This week the China National Peking Opera Company is visiting London for the first time in ten years, presenting two operas, Warrior Women of Yang and Farewell My Concubine. The first of these is set during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and focuses on the aftermath to the killing of General Yang Zongboa in battle by the invading Western Xia. Advisors to the Emperor propose acknowledging defeat and making peace to avoid further bloodshed, but the Warrior Women of Yang rebuke such cowardice and march into battle. After putting the enemy on the defensive, they avoid a trap that it lays and go on to defeat it entirely.
The sound world of Chinese opera is so different to that of its Western counterpart that it can initially feel difficult to make sense of it. The singing embraces very high lines and can feel quite piercing and unrelenting. Although the style might seem nasal, that term may not necessarily be an accurate way of describing the method whereby the voice is shaped. To me it felt like the sound that might be produced if a woman were to employ the same strict vocal approach as a counter-tenor.
Once, however, the ears have adjusted, it becomes apparent that there are certain similarities with Western opera. There are parallels to the ideas of melodrama, recitative and aria, although here the spoken word would seem to employ the same mode of voice as the singing, giving the utterances a musical grandeur. When the women speak in unison it feels vaguely reminiscent of wards in various Gilbert and Sullivan operettas doing the same. Aside from this, however, there is no chorus singing, and the volume of female singing far outweighs the male, although that could be a consequence of this opera’s subject matter. The typical ranges of each may not be the same, but the same contrast that exists between sopranos and mezzo-sopranos is apparent, while there is also what we would see as a trouser role.
The distinction between ‘recitative’ and ‘aria’ may not be quite as clear as in Western opera, but there is certainly a sense in which there are key discrete pieces that meditate on a dilemma or push forward an argument. Some of these are clearly designed to stand out and showcase the vocal talents of the singer just as ‘O mio babbino caro’ or ‘Vissi d’arte’ do. The orchestra is small by general Western operatic standards, consisting in this instance of a handful of stringed instruments, some percussion and a modicum of wind.
Methods for generating drama on stage can be surprisingly similar across different times and cultures, and one scene that illustrates this well is when the people are forced to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of Zongbao. They have little appetite to do so as they know he is dead, but they are forced to keep up the pretence in order to shield the truth from his Grandmother. Within this, there are instances of comedy, when the soldiers who are determined to show respect to their dead General by remaining sober are forced to drink more wine, and those of high drama, as the reality gradually dawns on the Grandmother.
The most outstanding moments of the evening, however, come in the battle scenes that occupy the majority of Act II, and which are usually accompanied by percussion instruments alone. Spectacular movements and gravity defying acrobatics fill the stage, and particularly impressive are the streams of backward somersaults that are offered up. Some are executed slowly and others at breakneck speed, but each time the cleanness of the land back down to earth is just as amazing as the agility shown in the air.
Warrior Women of Yang may not find that it is universally loved as someone’s enjoyment of it could largely be dictated by how much they take to the sound world of Chinese opera. It is possible that some people could find the singing too piercing to be engaging, but if anyone is in two minds as to whether to take the risk, the battle scenes should persuade them to do so. Visual bravado of the type seen in these is something that you most certainly don’t get in Western opera.
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.