The Peony Pavilion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am

The Peony Pavilion
Bando Tamasaburo and Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of Jiangsu Province
Kwai Tsing Theatre
Reviewed: Nov 19

Japan's kabuki and China's kunqu are two of the world's oldest and most refined theatre forms. The New Vision Arts Festival offered something of both with a Sino-Japanese version of Chinese opera classic The Peony Pavilion.

Created in 2008, this is a collaboration between the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre and Bando Tamasaburo (below right), one of today's leading kabuki onnagatas - a male actor who specialises in female roles - in Japan.

Written by Tang Xianzu, circa 1598, The Peony Pavilion is a romance with a supernatural twist. Du Liniang falls in love with a man she has seen only in her dreams and pines for him until she dies, broken-hearted. Years later, her love, Liu Mengmei, sees her self-portrait and falls in love with her, bringing her back from the grave with the power of his love.

This performance comprises seven scenes selected from the 20-hour opera. The focus is on Du from when she falls in love, through to her death and resurrection. The opening is rather slow, but Tamasaburo comes into his own in two powerful central scenes as the heroine falls ill and dies. One experiences an unmistakable shiver down the spine that comes in the presence of a performer of such manifest greatness. Tamasaburo conveys an extraordinary intensity of emotion with such economy - the expression on his face, the way he holds himself, the movement of an arm are enough to mesmerise.

Through the miracle of his art, a 60-year-old man is transformed into a 16-year-old girl. He also demonstrates an astounding mastery of kunqu singing (completely different from kabuki) as well as the Chinese language.

Essentially a vehicle for Tamasaburo, the production is enhanced by an excellent supporting cast, with Shen Guofang a stand-out as Du's devoted maid. The music is equally superb and the costumes, with their refined colours and exquisite embroidery, are works of art in themselves.