Fresh story breathes new life into Tang opera tale
The Last Emperor of Southern Tang
A new story structure and a strong narrative have given fresh perspective to the debate over innovation and preservation of traditional Cantonese opera.
Veteran director Fredric Mao Chun-fai was successful on both fronts in the premiere of The Last Emperor of Southern Tang. Opening the Chinese Opera Festival 2011, the 21/2-hour production is the first of more than 20 shows by 14 troupes.
The innovative storytelling was clear from the start. Instead of the traditional chronological flow, the opera began with a prologue showing a defiant Tang consort fighting off the Song emperor and his men. No words were spoken except for the melancholy aria Crows Crying in the Night, sung by Li Yu, the ill-fated last Tang emperor.
The context of that scene unfolded over the next six acts, revealing how indecision and conspiracy led to the royal couple's tragic end.
Mao focused on the flow of events, interweaving songs and music with urgency and contrast into a compelling whole. The tearful encounter in Act V between the couple, sung and acted to great effect by Lung Koon-tin and Nam Fung, conjured up great emotions.
Yau Sing-po showed his best in the traitor role, with his sophisticated recitatives and theatrical skills in the finale. But both the singing and orchestra music were amplified and the occasional deafening percussion and imbalances in the chorus left much to be desired, musically.