Lü Bu Always Rings Twice (Updated)

I have translated and subtitled another pair of three more videos in honor of the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival presentation of Guo Wenjing’s new opera “Feng Yi Ting (The Phoenix Pavilion)”.

Guo’s opera is quite unusual in that it pairs together singers from different traditions in China.  In our previous posts, we took a look at the role of the hero-patsy Lü Bu as he was represented in the Beijing opera scene “The Small Reception.”  Today we’ll watch and listen to Diao Chan, the irresistible temptress, as she has been portrayed on the Sichuanese stage.

In “The Little Reception”, Diao Chan might at first glance seem like just another pretty face.  Yes, she is charming – but there are few opportunities for the actress playing her to suggest the character’s feline intelligence or depth of emotion.    Things are different in the Sichuanese opera version of “The Phoenix Pavilion” (Fèng Yí Tíng, 凤仪亭): in Chengdu and Chongqing, at least, our heroine is given some monologues to reveal the woman behind the mask.

The two selections represent different strands of the Sichuanese tradition.  Our first video features Shen Lihong(沈丽红)performing in the full-throated “High-singing” (Gāoqiāng, 高腔) style.   We heard this Gāoqiāng style a few days ago, in Shen Tiemei’s “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures” – it’s gutsy music that seems to capture the full measure of Diao Chan’s secret passions.    Diao Chan recites the catalogue of woes that have befallen her country – the helpless emperor, the hapless courtiers, and the impoverished populace, the vicious minister Dong Zhuo and his general-son Lü Bu.  Diao Chan recounts the elements of the “Bracelet Stratagem” – the flirtation by turns with father and son until hostility all but breaks out between the two.  By the aria’s end, Diao Chan is no longer a coy maiden.  Filled with her sense of mission, she has been transformed into an avenging goddess.  It’s a pretty thrilling performance.

Our second selection features Shen Tiemei, who will be appearing in New York later this month.  In this introductory aria, Diao Chan dallies in the gardens behind Dong Zhuo’s mansion.  For several weeks, she has been living with him as his mistress.  Lü Bu, consumed with jealousy, skulks about the manor every day hoping to catch glimpses of her.  Whenever Diao Chan catches the young general spying on her, she always pretends to be desperately unhappy in her union with Dong Zhuo.  At the Phoenix Pavilion in the gardens, she finally makes herself available, hoping to provoke Lü Bu into betraying and murdering his adoptive father Dong Zhuo.

Perhaps because this selection was taken from a TV variety show, it has a rather unusual string quartet accompaniment.    Many Sichuanese opera films – and some live performances – feature decent-sized orchestras, but this arrangement stands out for its unexpectedly Bartókian flavor.  It’s as though our femme fatale, Diao Chan, has stepped out of a (garishly colorized) film noir – like Barbara Stanwyck waiting to make mincemeat of Fred MacMurray Lü Bu.

Update: Aha, I’ve run across another video of Shen Tiemei performing the same aria in the more traditional “High-singing” (Gāoqiāng, 高腔) style.  And there’s an encore!  Shen performs another short aria from the same opera, whose contents might be summed up as: “I feel pretty, Oh so pretty!”

Shen Tiemei, “Offering for Guan Yu”

I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel

- Anna Akhmatova

Time for another video featuring the artistry of Shen Tiemei (沈铁梅), the Sichuanese opera star from Chongqing who will appearing at the Lincoln Center Festival at the end of July in Guo Wenjing’s opera “Feng Yi Ting”.   Previously, we saw her do a humorous turn as a sex-starved nun uncowed by prospects of hellish torments.   Turning from comedy to tragedy, we’ll watch her play the role of Lady Sun (Sūn Shàngxiāng, 孙尚香) in the scene, “Offering for Guan Yu”, (祭关羽) from the Sichuan opera “Three Offerings at the Riverside“ (三祭江)。

The story for this opera, like so many in the Chinese repertoire, is taken from the Three Kingdoms Saga.  Lady Sun is the beautiful and fierce sister of the King of the Southlands, Sun Quan.   She is a tough cookie  - skilled at swordplay and with a posse of warrior maids.   (Nowadays, this riot grrrl is a popular figure in anime and video games.)  To cement a military alliance, Sun Quan gave his sister in marriage to a claimant to the imperial throne, the duke and warlord Liu Bei.     Both the military and marital union failed.  Breaking her marriage vow to Liu Bei,  Lady Sun returned to the Southlands when relations between the two warlords soured.    The warriors Zhang Fei and Zhao Zilong prevented her from taking Liu Shan, her son with Liu Bei, with her.

The Sichuanese opera “Three Offerings at the Riverside”,  is set in the Southlands Empire after Lady Sun has left Liu Bei.  “Offering For Guan Yu” is the second of the three.  Red-faced Guan Yu was one of Liu Bei’s most trusted and most accomplished generals.   In later centuries, Lord Guan was revered as a deity.  His cult was especially popular during the Qing dynasty, and temples devoted to him keep busy to this day.

