As promised, another in the series of posts dedicated to the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival performance of Guo Wenjing’s new opera “The Phoenix Pavilion” (Fèng Yí Tíng， 凤仪亭). Previously (here and here), we watched Shen Tiemei, the Chongqing star of Sichuanese opera, in a pair of contrasting roles. Today we’ll take a look at her partner: the Beijing opera singer of young man (xiǎoshēng, 小生） roles, Jiang Qihu （江其虎).
“The Small Reception” and “The Phoenix Pavilion” are episodes from a larger drama usually known as “Lü Bu and Diao Chan” or “The Bracelet Stratagem”. The story is taken from Chapter 8 of the Three Kingdoms Saga. (By now, readers of this blog may be convinced that there isn’t a single one of The Three Kingdom’s 125 chapters that hasn’t been set multiple times as an opera.)
The evil warlord Dong Zhuo has installed a puppet on the imperial throne and has himself assumed the post of Prime Minister. His rule is opposed by, among others, the three sworn brothers of the Peach Garden: Liu Bei (Liu Xuande), Lord Guan (Guan Yu or Guan Yunchang) and Zhang Fei (Zhang Yide). Dong Zhuo has at his side his adopted son, the youthful warrior Lü Bu (also known as Lord Wen and Lü Fengxian). The two factions fought at Tiger Trap Pass, where Lü Bu found himself overmatched by the three brothers.
Though Dong Zhuo suffered a setback at Tiger Trap Pass, he still sat secure in his ministerial post. To fill the coffers emptied by his failed campaigns, Dong Zhuo plundered not only the living, but the dead:
“On Dong Zhuo’s orders, Lü Bu dug up the crypts of former emperors and empresses and looted their treasures. Dong Zhuo’s soldiers despoiled the tombs of officials and civilians alike and loaded the gold and jewels, silks, and other valuables onto several thousand carts”
(translation by Moss Roberts)
Appalled by Dong Zhuo’s rule, the righteous Interior Minister Wang Yun devised a clever trap for both of his foes. Wang Yun had raised from an early age a young singing- and dancing-girl that he practically considered his daughter. Her name was Diao Chan, and her beauty and talents compared with the finest ever seen among China’s women (she is reckoned one of the Four Great Beauties of Chinese history).
For his “Bracelet Stratagem”, Wang Yun asked Diao Chan to use all of her feminine cunning to enchant and conquer both Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo. Father and son were soon at loggerheads over the beautiful maiden, and Wang Yun was canny enough to exploit the rift between them. In the end, the Interior Minister persuaded Lü Bu to assassinate his adopted father, the Prime Minister. For the first stage of this honey trap, Wang Yun hosted a small reception for Lü Bu, allowing him not only a glimpse of Diao Chan, but some “private time” with her as well. This is the scene dramatized in the videos below.
The young heroes in Chinese opera can differ strikingly from the virtuous and stalwart figures of Western opera. In Beijing opera, martial young men are as likely to be anti-heroes, undone by their own flaws. Their ambiguity is well expressed by their difficult vocal style: a mixture of natural voice and falsetto which, while often thrilling and impressive, can also betray signs of immaturity, arrogance, and inexperience. (In the Beijing opera tradition, it is usually older men (lǎoshēng, 老生) who combine wisdom and intelligence with righteousness. ) Though Lü Bu is no mean warrior, he has immense pride and does not seem especially bright – Wang Yun and Diao Chan manipulate him easily. He is not even a particularly honorable character – when he entertains Wang Yun and Diao Chan with stories of his exploits at Tiger Trap Pass, he doesn’t tell them that he ultimately ran away in defeat! (As in other forms of drama, one often has to read between the lines in Chinese opera to pick up the psychological nuances.)
Still, Lü Bu is difficult to dislike altogether. His mixture of virility and vanity, charm and naivité, by turns attract and repel the viewer.
I have subtitled two different versions of “The Small Reception”. First, we have a performance from Shanghai’s Beijing Opera Troupe starring Song Xiaochuan. Song Xiaochuan is not only a first-class divo of the treacherous young-man roles, he is also well known in China for his early friendship with the Hong Kong pop and film megastar, Leslie Cheung (Song assisted Cheung in the actor’s preparation for the film “Farewell My Concubine” and also served as his make-up coach.)
Following this video is another, shorter version of the same scene starring Jiang Qihu, who will be appearing in New York later this month. Jiang is a member of the Premiere Company of the National Beijing Opera Troupe. Even with the terrible quality of the video (the best I could find – sorry!) his sterling vocal qualities are apparent. (NB: I have not subtitled the dialogue in the second video – it is the same as in Song Xiaochuan’s version. The sung portions alone have subtitles.)
Song Xiaochuan as Lü Bu (fully subtitled)
Jiang Qihu as Lü Bu (partially subtitled)