The Sichuan Opera Theater is many centuries old, but has experienced a noteworthy creative, artistic and financial resurgence of success since the early 1980‘s. An opera theater school, major singers and the collaborative leadership of nationally recognized composers, playwrights and directors have enhanced the theater’s well-deserved national and international reputation for excellence as well as its ability to blend traditional and modern characteristics into a compelling, coherent whole.
Raging Waves in the Sea of Desires has been part of the Sichuan Opera Theater’s repertoire since its first staging in 1989.
Acclaimed playwright Xu Fen – one of China’s most influential contemporary women writers – takes Eugene O’Neill’s setting and opening plot elements, transforming Puritan New England into a small Chinese village, and focuses on the cruel, miserly old man, his new, very young and beautiful wife, and the young son who enters into an adulterous affair with his father’s bride. O’Neill himself, writing stunningly innovative plays in the early twentieth century, looked to ancient Greek tragedies for his inspiration and to tragedy’s archetypal figures. Xu Fen recognized the consonance of O’Neill’s archetypes with traditional Chinese folk figures, took O’Neill’s starting point and then made major plot shifts to reshape the story to fit the expectations and sensibilities of traditional Sichuan opera theater.
To that end, she reduced the main characters to four: the old man, Ba; the old man’s son, Bai Sanlang; the young adulterous wife, Pu Lan; and the somewhat subordinate figure of Bai Sanlang’s lover and fiancée, Egglant Flower. Xu Fen adds an allegorical figure – Desire – who functions as commentator, temptress and instigator, and conscience. A local-color drama with comic overtones that begins with issues of property ownership, inheritance, marriage and adultery is gradually changed into a paradigmatic tragedy of jealousy, rage, lust, retribution, infanticide, madness, loss, death and cosmic damnation.
Set on an empty black stage and accompanied by a superb orchestra of sixteen Chinese instrumentalists, Raging Waves lasted a little more than two hours, performed without intermission. The opera was divided into six scenes: Desire in Restlessness, Between Joy and Anger, Between Love and Hatred, Moving Back and Forth, Between Separation and Union, and Between Blood and Fire. Supertitles on a small screen above the stage clarified details of the unfolding story and elaborated on developing emotions, but the performers’ remarkable acting skills – both traditionally stylized and naturally realized – carried the development of the terrible tragedy clearly.
The role of old man Bai who moved from avarice and greed, to deceived and happy fatherhood, to the determination to destroy his whole property and himself, was played by Shu Jing. This performer was robust, energetic and credible, functioning as something of an anchor around whom the other singers located themselves as the opera opened. Throughout the work, Shu Jing set the pace as all the performers moved from comedy to tragedy.
The role of the son, Bai Sanlang, was taken by Wang Chao. Of all the singers, Wang Chao had a voice most in conformity with Western expectations of beauty: his sound was round, flexible and resonant.
Pu Lan was played by Chen Qiaoru. Her transformation – from self-absorbed and self-interested young wife of a wealthy, demanding older man, to deliriously loving mistress of her husband’s son, to darkly and terribly possessed creature of guilt and despair, a mother who murders her baby and then kills herself – was subtle, fluent and compelling. Chen Qiaoru’s acting, dancing and singing were all of a piece; her extended, passionate dance of despair and her sung soliloquies of self-condemnation were very moving.
In many respects, the most difficult acting role was Desire’s: the function of her allegorical role constantly shifts from Greek-chorus-like commentary on the story, to projected articulations of the main characters’ inner thoughts, and finally on to detached judgment of human beings’ foolish fallibilities and capacity for self-annihilation. Yi Changmin played this complex role as a swirling, sexual quintessence of feminine power: she was flirtatious and wry, seductive and detached, imperious, intimate and elegant. As a dancer, Yi Changmin was mercurially edgy and modern, even within the centuries-old constraints of her chosen theater genre, its movements and stylized gestures.
For Westerners, this particular style of Chinese opera and theater is, by definition, very foreign just as the best performances of Wagner, Puccini, Poulenc, Britten or Glass must seem to Chengdu audiences. For a Western listener new to Chinese opera, an evening such as this represents a steep learning curve. The very powerful high notes of the women’s singing, for instance, can initially seem more screechy than marvelous. However, the overall aesthetic coherence of both this material as a whole and this particular production makes even the most disconcertingly unfamiliar elements of the performance intelligible and then inevitable.
Just as O’Neill married classical traditions of ancient Greek tragedies with America’s judgmental individualism and competitive work ethic, playwright Xu Fen, composer Wang Wenxun and director Zhang Manjun – all award-winning artistic leaders in contemporary China – have married traditional theater conventions and ancient folktale patterns with modern global connectedness and cultural transformations.
In each country where the Sichuan Opera Theater of Chengdu has traveled over the last twenty years, the company has acquired an exciting reputation for artistic excellence, been received enthusiastically by all sorts of audiences, and been invited back for future performances. No doubt this brief American tour with Raging Waves
in the Sea of Desire will be the first of many tours in the United States.
Raging Waves in the Sea of Desire (October 25, 2014)
Sichuan Opera Theater of Chengdu
Gerald Lynch Theater of John Jay College
524 West 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 678-999-8324
Running time: two hours without an intermission