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!”

4 thoughts on “Lü Bu Always Rings Twice (Updated)

  1. “Double Indemnity” is the name of the movie. Barbara Stanwyck can be pretty intense, I still haven’t been able to watch more than 20 minutes of “Baby Face”, it makes me cringe!
    [link deleted by ninedragonspot]

    I wonder about gongs sounding pretty standard in Beijing Opera, but different in other types of Chinese operas as here in your first video where it sounds more like a temple bell?

  2. Sorry about the link, it seems WordPress did a number on it.

    The DVD I was referring to is “TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection – Volume One”

    • Heya Bertrand: I rescued the comment – but deleted the link, since it was causing all sorts of formatting ugliness.
      You are of course correct about “Double Indemnity” and “Postman”. I couldn’t find any way to work “Double Indemnity” into a post title, so had to go with Plan B (or C).
      Yes, those Sichuanese gongs do have a different flavor, don’t they? I’ll see what I can find out about them, since more than one person has asked. This is why I enjoy exploring regional opera types, and why they’re worth supporting.

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