Having won competitions almost continuously since the age of 14, the charismatic Chen is particularly well-known for his craft in broadening the scope and depth of the traditional xiǎoshēng roles. At the tender age of 25, he won acclaim as the aged general-prince Liu Bei of the Three Kingdoms saga. His performance of Cui Yunlong from the comic opera “An Official’s Demotion” (贬官记) was notable for its blend of clown (chǒu, 丑) and young-man performing styles. Since 2003 he has been a member of the Fujian Experimental Minju troupe.
This studio-produced video gives a good idea of his voice’s sweetness – but I’d like to post here a less elegantly shot, but nonetheless stylish and interesting, video from a 2011 live performance.
“Farewell Letter to My Wife” (别妻书) is based on a famous story from the Xinhai revolution. When in 1911 revolution broke out across China, the young scholar Lin Juemin (Lín Juémín, 林觉民), returned from his studies in Japan to his native home in Fujian. After reuniting briefly with his wife, he left to participate in the Guangzhou uprising where he was arrested and killed. His letter on parting with her (Chén Yìyìng, 陈意映) has been reckoned a tender classic of modern patriotic Chinese literature.
Politics aside, revolutions (be they Chinese, French, or Pandoran) often make for good melodrama. The most celebrated scene from this Min opera is “Gazing by the Wife at Lamplight” – on the eve of his departure, Lin Juemin tries to resist waking his wife. A beam of light from a single lamp illuminates her features, which he studies with rapt devotion. In the end, Lin is overcome with passion – he rouses his wife for a final goodbye.
The opera “Farewell Letter to My Wife” is about 10 years old. It was restaged last year to coincide with the centenary of the Xinhai revolution. In taking over the role, Chen Hongxiang thoroughly revised this scene to emphasize Lin Juemin’s love for his wife and to bring the tragedy of romantic separation into greater focus. The original libretto retains some of the storm and stress of revolutionary rhetoric, highlighting the tribulations faced by the couple and the Lin Juemin’s sacrifice of domestic bliss for the welfare of the people:
Looking at her, I see some spots of gray, she already has lost some of the bloom of her former days.
Though her hair is still a lustrous black, specks of grey are starting to run rampant.”
Gazing at her, I can see that age has left its mark, yet she still has the moonlit glow of former days.
Contemplating her speckled, tousled hair, it still seems to float like a cloud of ink.
In the first version, Lin mourns the cares which cause his wife’s beauty to fade; in the second version, she almost seems untouched by time.
Having gone for years to study in distant lands, it was very difficult for her to manage the family affairs.
To spend several years giving my all for the people, how many more cares will burden her?
How strong is her mind and body? She may become tired and dispirited from too much work!
She had been such a simple and naive spirit, but because of me she is now full of cares.
Her poetry used to be elegant and refined, but because of this leave-taking, every sentence speaks of heartbreak.”
On my dearest’s exquisite little mouth, a fine down already lies upon her lips.
How many times will I hear her gentle speech, like listening to a mountain spring burbling forth?
How many times will I hear her poems and songs, like listening to the cadence of heavenly verse?”
The first version has echoes of the storm-and-stress of revolutionary operas; the second version continues Lin’s ode to his wife’s charms.
Chen Hongxiang’s romantic scene deftly softens the contours of the revolutionary background. Is this a trend in the handling of the country’s legacy of political operas?