Text by Liu Haile
In an era when traditional art forms find increasing difficulties attracting audiences, it’s rare for a new Peking Opera production to attract wide attention, let alone stir up controversy, as was the case with the recent revival of Farewell My Concubine. Perhaps the opera’s incorporation of so many new elements that deviate from orthodox Peking Opera is to blame: a red-faced king of the Chu, Concubine Yu wrapped in brilliant attire, a real horse on stage, lute players wearing backless cheongsams, walk-ons performing modern dance, stunning visual effects, and modern folk music.
Premiering at Beijing’s Reignwood Theater at the end of February 2012, Farewell My Concubine was adapted from a Peking Opera classic of the same name, which was developed by the prestigious artist Mei Lanfang in 1922. The artists responsible for the modern adaptation are Chinese-American director Chen Shizheng and his team of choreographers and costume designers from Germany, Britain, and the United States.
Old Tune, New Look
Before the curtain even rose, a huge poster hanging in the Baroque theater caught the eye of the first few rows, depicting a bare-faced Concubine Yu leaning against Xiang Yu, the king of the Chu, who was heavily made up.
A video kicked off the performance: Four Chinese characters bearing the opera’s name emerged from flames, leading the audience to wartime more than 2,000 years ago. Then, the main characters - Xiang Xu and his concubine - entered the stage, escorted by red flags and banners. However, spectators familiar with the original version of Farewell My Concubine were surprised to find the characters so different: In traditional Peking Opera, Xiang Yu’s face was usually painted white and black, but this time he was red; Concubine Yu’s headwear looked similar to that in traditional Peking Opera, but her feathered costume was closer to that of Western opera.
Despite his controversial costume and make-up, Xiang Yu, played by famous artist Meng Guanglu, still belted orthodox tunes. However, the 45-minute Peking Opera deviates from the original in many more aspects. Lutes provided accompaniment instead of drums and gongs; videos depicting heavy rain, a full moon, bloody clouds, and fight scenes flashed against the backdrop; and background maidens brought modern dance. The most unexpected scene occurred at the climax: When Xiang Yu commits suicide by the Wujiang River, a real horse appears on stage to bid farewell to his owner. However, such a move was clearly in contrast to traditional Peking Opera performance, in which performers would use a whip to indicate a horse.