Last post, we had a comprehensive introduction to Kunqu Opera through the 10 part CCTV documentary video series. Today we present a lavish production of the Kunqu Opera classic, “The Peony Pavilion”. I’ve mentioned before that I do not add an “Among our top picks” category to as post lightly. My thinking is that this category should be the starting point of discovery on this web site for someone unfamiliar with Chinese Opera. It’s the “Just show me the incredibly good stuff” category. Well, here’s one that absolutely belongs among the very best.
(from wikipedia) “The Peony Pavilion (Chinese: 牡丹亭; pinyin: mǔdāntíng) is a play written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) in the Ming Dynasty, and first performed in 1598. It is by far the most popular play of the Ming Dynasty, (1368-1644), China’s artistic golden age, and is the primary showcase of the guimendan (闺门旦/閨門旦) role type (young, unmarried girl).” The Peony Pavilion is considered a literary masterpiece in China, in which the main theme is love, or more precisely, a love so perfect it overrides even time and death.
As explained in the documentary from last post, this was originally conceived as a 20 hour opera and written in a musical notation that did not include rhythm and tempo information. Musical instruments used at the time have changed, disappeared or evolved a great deal since the opera was conceived much like the harpsichord was replaced by the piano in western opera. Further, the original play was revised even in the author’s lifetime to adhere more strictly to the definitions then of the structural rules that a Kunqu opera should follow. All modern presentations of this play are to a large extent adaptations which are viewed as more or less “traditional”.
There have been several productions of this opera in the past decade, this is the “2007 Young Lovers’ Edition” which toured worldwide. (from wikipedia again) “Bai Xianyong’s adaptation of The Peony Pavilion that premiered in 2004 helped rejuvenate the tradition. Bai, a Chinese scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues – scholars and performers, some brought back from retirement – spent five months editing Tang’s script. Working out of the Jiangsu Suzhou Kunqu Theater, the group condensed and adapted the original fifty-five scenes to twenty-seven scenes, and twenty hours of performance time to nine. Bai, who had chosen The Peony Pavilion because of its universal message of love, hoped that his rendition would attract youth to Kunqu. In fact, in its tour of China’s top universities, the show was marketed as the Youth Edition of Peony Pavilion. (The production also toured in Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau, seven cities in mainland China, and the Zellerbach Theater in Berkeley, California.) According to Bai, the goal of this youth-oriented production was to “give new life to the art form, cultivate a new generation of Kunqu aficionados, and offer respect to playwright Tang and all the master artists that came before.” His production of The Peony Pavilion was his way of doing so.” The UCLA still have a website for this production dating back a few years here.
This version of the play is therefore quite long — 9 hours, or three parts each roughly 3 hours in length and performed over three days. And contrary to “epic” productions we have seen in the past from China such as “Hongzongliema”, there is no cast rotation — the same actors play in all three parts.
Du Liniang 杜丽娘 by Shen Fengying 沈丰英
Liu Mengmei 柳梦梅 by Yu Jiulin 俞玖林
“Shen Fengying is an outstanding young artist of the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of Jiangsu. She was trained in the guimendan (young unmarried lady) roles and coached by the famous Kunqu artists. Zhang Jiqing and Liu Jiyan. She won the Performance Award at the first Kunqu Arts Festival in China, and the Silver Award at the Accreditation Showcase for Young to Middle-aged Performers in Professional Companies in Suzhou. Yu Jiulin was trained in the jinsheng (young scholar) roles at the Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province. A talented, young artist, he was coached by the famous Kunqu artists. Wang Shiyu and Shi Xiaomei. He won the Performance Award at the first Kunqu Arts Festival in China, and the Gold Award at the Accreditation Showcase for Young to Middle-aged Performers in Professional Companies in Suzhou.” (ref here)
At the end of part 3, complete credits are provided in both Chinese and English for the production cast, all the performers, as well as (most rare in Chinese Opera) all the musicians.
The UCLA have a couple of PDFs that translate passages of this play into English. They include:
Excerpts from famous scenes (mirror)
Book 1 Script, part 1 (mirror)
Book 1 Script, part 2 (mirror)
A complete translation of the Peony Pavilion by Cyril Birch can be purchased on Amazon. The original Chinese version is available for your ebook reader for free here.
The story in brief:
Du Liniang, a sheltered, lonely girl of sixteen, dreams of meeting an imaginary, handsome young scholar near the Peony Pavilion. Over time, she dreams repeatedly of their imaginary romantic encounters. Eventually, saddened by her unrealised dreams, she wastes away. Before she dies, she paints a self-portrait and hides it in the garden. Three years later, the scholar of the girl’s dreams arrives at the Peony Pavilion in the flesh, his name is Liu Mengmei. He discovers the hidden panting, and falls in love with the girl in the portrait so completely that she springs back into life and they are united at last.
As indicated by wiki again, “This is only a broad outline of the plot of an opera which typically runs for 20 hours. The performance tradition has focused on the love story between Du Liniang (杜丽娘/杜麗娘) and Liu Mengmei (柳梦梅/柳夢梅), but its original text also contains sub-plots pertaining to the falling Song Dynasty’s defence against the aggression of the Jin Dynasty.
