400 years ago, William Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu died. Zheijiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera, an all-female company from Hongzhou City, presents two masterpieces of these two playwrights adapted by Shen Lin and Hu Xiaohai – Coriolanus and The Peony Pavilion – to create the new opera Coriolanus and Du Liniang, performed in London for the very first time.
In Gu Xiaonan’s production, Coriolanus and The Peony Pavilion are set in contrast with each other, and their leading characters Coriolanus and Du Liniang, have an unexpected encounter on stage discussing their life philosophies – Coriolanus dies for hatred whereas the spirit of Du Liniang is reborn for love. Shakespeare’s work focuses on humanity impacted by the unique historical background, Tang Xianzu explores human desires, emotions, consciousness, and the pursuit of spiritual culture by telling the love story of a man and a ghost. The opera is an artistic intercourse meant to release the connecting energy of these two plays by an English and a Chinese writer.
Before the performance begins, portraits of Tang Xianzu and William Shakespeare are projected onto a big screen above the stage, honouring the two playwrights. The portraits are soon replaced by images of Roman buildings as the action of Coriolanus unfolds.
The stage is bare, except for a number of simple wooden chairs whilst the locations are projected onto the screen – as photographs or drawings that slowly turn into elaborate artworks. The ensemble is wearing modern dress resembling uniforms and suits of the 1930s. After Coriolanus’ heroic deeds have been celebrated by the people of Rome before they are turned against him by agitators, the scene changes to a beautiful and tranquil garden.
A young girl is dreaming of meeting a handsome and refined young scholar. Wearing traditional costumes with water sleeves and seeming to float across the stage, Du Liniang and her story are told in the way of traditional Chinese opera. Every movement, every gesture is aesthetic and meant to please the eye. This style is in stark contrast to the far more realistic performance of Coriolanus’ story which appears violent and rough and vengeful in comparison to the sweet and romantic love story by Tang Xianzu.
Du Liniang dies of love sickness because the longing for the young scholar in her dream becomes too strong. She leaves a self-portrait for him, buried under the lake stone. The young scholar actually exists and finds the portrait, immediately falling in love with the beautiful girl. Du Liniang is judged in Hades and released to find her loved one. The young man, Liu Mengmei, is so smitten with the girl that he is willing to marry her ghost.
Miss Stone comments on the two stories throughout the performance, comparing the philosophies of the two playwrights and the leading characters. One of the most intense scenes of the production is the encounter between Coriolanus and Du Liniang.
The production is masterly performed and sung by the troupe especially by Mao Weitao, who plays both Coriolanus and Liu Mengmei, and Xu Yena as Du Liniang. The music by Weng Chigeng fuses traditional Chinese opera with western composition, played by an excellent orchestra conducted by Hu Zhong.
The video design by Guo Sansheng is stunning with Coriolanus’ death scene being illuminated by a glaring sun that blinds us as the unfortunate protagonist is killed, his life forever extinguished as Rome does not need him anymore. Du Liniang is reborn to join her young scholar.
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin