Wei Haimin awe-inspiring in ambitious project

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 November, 2014, 6:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 November, 2014, 5:32pm

Peking Operatic Musical: Meng Xiaodong
Guo Guang Opera Company (Taiwan)
Hong Kong Culture Centre Grand Theatre

This year's Taiwan Cultural Festival began with what may have been the city's first musical in the Peking Opera style. The two-hour play tells the story of Meng Xiaodong, a characterful Peking Opera legend, and her two men: legend of Peking Opera Mei Lanfang and the godfather of old Shanghai, Du Yuesheng.

There is no better choice than this production to highlight the connection between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Meng and Du were married in the British crown colony after they left Shanghai in 1949. The composer of the music the opera is set to is Hongkonger Chung Yiu-kwong, who led his Taipei Chinese Orchestra on the semi-stage for the Hong Kong premiere of this ambitious project.

It was ambitious because the play featured a mixture of operatic styles other than Peking Opera, such as Kunqu, and Chung's own writing - reminiscent of those television theme songs by Joseph Koo.

Perhaps the intention was to demonstrate the versatility of Wei Haimin, the Guo Guang Opera Company's diva. Wei played the title role in various capacities, from narrator to singer, and offered all the stagecraft that came with it. Wei's stylised moves were exquisite. But it was her singing technique that was really jaw-dropping, especially the one-person duet singing both the male and female voices in Si Lang Visiting His Mother.

That aria, along with the acrobatic scene before it, was the climax of the play. Unfortunately it took place early on, giving the audience a high expectation that was never quite delivered.

Wei's Meng was awe-inspiring. But her lines came almost non-stop like a monologue. There was no Mei Lanfang in the play, so it had to wait until Du Yuesheng arrived in the second half for a real duet. Tang Wenhua, another top star of Guo Guang, was as good in singing as in acting, bringing to life the soft side of the formidable Du. The voice of Wen Yuhang in the long Kunqu aria from The Peony Pavilion was strong but lacked finesse.

The 50-strong Taipei ensemble provided an atmospheric backdrop for the sentimental story. The dissonance played by the tremolo strings created drama in the scene when Meng was refused entry to pay tribute to her late mother-in-law. The vocal line from the 12-member Chinese University of Hong Kong Chorus was sparse but added emotional impact when blended with instruments. The diminishing effect at the end, which faded out in sound and light over Meng's lone, weak voice was memorable.