Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Tang Xianzu's The Peony Pavilion

Opera in Fifty-five scenes Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

Qian Li & Wen Yuhang
with forty actors, singers and musicians

Set Designer Huang Hai Wei
Costume Designer Cheng Shu Yi
Lighting and Properties Designer Yi Li Ming

Filmed at Grande Halle Villette in Paris during the 1999 Festival d’Automne

Digital Classics

This is a wonderful way to come to terms with the exotic world of Chinese Traditional Opera, a 2 hour version of a 19 hour show (yes, nineteen) in a lavish presentation which wowed New York and Paris in 1999. This really is opera, no question !

On the Digital Classics website can be seen the romantic and poetic love story that lies at the heart of a famous sixteenth-century masterpiece of Kunju opera, dating from just a decade or so before Monteverdi's works which have only quite recently established themselves in the European and American repertoire.

It embraces many aspects of life of the time, family values, national conflicts, spirit life of ghosts after death, all you could wish, in touching loves scenes and slapstick comedy, all to an ancient score created for voices and traditional instruments by learned scholars of today who have sought to “rediscover the essence of the art form” in director Chen Shi-Zheng's vision of the piece, created, he says “by respectfully drawing upon the performance tradition of Chinese opera.”

Many of us will have heard the strange wailing sounds of Chinese traditional vocal music and maybe been alienated by it. This treatment, with narration and surtitles, helps us to focus and creates a notable spell, if you give it only a little time; it is no odder than many of the advanced extended techniques embraced by contemporary singers, and incorporated by works on the operatic stage. This acclimatisaton is helped by what seem to be fine performances, aided by spectacular make-up and costuming, and with all explained in a "Making The Peony Pavilion" extra.

Many of us have become familiar with oriental instruments from China and Japan, and these are featured in a dozen musicians on stage, playing bamboo flutes, ruan, pi-pa, dulcimer and panpipes etc and characteristic gongs which signal special moments. These provide a backing that is easy to enjoy, even though some limitation is likely to be felt in the relatively simple pentatonic meodies.

But what makes this DVD strongly recommendable is the treatment of the singing actors; aided by texts for orientation, one quite quickly grows to appreciate and enjoy the extreme subtelty of the vocal inflections; you soon get used to the falsetto vocal production and strange tone quality of some of the singers, but their mastery is easy to appreciate; remember, it is not so long since the counter-tenor voice was thought an oddity, rejected by many music lovers around the middle of my lifetime! This special singing, with Qian Li and Wen Yuhang real stars, held our interest and enthusiasm for the two hours, more even than the attractively complicated story line which culminates with some spectacular acrobatics in the fight scenes, all leading to a final happy ending.

Lastly, the film is remarkably cheap, only £6 99 to download, delivering the same version that we received for review on DVD, a "check disc" without paper-work. All you need is on screen, with navigation easy and efficient. The DVD can be had for a reasonable c. £12, but seems not yet available on Amazon, though they do carry enthusiastic reviews of an earlier release.

All 18 hours of the complete performance can be accessed on line, complete with programme notes, but at times reception can be subject to streaming interruptions, and it really deserves to be seen with good equipment on a large screen.

Opera fans are urged to consider The Peony Pavilion DVD very seriously.

Peter Grahame Woolf