The Emperor and the Concubine

The capacious stage and cavernous hall of Sadler's Wells is a fitting venue for the staging of this grand, classical Chinese opera, the China National Peking Opera Company's production of The Emperor and the Concubine. This opera is based on a well-known classical Chinese poem which tells the tragic story of an Emperor’s love affair gone wrong through political ambitions and intrigue.

This production, and the two short productions reviewed below, are part of a week of Chinese cultural events, now an annual event in London that includes workshops and talks in the British Library and the Ashmolean in Oxford.

The Emperor and the Concubine is based on a historical event in the Tang Dynasty in which the Emperor, distraught after the death of his beloved concubine, meets a beautiful Taoist Nun during his walk in a garden and falls in love. After he decides to make her his concubine, her family is also ennobled. An arrogant and unscrupulous cousin of hers, plots to eventually take power himself and his intrigue causes her tragic downfall.

Unless one is familiar with Chinese opera, it is best to bring no expectations but an open mind to this production because, both in both music and dramatic action, Chinese classical opera is quite different from classical Western opera. Although the plot moves along quickly from scene to scene, within the scenes the action and movements are subtle and highly stylized, so that action and gesture appear to be balletic, restrained and highly structured by convention.

The music, which is fascinating, will also be a surprise - two or three ancient instruments combine in a highly rhythmic structure which follows the emotions and actions on stage. The most surprising will be the voices which will be a challenge to Western audiences, particularly the women’s voices which use something like a pronounced falsetto as their technique – and this can seem at times harsh rather than sonorous, unless one appreciates the technique behind it. But the experiment in something new is well worth the venture. One feels that there is rich history and meaning behind every expression and gesture. The key instruments, although there were a few modern sounding instruments used as well, are a type of drum which is key for underscoring the movement and feeling and also used as a signal of change and dynamism, and the erhu, a string instrument and suona, a wind instrument. The sounds produced by these, seems like an essential undercurrent throughout the opera and the longer you listen, the more you begin to appreciate the patterns within the music.

The Monkey King & The Crossroad Inn

This double-bill which is part of the China National Peking Opera Company’s production schedule, is much more accessible fare to Western audiences. It is comical and primarily mime and action based. The story is based on folklore and myth about a monkey King who helps villagers gain justice from the aggressive and evil Leopard King.

While in the classical opera, acrobatic movement only appears in scenes of war or fighting, The Monkey King and the Leopard and the Crossroads Inn contain almost exclusively acrobatic elements, martial arts, and mime. In spirit, they appear to be very much like Christmas pantomimes with similar humour and the use of some of the same tropes, like humorous use of mistaken identity and the audience seeing what those on stage cannot.
In fact, in the audience for this production, there were many children and parents as one would find in a panto. The use of the drums in these productions is especially compelling and tied effectively to the movement throughout the scenes but this was especially evident in a truly impressive display of acrobatics and martial arts in which two of the characters are trying to fight in the dark and can't see each other and perform incredible near-misses.

It’s clear why these acrobatic and humorous productions are so popular and have a deservedly high reputation.