The great thing about cultural exchange is the inevitable stretching of sensibilities for parties on both sides. Claude Debussy's contact with music of the Orient, through an international exposition in Paris, irrevocably altered the course of Western musical history. The penetration of the East by artists of the Western classical ballet has added an entirely new layer of creative and performing activity to the arts of China and Japan. The examples could be easily multiplied.
Now we are seeing in this country, for the first time in 50 years, that species of theatrical endeavor known as Peking Opera. The encounter has its mixed aspects -- to uninitiated Western eyes, the form is fascinating, diverting and often surprising, but it can also seem weird, grating and incomprehensible. For all that, the experience cannot help but leave us with a greatly expanded vision of artistic possibility.
The Peking Opera troupe which made its Washington bow at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night made it instantly clear why it's so difficult to find an adequate label in English for what these polydexterous Chinese performers do. "Opera," if one construes it in conventional Western terms, is decidedly misleading, but it's probably no further from the mark than any other term in our common usage. Like opera in our sense, the Chinese entity that goes by that name is a conglomerate of many arts and skills, ranging from mime, spoken declamation, singing and instrumental music, to elaborate scenic effects of costuming, props and make-up, to acrobatics, swordplay and martial arts of all kinds. Stories are told -- in the case of Peking Opera, ancient, often fantastical tales, familiar to and beloved by the populace, involving gods, kings, ladies, soldiers, and commoners. But the stories seem, for the most part, to be mainly a scaffolding for the display of the feats and aptitudes of the performers, who command a range of virtuosic physical, vocal and histronic means scarcely ever combined in Western individuals to such an exhaustive extent.
In fact, the opening program at Kennedy Center had more apparent links with the circus than anything brought to mind by the term "opera." But this may well be a consequence of the way the program was chosen, rather than a quintessential trait of the Peking Opera as a genre.
The bill of fare was selected by Sheldon Gold, a Western impresario, who made his choices on the basis of a China trip in which he sampled a great many options. The result, at least in the case of this first program, looks to be distinctly tailored to Western audiences. The emphasis is strongly on acrobatic prowess -- the pyrotechnical tumbling, twirling, vaulting and stylized combat which are certainly among the most spectacular facets of the performer's skills, and plainly the most accessible to American theater-goers. But there's also something of a flattening effect. The subtler sides of the music, drama and imagery encompassed by the richly variegated Peking repertoire were underplayed.And the acrobatics, however, eye-popping, ran well past a saturation point, diminishing the impact over the long haul.
By far the most engaging item last night was "The Monkey King Fights the Eighteen Lo Hans," largely because of the immediate comic and human appeal of its protagonist.
The Monkey King, impersonated with such cavalier, winning bravado by Li Yuanchun, is a swashbuckling cut-up somewhat in the mold of the Douglas Fairbanks Jr., heroes, dispatching his foes with smiling imperturbability and making light of the most dire predicaments. He's tossed into a boiling cauldron, but emerges, to everyone's astonishment, more indestructible than ever, fending off even the 18 demonic warriors the Buddha summons to subdue him, and escaping unscathed at the end.The drama certainly has its share of circusy derring-do, but it's the Monkey King's crafty cool that gives the piece its primary charm.
The trouble with "The Jade Bracelet," which had an even broader spectrum of dramatic and comic inflections, and a minimum of tumbling, is simply that the barriers of language and musical stylization prove too formidable -- most of its nuances of comedy and characterization are impenetrable for non-Chinese-speaking spectators. Nevertheless, it was a welcome point of contrast on the program, and it displayed an entirely different kind of theatrical facility in the obviously authoritative portrayals by Zhao Yanxia, Liu Xuetao and Jiang Yuanrong.
The finale, "Yen Tang Mountain," was at once the most physically brilliant -- its depiction of battle scenes is virtually all acrobatics -- and the most limited offering. By the time the last flurry of wall-scaling somersaults rolled around, one's capacity for awe had been considerably blunted. It's worth nothing, however, that coming programs of the two-week engagement appear to be more diversified in content, suggesting a less strenuous accent on sheer daredeviltry.