The widened plot is therefore:
It is the last days of the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1269). On a fine Spring day, a maid persuades Du Liniang, the sixteen year old daughter of an important official, Du Bao, to take a walk in the garden, where she falls asleep. In Du Liniang’s dream she encounters a young scholar, identified later in the play as Liu Mengmei, whom in real life she has never met. Liu’s bold advances starts off a flaming romance between the two and it flourishes rapidly. Du Liniang’s dream is interrupted by a flower petal falling on her, according to her soliloquy recounting the incident in a later act: (Reflection on the lost dream). Du Liniang, however, becomes preoccupied with her dream affair and her love sickness quickly consumes her. Unable to recover from her fixation, Du Liniang wastes away and dies. A demon, the president of the underworld, adjudicates that a marriage between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei is predestined and Du Liniang must return to the earthly world. Du Liniang appears to Liu Mengmei in his dreams. He now inhabits the same garden where Du Liniang had her fatal dream. Once recognising that Du Bao’s deceased daughter is the lady who appears in his dreams, Liu agrees to exhume her upon her request and Du Liniang is brought back to life. Liu visits Du Bao and informs him of his daughter’s resurrection. However, Liu is imprisoned for being a grave robber and an impostor. The ending of the play follows the formula of many Chinese comedies. Liu Mengmei narrowly escapes death by torture thanks to the arrival of the results of the imperial examination in which Liu has topped the list. The emperor pardons all.”
The added grave robbing and underworld demons elements now in mind, the story of this version of the Peony Pavilion is, according to the UCLA web site:
“Part I: The Dream of Love
Du Liniang, a sheltered, lonely girl of sixteen, dreams of a handsome young scholar. Saddened that he was only a dream, she pines away. Before she dies, she paints a self-portrait and hides it in the garden. Her mother buries her under a plum tree, and a shrine is erected to her memory. Most of the singing and action in Part I is done by the female lead, in melismatic, haunting melodies.
Part II: Romance and Resurrection
Liu Mengmei, an impoverished scholar, dreams of a beautiful young woman under a plum tree who prophesies that only she will bring him happiness. Meanwhile, Du Liniang‘s parents murn and the family mansion becomes derelict. The family’s gardener takes pity on the destitute Liu Mengmei and lets him stay in the secret pavilion. There, he finds Du Liniang’s portrait, and falls in love with the image. Liniang’s ghost appears. Convinced of Mengmei’s love, she reveals that she is a ghost, but that she can be revived. Braving his own fears, Mengmei decides to reopen her grave. Helped by Stone Sister, a Daoist abbess, Liu digs up the grave and Du Liniang returns to life.
Part III: Reunion and Triumph
The lively resolution to the story. Mengmei succeeds as a scholar, but not before being punished on suspicion of grave robbing. Liniang is reunited with her parents, but not before her stern father admits that love can conquer death. This final section contains some of the liveliest and most humorous episodes in all of Kunqu.”
Aesthetically, many theatrical conventions found in Beijing Opera today are the same here, such as costumes, props and pantomimes. This production is both traditionally sparse in its sets, but also resolutely modern in its lighting — an absolute treat, in my opinion. Acting is superlative and movement, especially, is divine. To tell the truth, the physical acting coupled with the marvellous lighting is what makes this production really leap out at you.
The difference between this Kunqu Opera and modern Beijing opera lies mostly in the instrumentation and slower pace of the music. Gongs and percussion are less prominent and intrusive than in regular Beijing Opera. The information for these is simply missing from the original musical scores, so there is less of it, perhaps. Or it was decided that this is a sticking point for western audiences unused to them. Or both. Western strings are used, musicians playing a violin and cello are credited, but you won’t distinguish those instruments from the rest, they are used (I think) to chorus and sweeten the Chinese string instruments, rather than compete with them.
Western audiences unfamiliar with Chinese opera will enjoy the singing from this young cast, which is not at all high pitched as in Mei school Beijing Opera. The intended goal is to be as pleasant as (super)humanly possible here, not to demonstrate vocal virtuosity, although it is said the original score by Tang Xianzu was decried for being very difficult to sing. Certainly that is not apparent here: the performers do not strain visibly to hit a high note. All is fluid.
In conclusion, only the very best box of Belgian chocolates comes anywhere close to being this good.
Click here to download Part 1 of the video (697 MB, .mkv format)
Click here to download Part 2 of the video (697 MB, .mkv format)
Click here to download Part 3 of the video (698 MB, .mkv format)
Click here the “making of” documentary video in Chinese (348 MB, .mkv format)
A video interview in Chinese by the UCLA with the author of this adaptation, Bai Xianyong, can be found here
A final technical note:
The video is subtitled in Chinese, but you might need to adjust your settings in VLC to see the subtitles correctly.
In menu Tools > Preferences > Subtitles and OSD > change the “Default encoding” to “Universal, Chinese” and select a Unicode font which includes Chinese characters. On my system, I used the following settings (click to enlarge):
Your font settings might need to be slightly different than mine, the list of available fonts will vary from operating system to operating system, but you get the idea.