China National Peking Opera Gala

Sadler’s Wells, London
November 27, 2019

Charlotte Kasner

I was once invited to a restaurant in Canada to enjoy a ‘Chinese smorgasbord’. While the China National Peking Opera’s (中國國家京劇院) gala saw no such clash of cultures here, that might be an apt description of the evening; or perhaps it was dim sum. Whatever, it was a superb taster for the art form.

The evening opened with jinghu player Wei Wei (魏蔚) playing In the Deep of the Night, providing an overture and an introduction to one of the musical forms that accompany the genre. It does not need an expert knowledge of the instrument to appreciate the many technical challenges that were masterfully executed.

That was followed by solos in concert dress by senior company members Yu Kuizhi (于魁智) and Li Shengsu (李勝素). It was slightly surreal to see the dapper, neatly besuited Yu sing the highly stylised forms as if he had just burst into song in the middle of a business meeting. Both have extraordinary range and, as we were reminded by the introduction, have pursued decades of study to perfect the art. “Three minutes on stage equals ten years of study” is a maxim that many classical dancers would recognise.

Pan Yuejiao in Bamboo Forest StrategyPhoto Quan Van Truong
Pan Yuejiao in Bamboo Forest Strategy
Photo Quan Van Truong

‘A Duel with Ma Chao’ sees the two generals from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) fighting until they become friends. The ritualised combat is illustrated by the symbolism of the costumes, the flags sprouting from the performers’ backs proving no impediment to dexterity as they wield giant lances.

Bamboo Forest Strategy introduces the familiar trope of the cross-dressing woman warrior and the stock character of the martial dan. Liu Jinding (劉金定) duals with the evil warrior who, in spite of possessing supernatural powers, is defeated by good. This time, they duel with giant knives fringed with red tassels to symbolise their wounds. Pan Yuejiao (潘月嬌) is every bit as physical as her male counterparts as both use strength and grace in utter control.

Hu Bin and Zhang Zhifang in Monkey KingPhoto Quan Van Truong
Hu Bin and Zhang Zhifang in Monkey King
Photo Quan Van Truong

The opera Monkey King (known as Sun Wukong, 孫悟空) illustrates that monkeys in China were regarded in pretty much the same way as Kipling describes in The Jungle Book; at the root of every problem. This monkey has caused chaos in heaven by stealing and eating all the peaches, causing the Green Dragon, White Tiger and Imperial Troops to be dispatched to catch and punish him. Zhang Zhifang (張志芳) in the title role gave a virtuoso performance, at one point, insouciantly standing in a high developpé that would be the envy of many a female ballet dancer whilst executing several retirés back into the extension. He seemed to be made of wood and hinges, rock solid and without the hint of a wobble, as if he could do this all day. Not far behind in skill were the imperial troops who performed gravity-defying tumbles with multiple twisting flic-flacs and somersaults.

Li Kui Visits His Mother (李逵探母) introduces the poor character of the blind mother and her son from the famous stories in The Water Margin. He has been wrongly exiled but disguises himself and makes a secret visit to his mother. She does not believe that it can be him until he sings a folk song that she taught him as a child and they have a joyous reunion. The poorer characters sing in language that is not far removed from regular Mandarin rather than the heightened form of verse used by the noble and supernatural characters.

The Tale of the White SnakePhoto Quan Van Truong
The Tale of the White Snake
Photo Quan Van Truong

The Tale of White Snake (白蛇傳) is a familiar story for London aficionados and, on this fifth annual visit from the China National Peking Opera, we see the section where the love story begins over a shared umbrella in ‘Visiting the West Lake’. The humour and the detail in the mime truly brought to life a journey on water with merely an oar in the boatman’s hand as a prop. The mutual, synchronised bending of knees as the three protagonists boarded the boat and the shaking of the water from the oar as the boatman got back on land were delightful. The maid could have come straight from a Mozart opera, no mere passive servant she.

Featuring Liu Mengjiao (劉夢姣), Celestial Maiden Scatters Flowers (天女散花) showcases the use of long ribbons attached to the already long ‘water sleeves’. The images are taken from paintings in Dunhuang, a city in the north west of China in Gansu, once a garrison town on the Silk Road.

The Empty Fort Stratagem (空城計) is part of a longer tale that tells of a cunning man who, cornered by his enemies in a deserted fort, takes an abandoned stringed instrument from the wall and sits calmly playing it. Nonplussed, his enemies retreat as they assume that he must have a superior strategy to be so clam in the face of their attack. It is a super showcase for male vocal talents.

Spring Dreams (春夢) was created by one of the four great dans of Peking Opera, Cheng Yanqui (程硯秋), who created many major roles in the 1920s and ’30s. When his voice broke aged 13, he was left with a falsetto that was deeper than the traditional in Chinese opera, which he then used in the may female roles in which he specialised. Chinese opera did have female performers but troupes were segregated. In male companies, all female roles were originally played by men, and vice-versa. By the time companies became mixed at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the tradition had become established and men continue to play women, and women young men, to this day; not unlike as in English pantomime.

The Venturing into The Valley excerpt from Warrior Women of Yang (楊門女將) provided a taster for the full-length version that was performed the following evening. As Mu Guiying (穆桂英) enlisted the services of an old herbalist (in a splendid conical hat) and found a path through the valley to confront her enemies, it showcased all the delights of the genre as it brought the evening to a close.

It is always a delight to welcome the China National Peking Opera back to London and the gala was an opportunity to revisit old favourites and glimpse some new pieces. At three hours, it was long, even with the three final planned excerpts cut, although the lengthy introductions by Kathy Hall from the London Peking Opera Studio could have been slicker and shorter.

I hope the company returns again next year, with something new from their huge repertoire.