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 x 4

Hey – do you remember last week’s post on Beijing opera and poetry?  (Hint: it’s here.)  I ask because the information there is useful in picking out some interesting details from yesterday’s video “The Small Reception“.  Got it?

Now that you’re back, this is Lü Bu’s introductory speech, or yǐnzi (引子).  Yǐnzi are short, introductory poems of 2 to 4 lines which set forth some fundamental aspect of the character, mood, or situation.   They’ve been a feature of Chinese opera since the 13th century.   Here are Lü Bu’s opening words:

1. 虎牢关前威名震,

Before Tiger Trap Pass, my fame shook the earth,

2. 辅佐相父辖群臣。

Assisting my father, the Prime Minister, I am the bureaucrats’ boss.

3. 王司徒赠与我金冠一顶,

Wang, Minister of the Interior, rewarded me with a golden crown,

4. 乘闲暇到府上拜谢盛情。

In a spare moment, I have come to the manor to give thanks for such kindness.

As we have seen, poems in Beijing opera nearly always fall into complementary pairs of lines.  In this quatrain we have two such pairs.  Musically, lines one and three end with incomplete, open cadences.  They are answered by full musical cadences at the ends of lines two and four.  Lines two and three are linked conceptually, like a classic Tang-era jueju  – Lü Bu is describing honors bestowed upon him.  All in all, it is a concise quatrain which also gives us a lot of useful backstory.  But watch what happens in performance:

There is a nearly minute-long break between lines 3 and 4, while Lü Bu and Wang Yun go through some stage business and exchange greetings.   When Lü Bu finally delivers the last line of his speech, he is no longer addressing the audience but instead speaking with Wang Yun.

At some point in the past, I suspect, this opening scene was performed differently.  Lü Bu would have approached the center of the stage, delivered his four lines of introduction to the audience, and only then entered Wang Yun’s house.  The current manner of performing these lines represent a refinement to the older tradition – instead of neatly separating “aria” from action, the music and drama are allowed to smoothly dovetail into one another.    By the time the “aria” has finished, the conversation between Lü Bu and Wang Yun is already underway.

This pattern is repeated a number of times in “The Small Reception”.  Here is Diao Chan’s opening speech:

1. 轻移莲步出兰房,

With dainty step and supple gait, I leave the ladies’ chambers,

2. 怀揣香饵到华堂。

Entering the grand hall, I bear the bait within my breast.

3. 含羞不语娇怯样,

Shy and silent, this frail maid seems a fragile figure,

4. 深施一礼站一旁。

With proper ceremony, I stand to one side.

Another neat quatrain (lines two and three are joined conceptually by references to Diao Chan’s cunning plan) is once again interrupted before the final line is sung.   Diao Chan enters the hall where Lü Bu and Wang Yun sit.  She directs her final line half to them, half to the audience.

Later on in the scene Lü Bu proposes a toast to the assembled company:

1. 深感司徒情意大,

I feel deeply, Minister, your kind affections,

2. 又蒙小姐的美意佳。

Let us enjoy this young lady’s fine graces.

3. 忙将斗酒来饮下,

Let us raise our cups and drink our fill,

4. 神思昏昏心如麻。

Let us becloud our thoughts and quicken our hearts.

Lü Bu, intoxicated in equal measure by the wine and Diao Chan,  becomes increasingly unsteady while singing his third line.  His voice trails off and eventually he loses his train of thought altogether.   Only after Wang Yun’s gentle reproach does Lü Bu snap out of it and sing his final line, observing all the necessary social (and musical) proprieties.

Diao Chan, setting the honey trap, acts as though she is equally smitten with him.

1. 温候威名杨天下,

Lord Wen’s name is praised all over

2. 闺中闻听常羡夸。

Even in the women’s quarters, one hears of the court’s great admiration for him.

3. 满腹情思难讲话,

I am so filled with emotion that it is difficult to speak,

4. 两腮红晕无话答。

With blushing cheeks, I smile silenty.

Clever Diao Chan imitates Lü Bu’s stupefied speechlessness.   Her demure silence after her third line is enough to leave Lü Bu smitten.  Again, it is up to Wang Yun to, gently but firmly, bring this lovey-dovey business to a halt.

This pattern of interrupted conclusions occurs a couple of more times in the final scene, during Lü Bu and Diao Chan’s declarations of love.  Before he finishes his final line, Lü Bu falls on bended knee to swear he would die for her.  Diao Chan’s interrupts her couple to allow some stage business (her co-conspirator Wang Yun sneaks onto the scene to “catch” the lovers) before she, too, throws herself to the ground to offer her oath of fidelity to Lü Bu.

Not every Beijing opera relies so heavily on quatrains like these, and not every one of them makes such a point out of interrupting them before they finish.  But the short arias of “The Small Reception” provide excellent examples of how Beijing opera can blend poetry, music, drama and gesture into a single Gesamtkunstwerk.

Tiger Trap / Honey Trap

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)