News Ticker

Sichuan Opera Theater of Chengdu: Raging Waves in the Sea of Desire

Blending Eastern and Western artistic traditions and insights, this powerful operatic adaptation of an American play thrilled its Asian-American audience.

Chen Qiaoru and Shu Jing in a scene from “Raging Waves in the Sea of Desire” (Photo credit: Courtesy of Sichuan Opera Theater of Chengdu)

Jean Ballard Terepka

Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Reviewer

Making their United States debut in a five-city tour, the Sichuan Opera Theater of Chengdu presented their adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 Desire under the Elms, called Raging Waves in the Sea of Desire, on October 25, 2014 at the Gerald Lynch Theater. The week and a half long tour, sponsored by the U.S.-China Cultural and Educational Foundation, the Cultural Bureau of Chengdu and local organizations in Washington, D. C., Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Atlanta, Georgia as well as New York City, represents a significant expansion of the Sichuan Opera Theater’s international reputation: previously, the company has toured in France, Spain, Germany, Brussels, Italy and Egypt, always to significant critical acclaim. Their repertoire has included centuries-old Chinese material such as The Tale of White Snake, as well as Lady Macbeth, adapted from Shakespeare, and The Good Person of Sichuan, adapted from Bertolt Brecht’s play of the same name.

The Sichuan Opera Theater is many centuries old, but has experienced a noteworthy creative, artistic and financial resurgence of success since the early 1980s. 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

For more information: visit US-China Cultural and Educational Foundation (http://www.us-chinacef.org) or Chengdu Academy of Sichuan Opera (http://www.chuangju.com.cn)

Running time: two hours without an intermission

Jean Ballard Terepka
About Jean Ballard Terepka (97 Articles)
Jean Ballard Terepka, a native and life-long New Yorker, has been writing about choral and classical music for fifteen years. In addition to her continuing career as an independent educational consultant, Terepka also works as an archivist and historian with specialties in American cultural, intellectual and religious history. Most recently she has lectured on the history of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York and on the African-American experience within the Episcopal Church at conferences of the New York State Historical Association and the National Association of Episcopal Historians and Archivists. Terepka is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.