Like the proverbial blind men attempting to identify an elephant, audiences at the Lincoln Center Festival have been gingerly circling around The Peony Pavilion all month, and with some puzzlement. What is to be made of this 401-year-old Chinese opera, a nineteen-hour epic in 55 scenes by Ming-era poet-playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) and currently being performed complete for the first time in centuries? A bit of advice for those about to embark on the final cycle over the coming weekend: Forget about definitions and preconceptions, make an inner surrender, and enjoy.
One aspect of the work can’t be argued: As a sheer sensual experience, The Peony Pavilion is hard to beat. The stage of the La Guardia Concert Hall is a pretty breathtaking sight all by itself. Huang Hai Wei’s elaborate set is dominated by the Ming-style pavilion where the action takes place, a gorgeous open-sided wood structure consisting of 60 hand-joined pieces, front-faced by an 18,000-gallon working pond stocked with ducks, goldfish, and water plants. Exotic birds in ornate cages adorn the pool, and their gentle calls fill the air. Luxurious painted silk-screen drops run across the rear of the stage, which includes a dais on the right to accommodate twelve musicians and a dressing area on the left where the performers – 23 actors playing more than 160 roles – prepare for their entrances.
Even Western ears resistant to the more frequently encountered Beijing brand of Chinese opera, with its harsh vocal conventions and grating instrumental textures, are likely to be beguiled by The Peony Pavilion. Considered a masterpiece of the comparatively muted and more subtly varied Kunju style, the opera slowly tells its tale through a flowing sequence of some 200 “arias” that have an attractively tuneful, lilting folklike quality. Instrumental support, which mostly doubles the vocal lines, is provided by bamboo flutes, two-stringed viols, lutes, dulcimer, and panpipes, gently seasoned by percussive punctuation. Unlike Western opera, where a fabulous vocal endowment and great singing can forgive most any visual or dramatic absurdity, a Kunju artist must present the total package: voice, figure, facial expression, and gesture, all in exquisitely balanced proportion. Indeed, body language here is just as important as vocal inflection in conveying feeling and emotion. When everything comes together – and in this production it surely does – the seductive combination has a hypnotic beauty that can be grasped and appreciated simply as an aesthetic abstraction.
Despite the opera’s length and many characters, the plot is easily followed. The principal focus is on the two lovers: the young scholar Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang, a teenage girl closely guarded by her family, who first meet in an erotic dream. Unable to find Liu in real life, Du pines away and dies, but the judge of the underworld, struck by her beauty, allows her to return to earth to look for her true love. The couple is eventually united in reality, but not before encountering many obstacles, including parental opposition, invading Mongol hordes, interfering comic servants and rustics, marauding brigands, and a host of other characters. By the end of the fifty-fifth scene, we have experienced an entire world, a vivid storybook cross-section of life in China as it may have existed during the Song dynasty, between 960 and 1279.
The content, structure, and even the complex textual problems of The Peony Pavilion irresistibly suggest many parallels with Western drama. The most obvious one is with Shakespeare, almost an exact contemporary of Tang Xianzu: Both writers drew from history and legend to create vast panoramas populated by richly drawn characters from every stratum of society. They also knew how to treat universal themes and give them theatrical immediacy, generating an audience appeal that has lost none of its power. That two such potent creative figures from two diverse and widely separated cultures could function in so many similar ways seems almost too much of a coincidence. Cultural historians will have their own theories to explain it, but for the rest of us, after seeing a full-length production of The Peony Pavilion, the world suddenly seems like a smaller place.
Looking for musical parallels, I was continually struck by a kinship to early Italian Baroque opera, in particular the works of Francesco Cavalli, who lived a generation after Tang. Not only is there the same deft mixture of comical and tragical elements, but the fluid musical pacing – rapid dialogue recitatives interrupted by brief solo numbers that underscore and heighten the expressive effect of the moment – is astonishingly similar. Tang, of course, was not a composer but adapted his text to existing melodies (shades of The Beggar’s Opera), most of which are no longer known today. In fact, what we heard was based on the earliest and most complete score for the piece, dating from 1792. Interestingly, the Chinese musicians who prepared this new edition worked with many of the same scholarly tools that Western musicologists in early-music circles now use to determine authentic performance practices.
Everyone involved with The Peony Pavilion at Lincoln Center seems to be passionately in love with the piece. They would have to be, considering the efforts it surely took to resuscitate such an exquisitely detailed and carefully integrated production after Shanghai bureaucrats sabotaged the performances originally scheduled for last year’s festival. Director Chen Shi-Zheng has had to restage the work from scratch, working with a cast of practiced Kunju artists who must have come to New York at some peril to their future careers back home. As the young couple Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang, Wen Yu Hang and Qian Yi are spellbinding figures of idealized romance and occupy a special world of their own, created through gracefully stylized gestures, high-pitched vocal inflections, and the sheer beauty of their physical presence. They, like everyone else in the cast, perform with extraordinary discipline, a focused concentration that never threatens to falter for a moment throughout this huge epic. Their skill is awesome and their ferocious belief in the material totally infectious – more than enough to sway audiences still uneasy with the sometimes strange but always compelling conventions of Chinese opera.