Sydney Festival 2013 review: The Peony Pavilion

29 January 2013

'The Peony Pavilion' is the story of two lovers in a tale of love, passion, seduction, death and resurrection. [Image: Sydney Festival]
'The Peony Pavilion' is the story of two lovers in a tale of love, passion, seduction, death and resurrection. [Image: Sydney Festival]

Professor Hans Hendrischke, from the China Studies Centre, responds to the Sydney Festival production of The Peony Pavilion which was performed in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.

Tang Xianzu wrote the Peony Pavilion in 1598 or thereabouts. A contemporary of Shakespeare, he was a rebel against the burden of China's Confucian traditions and at the same time deeply concerned about the future of the Ming Dynasty. Less than half a century later, the Ming Dynasty collapsed under the onslaught of the Manchurian barbarians who went on to establish the Qing Dynasty as China's last imperial dynasty.

The Peony Pavilion reflects all these concerns and brings them to life in the story of two lovers in a tale of love, passion, seduction, death and resurrection. The story blurs boundaries between dream and reality, life and death, personal and national fate, individual and society. The multitude of plots and sub-plots requires more than 20 hours for a full-length performance of the 'Peony Pavilion'. Shorter performances select specific aspects, and drop others.

The Sydney Festival performance was coherent in its selection of the favourite dream scenes and the lead-up to the happy end. Seasoned Chinese Opera fans missed some popular scenes famous for their allusions to classical Chinese literature, but realised that most of the audience had not memorised the canon of Chinese classics, and might have more fun with romantic scenes and acrobatics thrown in.

The romantic scenes required a bit of fantasy to convince the audience that this was for mature adults, even though the seduction scene in the first dream is the favourite of all directors. How far can you go? Intertwining the long sleeves? Bending the head, or the knees? The English surtitles helped those who did not get the message. Not long after 'Let me loosen your collar' and 'where have we met before', the couple disappeared down to the rose trellis, and the Queen of the Flowers and her eight dancing girls took over the stage. However, all this ended in grief because it was only a dream, and the girl faded away after waking up alone.

As the story descends into the afterlife, the audience gets an impression of conversations in the underworld, as the girl has turned into a ghost yearning for spring time on earth and her dream lover. The King of the Underworld in his spectacular outfit, flanked by two acrobatic assistants, tells her that 'Spring comes and goes, how can it be pinned down?' and she tells him 'after all you said, nothing is clear'. Nevertheless, in his attitude towards her there is a very rare Chinese artistic take on resurrection. The King of the Underworld has sympathy for the girl not because of her infatuation, but because of her persistence and her sincerity. But that is not enough to bring her back to life. She needs the full commitment of her dream lover, who in the meantime is desperately searching for her, the girl in his dream.

In the recognition scene, her return to life is negotiated. Not only does he need to be fully committed to her, he also has to establish her status, 'shall I only be your concubine?' His answer 'I'll marry no other than the girl in my dream' paves the way for her resurrection in style.

This where the Sydney Festival Peony Pavilion ends. It is a good and coherent selection that gives the human story. The full cultural context would have required a few more hours of negotiations with the father of the bride, who suspected the resurrection was a case of grave robbery. Final intervention by the Emperor, just before execution, saves the young groom by bestowing an imperial title on him for outstanding performance in the iImperial exams.

The Sydney Festival Peony Pavilion is audience friendly not only in the selection of scenes and presenting a story but in presenting a Northern Kunqu Opera, which is easier to accept and enjoy than the highly elaborate and sophisticated original Southern Kunqu Opera.

The Southern Kunqu Opera tradition is currently rediscovering its Ming Dynasty roots and doing away with the 'distortions' imposed on it during the three hundred years of the Qing Dynasty. The Northern Kunqu Opera was formally established in Beijing in the 1950s to revive the Kunqu Opera tradition for a Chinese audience more used to Peking Opera.

The differences are subtle, but Chinese Opera fans find the Northern version more approachable and less stylised, sometimes allowing more realistic acting and more melodious singing. In turn, the Sydney Festival Peony Pavilion, coming straight from Beijing, lacked some of the sensuality that international performances in recent decades have introduced into the acting and singing of the Peony Pavilion. There is no other opera in the Chinese Opera repertoire that offers so much space to bring passion and seduction onto the stage and tease the imagination of the audience.

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