Bejing Kunju Opera Theater Review
In a dazzling display of artistry, the Beijing Kunju Opera Theater performed before a full house at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. Presenting sections of four different classical Chinese operas, the members of the Kunju troupe managed to captivate the audience with their skill and beauty.
Indeed, Tuesday's performance was a veritable feast of gorgeous color and gravity--defying acrobatics. Actors moved glided across the stage, flipping in the air with such control that their movements were soundless. Especially noteworthy was Dong Honggang in "Zhon Kui Marries Off His Sister" who elicited gasps from the audience as he raised and lowered himself while balancing on one leg, the other leg raised in front of him. The work of the supporting cast of acrobats in "Borrowing the Fan" and "Zhong Kui Marries Off His Sister" was no less astonishing; the actors would flit across the stage with leaps and flips and then disappear suddenly, as if apparitions of motion.
The movement of the female actors, while less overtly spectacular, was extremely graceful and affecting. One character, the Iron Fan Princess wore an elaborate, glittering headpiece with two long feathers jutting out from the top. During the Princess's fight with the Monkey King, her sword and the King's staff moved in parallel motion with the Princess's two feathers with mesmerizing effects. In "Walking in the Garden," from the Peony Pavilion, the character Du Liniang dreams of meeting the young man Liu Mengmei and of making love to him in the garden. The potentially lurid encounter is treated with the extreme delicacy and subtlety; Wei Chunrong, the actress playing the role of Du Liniang, used her long sleeves to alternately hide and display her hands, eventually accepting the hands of Liu Mengmei, a sign (or perhaps metaphor) for the consummation of their desire.
Non--verbal gestures such as Du Liniang's lucidly articulated the story lines, rendering the translations of the scenes in the liner notes superfluous, even for a non--Chinese speaking audience. Indeed, the lack of dialogue, compared to the Western tradition of opera, is noteworthy. Kunju theater relies on gestures, facial expression and even make--up (different styles of make--up indicate various types of characters, i.e. clown or villain) to tell its stories.
While the acrobatics and elaborate costumes (especially striking against the troupe's spartan sets) stole the show, the music served to enhance the performance in more subtle ways. The percussion section of the orchestra, composed of the danpigu (the small drum), the dalo (the large gong), and the naobo (the cymbals), was especially prominent in "The Crossroads," and "Borrowing the Fan," scenes that involved fighting and intense acrobatic moves.
The percussion music served to heighten the action and suspense in those scenes, much the same way music is used in Western opera, theater and film. The more lyrical sound of the dizi (the bamboo flute), the erhu (the two--stringed violin) and the sheng (the reed organ), prominent in "Walking in the Garden" and "Zhong Kui Marries Off His Sister," helped to express longing and desire in those scenes. Overall, however, the music was marked by a certain restraint; it never seemed overwhelming or bombastic.
The only unpleasant aspect of the performance was the shrill. sing--song intonations of (particularly) the female actors. To unaccustomed Western ears, the sound is piercing and at times, almost painful. Nevertheless, the Beijing Kunju Opera remains a thrilling opera experience.
Copyright © 2004 Dartmouth College