Along with Warrior Women of Yang, Farewell My Concubine is one of two pieces being performed by the China National Peking Opera Company at Sadler’s Wells this week. It tells of two leaders, Xiang Yu, Overlord of Chu, and Liu Bang, King of Han, who are fighting for the supreme command of China. Xiang Yu always faces fear in battle, and has escaped death and defeat many times, while Liu Bang is more adept at manipulating situations behind the scenes with his scheming advisors. This enables him to lure Xiang Yu’s troops into an ambush, forcing the Overlord to retreat to the Chu camp. There Xiang Yu’s concubine Yu Ji tries to comfort him before suggesting that, even with the enemy so close, he could break out of the camp, return home and work on a new strategy for defeating the King. He is reluctant to do this, however, as he fears what will become of her, so she selflessly removes any dilemma he may be facing by committing suicide.
It is easy for an outsider to see both works simply as Chinese opera, but in reality Farewell My Concubine is as different thematically from Warrior Women of Yang as Dialogues des Carmélites is from Il barbiere di Siviglia. Warrior Women is a comedy, in the sense of having a happy ending, and proudly illustrates how honour and courage in battle will always beat cowardice and underhand manipulation. Farewell is a tragedy, in which cunning triumphs over valour, and a tale of self-sacrifice. It also feels more philosophical as the idea is raised that in order to triumph one must understand both themselves and the enemy. While the former opera suggests that no price is too high to pay for just revenge, in the latter Yu Ji laments the effect that war has on ordinary people.
This said, the characters are to an extent similar in the two pieces, and the programme provides a very useful guide to the four main types that grace the stage in Chinese opera: the Sheng (a male role), Dan (a female role), Chou (a clown) and Jing (a painted face male role). In Western opera we may be more inclined to think in terms of character functions (such as hero, antagonist, mentor and trickster), thus allowing for more variation in the specific character that takes on each of these roles. There are some similarities, however, as certain stock types do exist, such as the ageing man who tries to put himself between two young lovers (examples being Doctor Bartolo, Don Pasquale and Baron Ochs).
There is a greater balance between male and female roles in Farewell than in Warrior Women, although much of Act II is dominated by Yu Ji. Perhaps because my ears had already grown acclimatised through my previous experience, I found that, unlike with Warrior Women, I instantly took to the performer Zhu Hong’s high pitched voice so that even her extensive melodrama (delivered with a musical grandeur) was pleasing to the ear. Her song in which she tries to lift Xiang Yu’s spirits is an undoubted highlight of the evening. In it we see that, in the same way as in Chinese opera there is a hair’s breadth between the sung and spoken word, so too is there between acting and dancing as the two fuse within the performance.
Although there is not quite the same volume of acrobatics as in Warrior Women, the visual aspects of the performance remain key to the experience. It may be common to see stylised gestures in Russian opera today, as it would have been in Western opera in the eighteenth century, but the Chinese operatic approach to acting would seem to be founded entirely on these. Arm and body movements parallel the realistic gestures that might be made if someone was feeling pushed away or could not face the truth, but they also carry much symbolic meaning. The gestures are detailed and continuous so that the body is almost constantly moving in a fluid and aesthetically pleasing manner.
The exquisite costumes are also designed to bring out the movement as long sleeves can be unfurled or curled up, while accessories attached to the clothes multiply out the effect of the rhythms that pulsate through the bodies. The scenery consists of backdrops depicting craggy mountain ranges and huge sweeping curtains and, although these were designed to fill a variety of areas, they feel a great affinity with the Sadler’s Wells stage.
The China National Peking Opera Company will be at Sadler’s Wells until 22 November. Warrior Women of Yang will be performed at 7.30pm on 19, 21 and 22 November, and Farewell My Concubine will appear at 7.30pm on 20 November and 2.00pm on 21 November. For further details visit the Sadler’s Wells website.