of tea with only half a teaspoon of leaves in it – what kind of fools did they take us for?) To be honest, I would have enjoyed it if the show had been more traditional in terms of serving us food and tea as we watched it (as it was for Slippery Mountain), but Sadler’s Wells isn’t really set up for that kind of thing, so I slipped several packets of candy into my bag to keep my strength up during the show.

I learned a lot about Chinese opera even last night. Kunqu opera is, in my mind, a more classical type than Beijing opera (last night featured NO acrobatic fight scenes at all, so if that’s what you want, you’re not going to get it). While some of the dialogue is spoken, most of it is sung in classical Chinese poetry (the kind where five characters compose and entire English sentence, i.e. “Empty/autumn/dream/wander” would be the Chinese spoken, but the English displayed on the screen would say, “I wander through this hollow Autumn, lost in dreams”). I think this seems a lot prettier than mere iambic pentameter – it was, in my mind, a play full of beautiful sonnets (although they seem like haiku in style and simplicity). Shockingly, my college Chinese came back to help me last night, and not only did I follow along with the spoken dialogue at an about 70% match rate, I was able to really enjoy the poetry. It was gorgeous, and I loved having our heroine (Du Liniang, played by Shen Fengying, who is a real marathoner) reciting swooning sonnets along the lines of “no brush can untangle my hair/no comb can untangle this life” as she mooned about. Fortunately, most of this was balanced in the most lovely way by the maid (Spring Fragrance, played either by Lu Jia or Zhou Xiaoyue last night), who was just so damned chipper and cute I wanted to tuck her under my arm and take her home with me.

As it turned out, while the costumes and makeup were elaborate, the sets and staging were quite simple. Hanging scrolls, either with calligraphy or paintings on them, served to create most of the backdrops, and the show relied on the dialogue to create the rest of the setting in your imagination. At one point, Du Liniang was talking about leaning up against a plum tree to think about her dream lover, and she held up her sleeve just so, and … she was leaning up against a tree, I could see it! Actually, the whole use of the sleeves to create emotional effects was quite interesting – I’ve never seen someone flirt with their sleeves before, or use them to express despair (no waving of the hands above the head here, thank goodness). The costumes themselves were really gorgeous. I got completely wrapped up in the parade of embroidered gowns during the fairy/dream sequence – each one of them was a different flower, with matching silk belts, flowered headress, and even tasselled shoes. Watching them dance on stage was a moment of pure theatrical gorgeousness – I was completely lost in the spectacle, which was my favorite of the whole evening and entirely worth the price of admission (though you really needed the rest of the show to feel the emotions of what was happening on stage).

But … the longness. Ah yes, the long. If you’re considering going, here are the running times: Part one, nine scenes, ends 10:35; Part two, nine scenes, ends 10:20; part three, nine scenes, ends two hours and forty-five minutes after the start. Synopsis of part one: meet the heroine, a sweet girl from a scholarly family; she falls in love with a boy she sees in a dream; the boy is real and goes to find the girl of her dreams; she mopes; she dies. Part two (synopsis: girl is in hell; boy makes it to where she used to live; ghost girl falls in love with boy; boy falls in love with ghost; war; ghost is brought back to life) sounds like a lot of fun, with much less moping than last night. Apparently the last one has a lot of battle scenes, but I haven’t read the program all of the way through so I can’t say for sure. I will be taking a very useful three day break between part two and three so that I go strong into the last show. And since the singing style is so unfamiliar to Western ears, the longness might combine to make it an evening that is just a little too much to handle, though I found it well suited to expressing the characters’ emotions.

So … how was it? I was really drawn in by the great acting and found myself not even reaching for the bags of fortifying candy I had ready to help get me through the show – not even once all the way through the TWO HOUR LONG FIRST FIVE ACTS (why they didn’t just have a break after the dream sequence I do not know). I have to say, if you didn’t understand Chinese culture at all, it probably would have been a bit of a frustrating show. But, you know what? I totally bought it. I was comparing it to Romeo and Juliet and realizing that the main characters were really very strong and very interesting, while still 100% in their own culture. (Actually, it was a bit Gothic, what with its obsession with love and death, but since the heroine was a 16 year old – who was also incredibly shallow and egotistical by Western standards – I was okay with this.)

Two more nights to go, and while I _will_ be getting hot tea prepared for us for intermission, I’m actually pretty enthused about it – though I wish they’d actually stuck to the schedule and let us out a little closer to 10:30 instead of at about 11.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, June 3rd. This show will be repeated on Friday, June 6th.)

Slippery Mountain – Not So Loud Chinese Opera Company – New World Restaurant, London

April 13, 2008

Three weeks ago I read in the Metro that there was a Chinese opera being performed in a restaurant in Chinatown, with dim sum and tea served beforehand. And it was only an hour long! While the price seemed a bit steep (£25), it sounded to me like a great night out and I snapped up for tickets (for me, J, W, and my fellow Sinophile Mel) right away.

The restaurant (New World) had a great upstairs space with a large area cleared out for the show. We took our seats and were immediately given our snacks. Sadly, we weren’t given any sort of plates, just a round steaming dish with 1 shu mai, 1 egg roll, and 1 steamed fluffy pork bun in it. Hmm – a bit tight for the price. I was also grumpy to notice they’d got a two for one deal going that I missed out on by buying early. At the very least if I’d been aware of it I probably could have convinced a few more people to attend. We also got some other food (lamb pancakes, pork and cashew nuts, and chicken on crunchy fried noodles) to round it out, and the food was good even though we had to ask to get plates.

Our cast consisted of three demons (or monks, depending on the scene), our hero Mulian, his mom, Mulian’s tutor and stand-in demon fighter, and a woman sword specialist. The plot was, er, rather non-Western: Mulian is sent by his Buddhist superior to deal with his mother in hell, where she is about to spend eternity trying to climb Slippery Mountain to make up for her shortcomings during her lifetime (fornication while a nun being apparently a big no-no). Most of the scenes take place in hell, where the three demons sing cheerily about chopping up, burning, and torturing the souls that come their way. Their scenes allowed for a lot of vernacular dialogue, referring (for example) to “Asbos” and “insulting the Olympic torch” (the second a reason for extreme punishment). I found this all reminiscent of Panto and a good deal of fun. The dialogue was mostly in English, but Mulian’s mom spoke exclusively in Opera extreme Mandarin (I could almost follow along) and Mulian’s teacher spoke frequently in Mandarin, but for both of them, the “chorus” of demons/monks helped us follow along. Mulian’s mom’s arias were all in Chinese, but for these we had a sheet to help us follow along (as it were) and the action on stage was very helpful in demonstrating what was being said.

The show itself was not of the highest production quality, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting this in such a short production. The highlight was a battle between Mulian’s teacher and the demon swordswoman, who went head to head in staff versus double sword action. It was a blast. I was a bit sorry we didn’t get any acrobatics, but it was a small space, and hopefully I’ll get to see some this summer when the Peony Pavillion comes to town. Overall it was a good night out, and my greatest complaint was that I wished I’d had a little more tea – being able to sip a hot cup of Jasmine tea while watching a show has got to be one of the most pleasant theatrical experiences I’ve had in a long time, but our pot was long emptied before the show started up and the staff didn’t seem to want to come by the tables to refill, empty, or do anything else once they’d served up.