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Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu

The Peony Pavilion

15 and 17, 2006

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A Refined Art

By Michael Zwiebach

A teacher can easily forget what it’s like for a student to encounter a classical art such as opera for the first time. It's an experience that can be overwhelming and bewildering. The Cal Performances presentation of The Peony Pavilion — seen on two of the three days, Friday and Sunday, of the nine-hour series at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley — put me precisely in that neophyte position. I will not have to try to remember what it feels like to be overwhelmed for a long time. The beauty of this production, by the Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu, is that you are enveloped in a profusion of meticulously coordinated details, rather than bludgeoned by size and spectacle.

Peony Pavilion’s success rests on the universal foundation of all great classic theater: a great story, told by a master storyteller. Written in 1598, Tang Xianzu elaborated a story with obvious folktale roots into a vivid fresco involving several subplots and characters from all classes of Chinese society. Tang’s breadth of vision and sense of structure was truly Shakespearean.

Reduced to bare essentials, Peony is about a governor’s daughter, Du Liniang, who falls asleep in a garden and meets the man of her dreams. In her dream, they make love in the garden’s peony pavilion. Upon waking, Du Liniang tries to recall the traces of the dream, but her search for the young man is fruitless. She pines and wastes away. But before she dies, she paints her portrait and inscribes it with a poem to her unknown lover, and requests that it be hidden next to her grave under the garden’s plum tree.

After her death, the judge of hell is impressed by her beauty and her story, and he orders her release. Meanwhile, Du Liniang’s betrothed, the scholar Liu Mengmei, is on his way to take civil service exams in the capital. He stops by Du Liniang’s shrine, recovers the portrait and discovers that his dream girl is now wandering about as a ghost. This condition does not prevent the two from making refined love, apparently protecting the girl’s virginity. (No, don’t try this at home.) Liu Mengmei finally decides to open the grave and, with the help of the Flower God, Du Liniang’s soul returns to her body. Reunited in the flesh, they get married and look forward to a happy ending — although, they have a lot of explaining to do along the way.

A love story, social commentary, comic twists

Tang used this story to criticize Confucian orthodoxy. In the play he insists that human passions — including sexuality — shape human relations and destinies, rather than rationality and ideas of social propriety. And so, rather than a lover’s tragedy, à la Romeo and Juliet, Tang’s opera moves consistently and powerfully into social comedy.

The ending is sentimental and romantic, as the chorus sings, "Do not break vows with longing hearts / On the thrice-born path of destiny to the pavilion of peonies." But it is also terribly funny. Liu Mengmei seeks out his father-in-law, Du Bao, who thinks his daughter to be dead and naturally finds it difficult to believe that she could have a husband. Liu Mengmei expects the older man to believe him because he knows himself to be honest. So, he blurts out his whole incredible tale, leading Du Bao to conclude that the young man is one egg roll short of a combination plate.

The conflict over which reality is, well, reality, pervades the entire opera, and ties together all the major characters and themes. The comic pinnacle is reached when, in a trial before the Emperor, Du Bao refuses to believe his own eyes and insists that his daughter must be a ghost. Du Bao frets over Confucian matters of etiquette: Liu Mengmei’s self-assurance seems to him like an upstart’s arrogance. And what about his position as father? Doesn’t he have to give his consent to his daughter’s wedding? How could the lovers have observed all the correct marriage ceremonies with both sets of parents absent? Eventually, Du Bao bends before the Emperor’s vindication of the lovers. And ultimately, his acquiescence comes out of love for his resurrected daughter, which we see in their delayed but emotional reunion. As usual in classic comedy, love conquers all.

In beautiful translation

Pai Hsien-yung’s adaptation of the 55 scenes and 20 hours of The Peony Pavilion — which reduced the original show by more than half — got to the heart of the matter. He kept the main story going while not sacrificing the richness of incident and character that make the piece so vibrant. Lindy Li Mark’s easy-to-follow, economical translation, projected on side screens, kept the audience in the loop.

Pai subtitled his adaptation the "Young Lovers’ Edition," in reference to his major creative decision to cast age-appropriate actors in the main roles. And indeed, Shen Feng-Ying (as Du Liniang) and Yu Jiu-Lin (as the scholar Liu) are extremely good looking and believable. But once you’ve seen what the actors are required to do in this opera, you can understand why casting them was such a leap of faith. Their achievement was nothing short of astonishing.

Actors Yu Jiu-Lin and Shen Feng-Ying

To begin with, there were the costume sleeves: Both leads had sleeves that were two feet longer than their arms. When let down, the sleeves functioned as an expressive extension. For example, the lovers’ embraces were accomplished by draping the sleeves around each other, which preserved a dancelike grace. (Everyone who has been on stage knows that choreographing a kiss is a messy business.) This technque prevented what might have been a visually uninteresting clinch.

At another point, Shen used her sleeve to wipe a tear, but not content with that, she then flicked it away in a single movement. Here’s the incredible part: When Shen and Yu needed to use their hands, they rolled up their sleeves with a few discreet wrist motions so that the sleeves became ordinary cuffs on their gowns. It was like a magic trick.

Arresting choreography, unusual sounds

The opera employs a wealth of distinct hand and head gestures, each conventionally associated with conversation and emotion. These had to be rendered with the same precision and naturalness as the sleeve gestures, even as the rest of the actor’s body was in motion. If Shen was going to make an important cross, first she would lean her body in the direction she was going, to create a picture of visual momentum before moving her feet. In the middle of the first evening’s performance, when Shen delivered Du Liniang’s searching monologue, she spent the better part of 15 minutes in motion. Oh, and she was singing the entire time.

There was also a stylistic continuum between speech and song, with several gradations depending on the character’s social class. In the beginning, it was difficult to adjust to Yu’s speech because he frequently employed falsetto. But we were quickly caught up in his forceful characterization. Shen, Yu, and the entire cast seamlessly combined the movement and vocal aspects of their roles.

The signature sound of Chinese opera singing is extraordinarily difficult to produce (as with all classical singing). Like Handel’s arias, the songs of The Peony Pavilion often lingered for a long time over a single textual phrase. The singer’s breath control had to be perfect. To help, a flute accompanied all the vocal lines. Strengthened by Zhou Youliang’s sumptuous orchestration, the lyricism of the major arias was beautifully realized. Once I adjusted to the vocal style, I was able to attend to the shifting emotional character of the music. By the third night, as Pai had promised, I didn’t want it to end.

(Michael Zwiebach holds a Ph.D. in music history from UC Berkeley.)

©2006 Michael Zwiebach, all rights reserved