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Opera Review

Traditions Converge in 'Peony' Pavilion'

May 15, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

VIENNA — It's spring in Vienna, and love is in the air. But not, this time, the heroic love of Beethoven's Leonora or the capricious love found in operetta. Not the sensual eroticism of Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," the shimmering sexuality of Klimt's nudes, or the violent eroticism of Egon Schiele's lovers. And certainly not Freud's interpretation of it all.

Tuesday night, in the Sofiensale--a pleasantly shabby hall that has witnessed all kinds of Viennese love-making as the site of Strauss and Wagner recordings, as a libertine nightclub and now a makeshift theater--Vienna learned of Bridal Du.

"Has the world ever seen a woman's love to rival that of Bridal Du?" Tang Xianzu asked exactly 400 years ago in the introduction to his 55-scene epic of Kunju opera, "The Peony Pavilion." Peter Sellars and Tan Dun have now answered that question with an astonishing new version of the work.

Though surprisingly little known in the West, the tale of "spring-struck" Bridal Du and the young scholar, Liu Mengmei, is China's favorite love story. After wandering into a seductive garden, the sheltered Bridal Du has an erotic dream so powerful she perishes of unrequited love. Liu, the young man of the dream, later discovers Bridal Du's portrait, and has his own charged erotic interlude with her spirit. Summoning supernatural forces, he brings her back to life.

Tang's "Peony Pavilion," a vast spectacle that requires several evenings to perform, is considered the greatest flowering of Kunju opera, a highly cultivated theatrical form of singing, dancing, martial arts, poetic recitation and acting that flourished during the Ming Dynasty. (Lincoln Center Festival, which is organizing a rare mounting of the complete work in July, is calling it "the Ming Ring.")

*

In the original epic, the lovers have many worldly obstacles to overcome, but Sellars' production, a distillation of the first two-thirds of Tang's opera, focuses exclusively on Bridal Du's death and resurrection.

There is little of the external world retained, and it is Sellars' inspiration to represent the transforming power of this love through different cultural and theatrical traditions simultaneously.

The work unfolds in two parts: The 90-minute opening, the death of Bridal Du, is a mostly acted play that ultimately serves as lengthy prologue to Tan's two-hour opera. Both parts are adapted from Cyril Birch's classic translation of the Chinese original.

The lovers, almost like a Cubist painting come to life, are trisected into three couples. One pair is made up of actors Lauren Tom and Joel de la Fuente, who dominate the play. Then there are the Western-style opera singers, soprano Ying Huang and tenor Lin Qiang Xu.

Finally, there is Chinese actress Hua Wenyi, a Los Angeles emigre and a master of Kunju opera, who acts and sings in traditional Kunju style. She has few male peers, so Sellars used another Western-style actor, Jason Ma, as her partner.

He mirrors her movement but doesn't try to sing in Kunju style. (The production's main ancillary character, who takes the dual part of Bridal Du's maid Spring Fragrance and the sorceress Sister Stone, is Shi Jiehua, a member of Hua's Los Angeles company Hua Kun Opera.)

The way the three pairs interact is fluid. What is most surprising is how little these traditions have in common yet how completely comfortable Sellars makes them seem together. In all three couples, Bridal Du is the strongest character. Tom's arresting, exhausting theatrical performance is a great explosion of eroticism through a four-hour journey of innocence and pent-up emotion to experience and fulfillment.

All that is physically extravagant in Tom's Bridal Du is implied in Hua's performance. Can there possibly be another 56-year-old actress who could so convincingly transform herself into a 16-year-old girl with just the subtle movement of an eyebrow?

The death scene, with Tom quivering on the ground for minutes while Hua's spellbinding gentle dance depicts breath leaving the body will, I think, go down in history as a great moment in modern theater. But the erotic scenes are nearly as vivid.

*

But nothing can overwhelm Tan's opera. Matching Rossini's fabled speed, Tan wrote an outpouring of lyric melody in three weeks. Ecstatic, ravishing melody, practically unsupported by harmony or unembellished by counterpoint, flows and flows. A small ensemble of electronic and percussion instruments provides luminous color.

Tan has absolutely no cultural inhibitions. The vocal line can rise to Puccinian and Wagnerian climaxes and suddenly swoop down into something closer to Chinese music, and both the soprano and tenor cover enormous ranges and technical obstacles with stunning ease. A chorus chants Gregorian-style.

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