Always intrigued by innovative cooperative new productions this reviewer eagerly accepts invitations from friends to see new productions like 梧桐雨, 快雪時晴, 王心心’s-霓裳羽衣. But first of all, is 梧桐雨 worth it? Absolutely YES!
Can 梧桐雨 be improved? Well, also YES! in several ways.
First though, top marks for the staging, the costumes and the lighting! A!
The innovative orchestration incorporating Oriental instruments was SUPERB! It is successful and marvellous. Double A! (One might add that the reedy 笙and嗩吶 – especially for the Hu- ethnic dancing passage – was very spicy!)
Second, the acting (that is, the directing) for the singers (under the condition of singing in Western opera style) B – B+
The story, including a visit to the Moon and a sort of cathartic ending – makes TOP opera material – A+
The lyrics: slightly mixed and forced, lacking in consistency – B
The singing was thankless: singers with excellent voices and training, singing difficult passages… But as it was they could not realize what they can do with their skills – because the opportunity for dramatic, moving, heart-rending expression was not in the music! And that is due, methinks, to the lack of harmonic foundations. Relying merely on modern serial music does not make for aural drama.
I may have heard a wisp of kunqu 崑曲 here and there – but don’t remember where. Thus, one could say its inclusion failed to elicit the desired effect of surprise or nostalgia.
I do remember being delighted – and relieved (sic) – upon hearing beiguan 北管in the gezaixi 歌仔戲passages. I was not alone. Each time the poet Li Bo came on stage the theatre was charged with excitement and the audience came back to life.
Unfortunately even here, the beautiful orchestration was not in support of the beiguan drift but rather was forcing its own modern mode through it – This was harmful to the overall effect.
This music has proven that it is eminently possible – and marvelous – to interweave non-western passages into “modern classical” music. After all, modern music, especially this one being often atonal – has no roots and no gravity. This is at the same time a defect in the overall concept. And here I feel strongly that: Love or other passion – of a romantic kind as in the Song of Everlasting Sorrow 長恨歌 variety – if not delivered in traditional Chinese operatic strains (or ban 板) which have long been already identified with certain emotions, – should be written in some sort of tonal, music with a harmonic foundation – music with the potential of having dramatic dissonances and clearly harmonic resolutions (Arvo Pärt is a great example.) Only this way can an audience feel the dramatic tensions one expects to experience in a passion of such magnitude as that between the emperor Tang Minghuang and his ill-fated consort Yang guifei. Setting the music in a cold, intellectual modern music that in itself has no built-in consonance and dissonance will lack root and base; and the listener does not feel departures and returns to tranquility in the music material itself. And that was a basic flaw in the new opera, the Firmiana Tree, to my mind.
How wonderful to have had real kunqu 崑曲(anachronistic it would be, though), even real Peking opera as well as Taiwanese (perfectly wonderful to bring out Tang rhyme schemes) beiguan 北管and go’ahi 歌仔戲in modern music!! And how very rich! But one needn’t virtually cancel them out with grating modernistic dissonances that run counter to the Li Bo singing, as if to be insisting “don’t forget ladies and gents we are doing 21st century modern music here!”
The Central Asian passages for the dance was marvelous and pure. I had been several times in Tashkent, and once at a local wedding heard them perform traditional music from ancient sites: Ferghana (where Zhang Qian 張騫found horses for Han Wudi漢武帝), Khorasmia and other parts, still enticing, playing instruments like(ly the progenitors of) the erhu, the clapper, as well as a hollow reeded instrument.
The Firmiana Tree program notes tell us that sections from Japanese Gagaku 雅樂and from Dunhuang music had been incorporated : I wish these could have been more obvious. I was so very keen to hear strains from these ancient times but left the theatre rather disappointed.
Is this the first time such daring combinations had been attempted? It is the first time I am going to theatres in Taipei with such frequency now that I have moved up here. As you know all these past years I’ve been in Xinzhu and Tainan and have remained not at all au courant with the Taipei cultural scene.
I am deeply impressed by the possibility such innovative work offers, and terribly excited it has started. (BTW There is no need for a barbarian – An Lushan – to sing in German, full of such difficult, closed sounds. If anything foreign, he might sing in east-Persian – from Sogdiana – the modern Uzbekistan – or, even Korean, Mongolian or Japanese – one of the Altaic languages related to the ancient Turkic family of An Lushan’s tribe?)
Sunlight After Quick Snow 快雪時晴
This production to my mind was much more successful in music and as a stage event. Although the music was not so innovative – it served perfectly to support the dramatic story! Here is where composer and dramatists should cooperate.
Here the dramaturgy wins high marks. Travelling through time can dramatically highlight certain aspects – and here in this work we see the feminine hand behind it – the Mother Eternal and her (so far still futile) opposition to wars and killings, epoch after epoch.
