The experts from, and condensations of, the marvelous spoken-danced-sung tales presented by the Peking Opera at Kennedy Center's Opera House pique one's curiosity about the troupe's at-home repertory. While a Western ballet or opera company might select a program of love duets or pas de deux, the Peking Opera has chosen to be seen as a collection of Great Fight Scenes.
Whether this represents aesthetic values or expediency is hard to determine -- the displays of martial arts are probably both more exciting and easier for a non-Chinese-speaking audience to appreciate -- but from what we have seen of the Peking company, it is a theater of colorful, delicate and stylized violence. War or personal physical conflict provide the themes for nearly all the operas, or bits thereof, presented in Washington.
Last night, "Fight in the Inn," wherein a folk hero is unsuccessfully attacked by his charming, knife-wielding hostess, received its first area showing. The tension in the piece maintained throughout, from the ceremonious way Guan Shizhen (as folk hero Wu Sung) extricates himself from handcuffs and chains through the cautious battle, which, we know only from the exceptionally clear mime of the principals, takes place in total darkness.
On Tuesday, love and self-sacrifice before battle was the theme of "The General Bids Farewell to His Lady Yu." Hao Qinghai was a wonderfully ferocious general whose lady chose death so as not to encumber him in battle. Before dying, Yiang Shuri performed a gentle sword dance, as lovely as it was deadly.
On the same program, all the martial arts of "Princess Red Fish" (which included sword fighting and fending off a horde of "celestial warriors" by deflecting their tossed spears with skillfull kicks) were not enough for victory -- not until her lover Shi Ting-liang braved death to enter the battlefield bearing a magic pearl is the battle won. Of particular beauty was a scene wherein the armies hurled themselves over, under and through an enormous flag of aquamarine silk that tosses and whipped around them like an angry wave.