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`Peony' able to flower amid cuts

September 26, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Love conquers all in "The Peony Pavilion," the classic, 19-hour epic 400-year-old Chinese opera in the kunju tradition. It conquers dreamy naivete, death, the judges of hell, starchy tradition, a priggish Confucian father, a priestess with a hymen hard as stone, invading armies, poverty, flogging, you name it.

But that's nothing compared with what it has taken to keep the dying tradition of a complex, stylized, demanding, archaic art form alive and to bring this wondrous work -- or at least a good part of it -- to the West Coast for the first time last weekend. "The Peony Pavilion" came to the Irvine Barclay Theatre halved to three three-hour segments and in something called the "Youth Edition." The touring production by the Suzhou Kunju Opera Theatre of Jiangsu, China -- which is bare-bones and dutiful but also richly entertaining with moments of rapturous beauty -- moves on to UCLA this weekend and then to Santa Barbara.

Until the late 1990s, "The Peony Pavilion" was known in the West by reputation, primarily through Cyril Birch's lovely 1980 translation of Tang Xianzu's text. Two scenes from the opera sometimes found their way into touring programs of Chinese opera, but that was it.

The situation hasn't been much better in modern China, where complete performances of "The Peony Pavilion" went out of fashion in the 19th century. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s attempted to put the final nail in the coffin of a subtle art form that insisted upon exquisitely poetic singing and movement from refined and otherworldly practitioners -- and had nothing to say about collective farming.

But kunju and its most famous opera somehow survived. In 1999, the Lincoln Center Festival mounted a complete "Peony Pavilion" in a staging of genius by Chen Shi-Zheng that incorporated the work of hundreds of Chinese artisans, an inspired Chinese cast and superb traditional musicians but was put together in the West. The year before, Peter Sellars created a ecstatic modern opera based on "Peony Pavilion" for the Vienna Festival, in which he included both masters of the kunju tradition and modern opera singers, with an eclectic new score by Tan Dun.

Suddenly the West became enthralled by a work New Yorkers began calling the Ming "Ring," the opera being the same length as Wagner's tetralogy. For many of us, the glorious Lincoln Center production, which toured the few international festivals that could afford it (UCLA and the Music Center made noises but never raised funds), proved a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Chinese authorities, however, did not look kindly on either the Chen or Sellars versions, seeing instead a typical Western exploitation of hallowed (if neglected) tradition. The "Peony Pavilion" on tour in California (it began in Berkeley a week earlier) is a reaction.

"Youth Edition" simply means that the lovers are young, not aging Chinese opera singers, and both here are splendid. Shen Fengying as the sheltered 16-year-old Du Liniang, who wastes away and dies when the young scholar who appears in her dreams doesn't materialize, is a vision of elegance.

She returns to earth as a ghost, seduces her dream lover with spirit sex, gets herself released from hell, returns to life and then seduces him again as a woman. Shen does all this with remarkable determination and daintiness through ever-graceful movement. Kunju performers walk on raised sandals that can give the impression of floating on stage. Hands are rarely seen, but waved long sleeves have a code language of expressive semaphores.

Yu Jiulin, as the young scholar Liu Mengmei, is as beautiful and often as feminine as she. But that only makes his rise to heroism as he undergoes his many trials, magnificently unfazed, all the more impressive.

Both are also excellent singers. Music in kunju is folk flavored, and a highlight of this production is the orchestra of mainly Chinese instruments (a cello and bass have found their way in) conducted by Zhou Youliang. Musical arrangements ever so often hint at Broadway, but the prominent percussion is a form of potent music theater all its own. Indeed, the vibrancy of kunju opera is in the many different levels of expression that work together. Singers sing in normal voice and falsetto. The distinction between speech and music is muddied by rapt vocal squeals, yet another expressive language all its own.

The Suzhou company makes do with little -- too little. Backdrops are inoffensively impressionistic. Props are cheap looking. Costumes, while nicely designed, have an assembly-line quality. But the modestly sized (at least for a "Peony Pavilion") cast is still substantial, and the many roles are expertly handled. Acrobats add their own decor. Comic scenes are usually comic, but raw lowlife that is part of this multifaceted epic often gets air-brushed out.

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