It’s opera Jim, but not as we know it
You have to love bright, bright colours to enjoy Chinese opera. The costumes and staging dazzle with the stuff, and that’s not to mention the sparkle of the women’s remarkable headdresses. With the edge-of-range singing and thunder-crashing percussion, the only understated thing about the art-form is the acting. Characters don’t visibly emote much, they rarely touch each other and the formality of interaction is extreme in its politeness. It is however, this very formality that tautens heartstrings as it slowly disintegrates under the story’s circumstances.
The Emperor and the Concubine seems to hold a narrative typical for Chinese opera. An Emperor falls in love with a woman and takes her for his concubine; unfortunately political events soon take over and the concubine has to kill herself in order to save her lover and his empire. Not a happy lot for either of them and one that’s sadly based on historical fact.
Li Shengsu is fabulous as Yang Yuhuan (the concubine). There’s a tremendous scene where she decides to cut off a piece of her hair to show her love for the Emperor; I’m not quite sure of the cultural significance of this action but she demonstrated her absolute terror of doing it through the simple trembling of her fingers. Throughout, her every movement was poised and deftly controlled – the way she slowly lowered herself into a bath, for example, was exquisite, and her unexpected ritual suicide at the start of the second half was startlingly beautiful.
As is often the case, the Emperor himself is something of a ditzy character, impetuous and prone to rash decisions. Yu Kuizhi played him as a fairly happy-go-lucky fellow, with plenty of hahaha-ing, all of which contributed to the humanising of his role which in turned led to a convincing sense of a genuine love for Yang. The other roles are fairly small although Chen Guosen made a great deal of Gao Lishi, the Emperor’s advisor, through whose eyes we see much of the story.
Without any apparent relation to western notions of melody or musical structure, the singing is undeniably an acquired taste. However, technical ability is a universal appreciation and the long-held notes are remarkable, as was Li’s ability to express herself with barely any movement of her mouth. As always, the acrobatics proved a highlight of the show but in the end the happy/sad reunion of Li and the Emperor in heaven was the standout moment; Chinese opera at its most divine.