As outsiders it is all too easy for us to see Chinese opera as a single entity. When one thinks, however, that ‘Western’ opera covers everything chronologically from Monteverdi to George Benjamin and geographically from John Adams to Prokofiev, it becomes obvious that such a view is woefully simplistic. Thunderstorm, being staged at the Coliseum this week by the Shanghai Opera Company, was created in 2001 by Mo Fan, one of China’s most acclaimed composers, who has also written for screen. As is the case with so much contemporary music, the score reaches far beyond traditional cultural boundaries to embrace a wide range of international influences.
Last November the China National Peking Opera Company brought Warrior Women of Yang and Farewell My Concubine to Sadler’s Wells. These works represented the Chinese operatic tradition with high-pitched singing, an orchestra of just four or five and acrobatics. Thunderstorm, in contrast, features a much larger orchestra, conducted here by Zhang Guoyong, combining traditional Chinese and Western instruments. In this way, the beautiful music reveals a variety of influences, with the balance between the Chinese and Western sound worlds constantly shifting throughout the opera. The transitions in style, however, are crafted very skilfully and this is only one of several reasons why the score so readily brings Puccini, alongside a range of other Western composers, to mind.
The story is based on an eponymous 1933 play by Cao Yu (1910-96), a pioneer of the New Culture Movement in China who is sometimes seen as the ‘Shakespeare of China’. Although it involves traditional Chinese settings and hierarchies, so many of the plot devices feel reminiscent of those to be found in Western works that the story almost feels like a parody of every opera plot we have ever seen.
Set in the Zhou Mansion, it sees Zhou Puyuan’s son Ping fall in love with the housemaid Sifeng, having previously had an affair with his stepmother Fanyi. The latter is now distraught because she still desires Ping, and when she discovers that her own son Chong is also in love with Sifeng she orders the maid’s mother to take her away. When Nanny Lu appears, however, Zhou Puyuan vaguely recognises her and soon discovers that she is the housemaid Shiping who he loved thirty years earlier, and consequently Ping’s mother. Hierarchies dictate that Nanny Lu cannot reveal her true identity to her son, and when the truth finally emerges after Ping and Sifeng attempt to run away together, Sifeng realises that she is pregnant with her own brother’s child. If this sounds reminiscent of Der Ring des Nibelungen, so too does the ending in which the majority of protagonists end up dead (two struck by lightning, one committing suicide through grief), and a thunderstorm washes over the land and cleanses it of past sins.
Zha Mingzhe’s staging is highly effective, especially considering that this is essentially a touring production designed to fit into a variety of venues. Luo Jiangtao’s set consists of a huge circular staircase that rises at the back and, by not being centrally aligned, creates a diagonal horizon. When the excellent chorus graces the steps and sings directly outwards it feels as if we could be in the Hall of the Wartburg in Tannhäuser. Within this circular construction lies the living room of the Zhou Mansion, which contains a window framed by a Classical arch lying at a peculiar Expressionistic angle. Zhang Shunchang’s lighting and the other effects are superb as they portray the advents of the thunderstorms. Projections on a transparent screen at the front of the stage appear at the start of each act, and when Ping shoots himself blood is seen running down the huge window before this and the other scenery collapses to portray the washing away of the old world.
Some aspects of the story and characterisation are expressed quite subtly. For example, Fanyi is an ageing woman with neither the looks nor attraction she once had, and yet she is never a caricature of ugliness like Katisha in The Mikado, or of old age like the Countess in The Queen of Spades. Other elements, including various utterances concerning rank and role, feel clichéd, however, and the revelations come so thick and fast in Act II that, despite the music supporting them well, they do feel a little hammed. They would still be moving enough were it not that certain declarations, such as Sifeng’s that she is pregnant, oddly provoke laughter from a small minority of the audience. It is hearing the noise of this that breaks the spell rather than the far-fetched nature of the plot points in the first place.
The cast, which includes Xu Xiaoying as Fanyi, Han Peng as Zhou Ping, Zhang Jianlu as Zhou Puyuan, Ji Yunhui as Sifeng, Zhang Fantao as Zhou Chong and Li Na as Nanny Lu (although the performers do rotate with others), is strong. In particular, Xu Xiaoying is possessed of a full and beautiful voice while Han Peng demonstrates a large and expansive sound. Their voices do not reveal the extremely high-pitched quality to be found in much Chinese opera, and feel closer in nature to the Western style, even though elements of the Chinese tradition remain apparent in them. The same point might be applied to the performers’ gestures, which do not provide the continuous stream of movement to be found in more traditional Chinese opera, and yet certainly show several nods to it.
After Thunderstorm closes the Shanghai Season at the Coliseum continues with the ballet Echoes of Eternity from 17 to 21 August.