at Irvine Barclay Theatre
he 16th-century Chinese scholar Tang Xianzu's epic tale of love and resurrection is the apotheosis of Chinese kun opera, an art form melding literature, drama, music, and dance. Chinese novelist Kenneth Pai's new adaptation, subtitled Young Lovers' Edition, makes the work accessible for today's audiences, and the Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of Jiangsu's U.S. tour, stopping at several U.C. schools this month and next, offers a cross-cultural experience while surmounting language barriers through supertitles in English and Mandarin.
The mammoth, nine-hour production requires three nights to perform; yet, judging from director Weng Guosheng and company's meticulously impressive staging of the opening segment (Book I), viewing any or all parts of it is well worth the time. Kun's unique blending of creative disciplines yields splendor and beauty, yet in a stylized, subdued manner, with melodic, singsong vocals, exotically lovely music, and a poetic text painted in broad folk- or fairy-tale strokes. Seductively romantic, "Book I: The Dream of Love" sets things in motion, focusing on Du Liniang, a lonely, sheltered 16-year-old girl who dreams of meeting Liu Mengmei, a handsome but poor scholar, in the lovely peony pavilion in the garden of her father's estate. In true operatic fashion, the girl perishes of heartbreak at evening's end, reappearing in red (the color of rebirth) to signal Books II and III.
Weng's cast delineates the story in precise, delicate, stylized physical movements. Shen Fengying's Liniang is dreamy and ethereal, singing in long, flowing vocals. Yu Jiulin portrays Mengmei as wholly confident of prosperity and romantic bliss despite his poverty. As Liniang's scatterbrained, mischievous maid, Shen Guofang delivers solid comic relief, complemented by Shen Zhiming as Liniang's hapless, elderly tutor. The remaining leads, many multiple-cast, and chorus adhere to the work's poetic nature.
The lavish visual scheme is a co-creation of Wang Tung (art director), Wang Tung and Tseng Yung-ni (costumes), Wang Mengchao (set design), and Wu Sujun and Ma Peiling (choreography). Music director, arranger, orchestrator, and conductor Zhou Youliang is to be commended, as is everyone linked to this endeavor of a sweeping work that, like the play's symbolic willow sprig, is something to be nurtured.
Presented by and at Irvine Barclay Theatre, Irvine. Sep. 22-24. Also by UCLA Live at Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Sep. 29-Oct. 1. (310) 825-2101.
Reviewed by Eric Marchese