The scenery with the revolving stage, and calligraphy specimens so marvelously enlarged, were all plusses.
My greatest complaint comes again to the music – where the composer for some reason closes certain phrases on what in diatonic scale harmony would be a tonic triad, turning an otherwise Chinese polyphonic phrase into a Western do-mi-sol harmony block. This is like throwing a lump of vanilla ice cream into a cup of fresh hot jasmine tea. Incongruous and somewhat shocking, such a change in basic aural structure or musical modes serves only to stop the original flow and to take the audience out into the cold.
This same syndrome surfaced the last two nights at the “Mulian Saves His Mother (from Hell)” 泉州打城戲《木連救母》 performed by the visiting folk opera troupe from Quanzhou, where a silly ‘cello line emerged beneath the Chinese erhu and sanxian and cymbal music, making curious, unfitting do- mi- sols- in an accompaniment reminiscent of Renaissance or Baroque cembalo-and-continuo plucking the dominant and tonic up and down, sometimes running an arpeggio. This is a terrible mistake, and often caused the ending of lilting, melodic Chinese phrases to come bang up against a chunky “chord”, (with often the baseline resting on the lower third!!)
It is patently clear that Chinese opera phrases (of any style, Nanguan to Peking Opera) all end as “trailing, floating energy” that continue into the silences, whereas a triad chord is an abrupt cesura to that subtle movement, a STOP sign that blocks further breathing.
That baseline truly was irritating throughout, and to me proved conclusively that Chinese theatre music does not need the base support that has been the solid foundation to Western music. (The reason I think, is that Western music since becoming harmonic with the Renaissance, used in their melodies notes that are overtones to their given base strings. Thus the base line fortifies the tonality and the modality. But this is not the case in Chinese music and composers or musicians should not make this basic confusion!!)
But for Chinese Peking opera music to be supported with a Western symphonic orchestra, I think, can be quite acceptable and, as long as the music “behaves,” in not going contrary to the style, the orchestra may help Western audiences to get used to the relative naïveté and simplicity (i.e. the lack of harmonic substance) of Chinese music, as well as its high-pitched gut- and guttural vocal environment.
The addition of the Chinese cymbals and wooden clappers used traditionally to indicate and/or start off certain gestures, movements or emotions, turned out in this orchestra to be simply marvelous! They added so much richness and historic content to this modern blend!
The Story Line of Sunlight After Quick Snow: the pointed stress on the fugitive from civil warfare fleeing to “the south” was moving, and especially poignant to all the Chinese in the audience who are not native to Taiwan. Although here for already fifty years, they and their children are still called waishengren 外省人 and many have in recent years suffered sometimes brutal slings and arrows of DPP provincialism and parochialism. The dramatic import and the music combined in this work struck home, and many in the audience wept.
Lastly, 霓裳羽衣 proved a strange disappointment in the first part. The music and the musicianship of Wang Xinxin 王心心 were, as usual, unique and superlative. But like the disruptive ‘cello accompaniment in the Quanzhou folk opera “Mulian Saves His Mother (from Hell)”, the vocal centerpiece of Wang’s performance was disturbed and disrupted by the addition of a dumb-play where Tang Minghuang’s consort Yang guifei sits at her boudoir primping herself, attended by slow-motion ladies-in-waiting. To be sure, Wang’s lyrics describe the Lady Yang getting ready for her meeting with the emperor, the details of her garments etc. – but there was no need for the stage to be set in motion with that sort of meaningless pantomiming of the lyrics.
Wang Xinxin herself has a huge presence. She alone can fill the whole stage and far beyond, and her singing is enough to keep the audience entranced throughout. The superfluous mime-passages proved to serve as competition to the music, and caused the audience much distraction as they sought to get a better view of the actors, to see the details of their dress and hairdo – and thus lose the whole-hearted concentration on the music that should have been the sole object of attention. Wang’s music and her musicianship are both subtle and yet penetrating, and should be absorbed with one’s whole being down to one’s breathing.
The second part involved singing on the part of both Tang Minghuang and Yang guifei, in a lovely sequence where the couple wrote music and instructed court musicians in the performance of this their collaborative opus, and culminated in a very charming rendition of the new instrumental piece that ended the evening on a very positive note.
It looks from these exciting experimentations that our traditional arts have every chance of surviving into the future. The above examples of Taiwan’s musicians and dramatists today will go far in bridging the gulf from our forebears to our space-age descendants. Care must be taken however, when integrating traditional music with Western music, to preserve the basic aspects, or essential qualities of Chinese music whenever it may be invoked, and never to make the mistake of dressing it in a harmonic frame. Then we have the blessing of the ancient Chinese language (usually displayed with flash-cards on both sides of the stage). This is full of nuances and virtually any phrase can evoke even more ancient references and so, with this multi-layered linguistic base, Chinese musical theatre will certainly have a most brilliant future.