Lord Guan met his death at the hands of the Southlands general, Lü Meng.   Sun Quan was at first inclined to be merciful with prisoner, but was convinced by his advisors to have Lord Guan executed.  Transformed into a spirit, Guan wrought a terrible revenge on his enemy:

“Sun Quan personally poured out wine and presented it to Lü Meng.

Lü Meng received it and was about to drink, when he dashed the cup to the ground and instead seized Sun Quan with one hand.  “Green-eyed scamp!” he screamed. “Red-whiskered rodent!  Have you forgotten me?  Or not?”  The assemblage looked aghast.  Everyone moved to rescue Sun Quan, but Meng knocked him to the ground, strode to his throne, and seated himself upon it.  Meng’s eyebrows arched, his eyes grew round and prominent as he bellowed, “I have crisscrossed the empire for thirty-odd years since defeating the Yellow Scarves, only to have your treacherous trap sprung on me.  But if I have failed to taste your flesh in life, Lü Meng, I shall give your soul no peace in death – for I am Guan Yunchang, lord of Hanshou precinct!”

Fear-stricken, Sun Quan led the assemblage in offering obeisance.  But lo!  Lü Meng collapsed on the ground, blood ran out of his orifices, and he died… Thereafter Sun Quan was tormented with anxiety over the execution of Lord Guan.”

(translation by Moss Roberts)

Lady Sun secretly steals away to the river side to offer sacrifices to the fallen Lord Guan.  As Lord Guan was the sworn brother of her (separated) husband, Lady Sun would be obliged by custom to perform this act of reverence.    But there is, I think, another, unspoken reason why Lady Sun wants to memorialize Lord Guan.   As she speaks, we might guess that  the mighty general’s example is weighing heavily on her mind.

Her oration concisely summarizes an early episode from Lord Guan’s career (described in Chapters 25-27 of  Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms Saga):    Lord Guan, having sworn brotherhood with Liu Bei, is captured by the evil minister Cao Cao.  Thinking Liu Bei dead, Lord Guan agrees to serve Cao Cao as custom demands.   Minister Cao tried mightily to win the affections of his new general, showering him with gold, fine robes and fine women.  But when news reaches Lord Guan that Liu Bei still lives, the general tried to gain audience with Cao Cao to officially take leave from him.   Crafty Cao Cao kept trying to put off Lord Guan  by hanging “OUT FOR LUNCH” signs outside his council doors.    Eventually, Lord Guan got fed up and left Cao’s camp, resigned his position, and supended his seal of office from the rafters of the entry hall.  Lord Guan took with him Liu Bei’s two wives, captive since Liu Bei’s defeat at Xuzhou.  After encounters with friend and foe, Guan and his two charges were once again reunited with Liu Bei.

Reading between the lines, we can guess why Lady Sun should choose this story to commemorate Lord Guan’s life.  Guan Yu’s fidelity to Liu Bei, even in the face of Cao Cao’s luxurious gifts and fulsome blandishments, serves to underscore Lady Sun’s own betrayal of her husband.   Lady Sun doesn’t declare her own remorse to the audience.    But her guilt is nonetheless palpable to the audience that knows her story.  After her third and final offering by the river, made upon receiving news of Liu Bei’s death,  Lady Sun drowns herself in its swift currents.

Lovestruck Nuns in Hell: Shen Tiemei

I’ve been thinking that this blog needed an estrogen boost.  Luckily,  New York’s Lincoln Center Festival is about to give us a good dose..

Noted Chinese composer Guo Wenjing (郭文景) is premiering a new opera,  The Phoenix Pavilion based on a traditional Sichuanese opera of the same name.  Starring as the femme fatale Diao Chan (貂蝉) is the Sichuanese opera star Shen Tiemei (沈铁梅).   The performances run from July 26 through July 28.

Aside from the occasional panda or dish of spicy, dry-fried intestines, Sichuanese culture doesn’t often come to American shores.    For that reason, blog posts this week will be dedicated to the opera’s leading lady as well as traditional versions of the Diao Chan story from Sichuan, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shaanxi.

We’ll start with one of Shen Tiemei’s signature roles, the young nun pining for freedom in the scene “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures.”  (思凡)   The plot itself requires little explanation – the little nun has been packed off to the convent by her family.   Outside the gates one day, she meets a young man.  Since that time, she hardly knows who she is or what she’s doing.   One thing is certain: this nun would brave hellfire to cozy up with a handsome lad.

In the Chinese movie “Farewell My Concubine”, the old teacher repeats the traditional maxim: “Men fear the opera “Night Flight”, women fear the opera “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures”.  Though this version of the scene Is a bit on the short side, it’s still a bravura piece for a “little lady “ (小旦) or “flower girl” (花旦) performer.    It is a role to made for seducing audiences.  Indeed,  it’s worth recalling that up until the early 20th century, theater companies often had other, offstage, uses for some of their actors.

Shen Tiemei here performs in the High-Singing style of Sichuanese opera (高腔川剧) – vocally exuberant and accompanied only by percussion.  You can practically smell the mountain air in her voice.