Faring very well
Not having been to London for 10 years, the China National Peking Opera Company brought a real humdinger with them in Farewell My Concubine. Not at all like western opera it felt more like a play with a bit of singing, dancing, mime and acrobatics thrown in and in the first half there was a lot of story to get through (which basically boiled down to the Chu overlord Xiang Yu and his army being tricked into a catastrophic ambush by his arch-rival Liu Bang – something which could all have been avoided if only he’d listened to his wise concubine Yu Ji. Men, eh?).
Consequently there was lot of talking to begin with and not much action but it gave you a chance to get used the formality of the art-form. Everything is choreographed to the individual characters, from the way they walked to the movement of their eyes. The pace is slow and packed full of small gestures that counteract the bombast of the percussive music and the other-wordly gymnastics of the vocals.
Towards the end of the first half there’s a stylised fight scene that pepped things up with some terrific tumbling, including an astonishing moment when one of the vanquished soldiers flipped up into the air, did a spinning somersault and landed flat on his back. He deserved the applause that came his way.
The second half is devoted to the personal drama between Xiang Yu and his concubine and it’s utterly gripping. Yu Ji soon realises that the only way to save the situation for the Chu overlord and his people is to sacrifice herself. For the first time in the performance they touch and their ritualised formality breaks down with displays of heartfelt emotion. Her fear and love is represented by a tiny tremor of her hands and when she secretly wipes a tear from each eye, it simply breaks your heart.
To ease Xiang Yu’s troubles Yu Ji performs an exquisite dance. It’s a lyrical lament but laced with delicate frozen postures and there was a couple of extraordinary moments where she whirled a pair of swords around her head at a ferocious speed. And bear in mind that this was the opera’s lead female singer Zhu Hong – as talented as Maria Callas was in her prime, it’s difficult to imagine her finishing off an aria at Covent Garden with a perfectly balanced backbend that put the top of her head on the floor.
The biggest problem for many westerners with Chinese Opera is the singing. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a completely alien form from what we’re used to and the piercing falsetto voice of Zhu Hong was literally painful on occasion. But get past that and an incredible world opens up before you. It’s worth coming just to see the dazzling costumes and richly detailed painted faces but this was primarily a deeply moving performance.